This unusual, trippy historical epic is sure to stick in readers’ minds.
A headstrong art critic embarks on a dark journey that bends the historical without breaking it in the compelling and unusual Atomic Road by Grant Buday.
The year is 1962, and Clement Greenberg is en route to Canada to silence his rival once and for all. Along for the ride is Louis Althusser, an infamous Marxist fleeing France for Canada after the strangulation of his wife; he’s seeking LSD treatment, as well. Jean Claude is hot on their tail seeking to execute Louis for the murder. What follows is a strange road trip involving bar fights, river escapes, and Communist spies. Along the way, Greenberg contemplates art, world affairs, and his own relationships with family and friends.
Atomic Road reads like a historical fever dream. Much of the story is grounded in fact, including the main characters and the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Its twisted journey is fast paced, punctuated with staccato bursts of tension and action. Scenes such as a frenetic treasure hunt under the supervision of a woman with a shotgun hammer home the absurdity of the quest.
Dialogue stands out. Every character has a distinct voice, most often with a specific accent or quirk. Louis’s speech is riddled with slight variations on names, such as “Greenbairg” for Greenberg. This comes in handy; characters often entertain rapid-fire banter, but the speaker always remains clear.
The exaggerated nature of the tale may not appeal to all, but it is well done and important to how the story unfolds. Clement’s quixotic journey to eliminate his rival at any cost veers into epic territory, with larger-than-life players and unusual settings. When Clement damages his eye and spends the rest of the adventure half-blind, he’s lent a tragic Greek hero feel.
Atomic Road is compelling fiction. With its loose basis in historical fact, the story carefully spirals in and out of absurdity without losing the core of the journey. The quest draws readers in, the dynamic between the two leads holds the attention, and the resultant unusual book is sure to stick in the mind like an insightful LSD trip.
John M. Murray
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