Accepting the Army-Navy Excellence Award in 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer warmed that the time might come when “mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.” Oppenheimer was warning of nuclear war. In Curse the Names (Akashic Books 2012), Robert Arellano takes us a step further to show us how chain reactions in our personal lives can trigger a meltdown from which there is no return.
What’s Curse the Names like? Publishers Weekly described Arellano as showing a “sly Hitchcockian touch.” Not exactly. It’s more like Arellano is the love child of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch, abandoned in the woods and raised by Hunter S. Thompson. His writing is fast-paced and chilling, as he takes his protagonist on an out-of-control quest to understand why his life is unraveling.
James Oberhelm is a public relations writer for the fictional in-house magazine Surge published by the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He writes puff pieces on the gardens and miniatures tended by retired scientists so that they feel appreciated. Oberhelm, however, is tightly wound, bored with his job and his wife and self-medicating with booze and drugs. As he takes on an unsuccessful erotic errand leading him to an abandoned house and a bag of bones, a paranormal mystery grips his life. Fueled by scotch and codeine, Oberhelm tries to prevent an armeggedon. It’s all downhill from there and not in a good way. Oberhelm loses his jobs, his wife, his job, his car, and eventually his sanity. He is a signature Arellano protagonist—a not-initially-likeable character who grows on you as his life falls apart. And yes, Arellano kills a dog. Named Oppie.
Curse the Names takes us to the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico, leaving behind the urban surreal of Arellano’s previous books. But this is southwestern surreal with more than a few a few shots of noir thrown in as characters casually betray one another. There’s a long-nailed Goth blood tech, a hippie identity thief, a boozy family doctor, a malevolent g-man, end-of-the- worlders, and some scientists who know too much and say too little. Curse the Names has tight noirish writing and 1940s characters spun for the 21st century. Through James Oberhelm, we see how our decisions start chain reactions that take down more than we can know.
And the end is literally earth-shaking.