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Book Review: Boom Town

A novel based on the PEPCON explosion tells a story that could have happened anywhere

Suppose a series of explosions destroys a chemical plant in, say, Wichita. Fleeing in his truck before the final blast, a manager sees a man running after him, begging to be saved, but the manager speeds away. The dead man’s best friend later learns that his wife had been having sex regularly with the unlucky pal. The wife, in turn, seeks solace in a conniving preacher, while her cuckolded, pothead hubby takes off on a ramble around rural Kansas with his late friend’s teenage daughter. The cheated wife, meanwhile, takes up with the man who didn’t save her late husband.

Let’s transpose the scene to Las Vegas, where David Philip Mullins sets The Brightest Place in the World. The title certainly suggests that the city matters, and many valley residents will remember the PEPCON disaster, which Mullins has moved from 1988 to 2012. At one point, he wonders of cheating wife Emma, who deals roulette: “What is she even doing in a city like Las Vegas? Why was she born and raised in this breeding ground for excess and iniquity?”

Brightest Place unfolds in a series of present-tense vignettes, each from a character’s point of view, and Mullins leaves it to Michigan transplant Simon (the man in the truck) to counter this familiar Vegas trope. “Saying the Strip is Las Vegas is like saying Bourbon Street is New Orleans. Vegas is tract homes and strip malls, Taco Bells and Targets.” But guilt-tormented Simon reminds himself of this after fending off a hooker while surreptitiously tailing the new widow, Juliet, who has repaired to Guardian Angel Cathedral for another sort of consolation.

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All this might transpire in … well, maybe New Orleans rather than Wichita. The nexus of this swirl of deceit and self-absorption — oddly enough what tethers it to Nevada — is a book of poems by Sylvia Plath.

Emma’s copy of Plath’s collection Crossing the Water is a plot hinge, ultimately pitching Andrew’s daughter, Maddie, and Russell, Emma’s cheated husband, on a Silver State excursion, from the Mojave to the Great Basin and back again — almost. The poems “Leaving Early” and “Two Campers in Cloud Country” take cameo turns, and the “unending miles” of Highway 50 that daunt Maddie recall the “mad, straight road” in “Sleep in the Mojave Desert.” The dark hollow at the core of Plath’s last poems, published a decade after her suicide, also centers Brightest Place.

In “I Am Vertical” Plath prefers horizontal:


Compared with me, a tree is immortal

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And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,

And I want the one’s longevity and the other’s daring.


The novel’s characters, except Maddie, suffer the same deficiency. Each has settled for something less than their possible selves, and for them, as with Plath, horizons both tempt and hem.

That story could be told anywhere, and this one, shaped by shabby infidelity, narrowly avoids soap-opera banality. Characters’ crucial choices sometimes seem implausible, and the denouement comes across as forced. Mullins’ tight craft throughout redeems these faults, as do the echoes of Plath. “Sun-dulled pavement tapers to the horizon like the nib of a fountain pen,” Mullins writes, evoking Plath. And you know where to find a road like that.

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The Brightest Place in the World by David Philip Mullins. 232 pages. University of Nevada Press. $24.95