By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
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By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
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After the coolant was gone, the Belgians started sipping gasoline. You would too. Call it petroposia. Saharans have recommended it to me as a way of staying off the battery acid. The woman wrote that it seemed to help . . .
The boy was weakest, and was suffering terribly. In desperation, they burned their car, hoping someone would see the smoke. No one did. The boy could no longer swallow. His name was Maurice. His parents killed him to stop the pain. Later, the husband cut himself open and allowed his wife to drink his blood. At his request, she broke his neck with a rock. Alone now, she no longer wanted to live. Still, the Sahara was fabulous, she wrote, and she was glad to have come. She would do it again.
Langewiesche tells the Belgians’ story, and also his own, a 1,200-mile crossing of a place utterly indifferent to whether you live or die. This desert, he lets you know, is a categorically unromantic place, and I tell him, this is why I read him. He tells me when I should be afraid, and as often, when I shouldn’t, and I wonder if, in his work, he’s taking a stand against irrational fear.
“Yeah, if I’m taking a stand at all,” he says. “I mean, I don’t like the fearful side of American culture that’s very much promoted by the media, by the movies, by right-thinking people. But it’s not my agenda. My only agenda is to serve as the reader’s eyes, and trusted eyes, and then to express it so that it doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence.”
Is he, I wonder, attracted to chaos?
“I think that places with chaos, perceived chaos, on a global scale, are very interesting places to be. And I find, of course, that they’re not so chaotic, as seen from the inside, as they appear to be on the outside.”
The Atomic Bazaar includes a 50-page primer on how one would go about gathering the highly enriched uranium and other components needed to build a nuclear bomb, an odyssey a great deal more risky and problematic than it appears on TV shows like 24. Langewiesche has no idea what 24 is. I explain, adding that it’s no small shake he managed to make a nuclear bomb seem manageable.
“I did that on purpose,” he says. “The point is, look at your worst fears, and examine them. What, exactly, when we talk about ‘nuking,’ what does it physically mean?”
So, a bomb is dropped on Portland, or Paris; what are we talking about, in terms of damage?
“It’s not the apocalypse,” he says. “An actual nuclear explosion is not all that large, in the kiloton range, in the Hiroshima range. We can handle that level of casualties, in history, you know, and move on beyond it, with all sympathy and caring and loving to those who were killed. But move on. And is it dangerous to think of it? Doesn’t it make the use of this ‘unimaginable thing’ more likely? And the answer to that is, I don’t think so. It’s not an unimaginable thing to other people. It’s only unimaginable to Americans who want to drink latte. But other people are perfectly willing to imagine using it, and we might as well wake up to the realities of it, and face our vague fears and make them unvague.”
I suggest that not looking at eventualities might be the problem.
“Understand, the limitations on current government and bureaucratic responses to this particular threat leaves you two choices. One is, oh well, let’s have a better government response. The other one is to say, there is no possibility of guaranteed defense; learn to live with it individually and in your political decisions. Don’t be a sheep, and go baa baa baa and go running around. And if voting matters” — and here, he rolls his eyes — “then vote on the basis of that. Vote on the basis of political leaders who are honest enough and frank enough and intelligent enough to operate in a world of disorder and risk and danger.”
The next day, when Langewiesche calls me from a plane to make sure I have what I need, I do not tell him to have a safe flight.
THE ATOMIC BAZAAR: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor | By WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 192 pages | $22 hardcover
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