LENNOX MCLENDON/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Nevada Test Site is a ghost town of the cold war. A little larger than Rhode Island and about an hour’s drive northwestof Las Vegas, it lies among volcanic mountains and dry riverbeds, and is cordoned off by miles of fence. Several years ago David Samuels paid a visit to the old nuclear proving ground while writing an article for Harper’s about “caging the dragon,” the process of designing, triggering and studying contained nuclear explosions. Samuels peered into the Sedan Crater, which still radiates energy from the detonation of a 104-kiloton nuclear bomb in 1962. He interviewed technicians who had readied and triggered the bombs and fabricated the imaginary towns they obliterated. He toured a complex of subterranean tunnels built beneath the desert as a reusable home for nuclear tests. And he learned about the production of plutonium and how scientists had devised a way to estimate the size of a nuclear explosion by measuring the refraction of light in the mantle of glass that blooms from rock in an explosion’s blast furnace. The site’s terrain is mind-boggling, and Samuels manages to keep his cool while exploring it. There’s one thing that does shake him up, though, which is learning that the 1,054 American nuclear tests conducted at the site, and the countless hours and untold sums of money spent designing and analyzing them with elaborate computer programs, in the end yielded “less than a single second’s worth of usable data.” The smallness of the accomplishment is staggering.
The accomplishments of Samuels’s article about the test site, “Buried Suns,” and the new book in which he’s gathered that piece and eighteen others are also staggering, but in a much larger sense. In Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Samuels examines what he calls the “process of destruction and renewal by which American culture is made.” What he discovered as he crisscrossed the country for a decade, going from New York City to Nevada to Oregon and many points in between, is the “shared cosmic joke” of postwar American life–that the national dream of self-transformation and self-perfection is a recipe for delusional thinking and self-destruction. Along the way Samuels encounters a few folks who, thanks to a rare combination of chance, fortitude, delusion and poise, have managed to beat highly unfavorable odds and dodge the wrecking ball. There’s Stevie Wonder: “Where Michael Jackson mutilated his face and skin, Stevie Wonder was blessed by nature with a disability that made him better able to understand and live with the deeper fictions that support our national life.” There’s a freshly winged pilot of the Goodyear blimp: “As a kid, I used to love watching Disney on Sunday night–a world that was just happy and peaceful–even for an hour,” says John Conrad. “Well, that’s exactly what it feels like up here.” And there’s the DJ and hip-hop producer Prince Paul: his “records are the sonic equivalents of the bits of found paper or plastic or candy bar wrappers that a suburban Picasso might use to make a collage for his fifth-grade class.”