Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb, a Novel by Ian Woollen: Preppies, Hippies, and Spies in Cold War America

uncle_antonUncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb ($18.95, 406 pages, ISBN: 978-1-60381-231-3), a work of literary fiction by Ian Woollen, takes place in the latter half of the 20th century, when Cold War paranoia led just about every American family of means to build a bomb shelter in the backyard.

Shorted-listed for the Balcones Prize.

Mary weds Ward Jr., heir to the well-to-do Wangerts of Indianapolis, and together they raise three sons. As they negotiate a rocky path through the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, they take turns spinning a nighttime yarn inspired by the idea: what if Anton Chekhov wrote a story about the atomic bomb?

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“This is the Great American Cold War novel. This is a novel of spies and journalists. This is a novel of failures and attempted successes; this is a novel of love and despair and, moreover, this is a novel about family…. Whether it’s the early adventures on Great Tusk Island, the daily work day of He Who Remains Classified, the school years spent at Rokeby School, or the decline of Indianapolis, Woollen keeps the reader occupied but in a way that doesn’t make it seem like he’s fooling or delaying you. They are stories within stories constructed like a finely crafted Matryoshka doll set…. Woollen is able to weave history and fiction in a way that transcends genre. This isn’t a historical fiction novel, it’s not a romance novel, and it’s not even a spy thriller. It’s all of the above and at the same time, none of them. It’s a saga, a personal one stuck in the middle of something bigger…. This is craftsmanship at its finest. This passive thriller, this lengthy epic, may not be for everyone. And that’s fine. But for those readers interested in diving head first into the deepest rabbit holes of our own history, this is one you just can’t miss.”  Read more….

—Nick Sweeney for the Atticus Review

“As I expected, this is a delightful novel, with an eccentric but heartwarming cast of characters you cannot help but like …. The characters are warm and compelling, funny and easy to relate to as they struggle with finding their places in family and in the world at large, and Woollen tells their stories with wisdom, compassion and insight …. Recommended for readers who love Americana, humor, quirky ensembles, and an engaging family saga.”  Read more ….

—Books, Personally

“A thoroughly readable narrative …. What makes Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb work is the way it balances the family’s normalcy and the heightened circumstances. That includes the three sons’ diverging paths as each finds a partner, sees his relationship with their parents change, and becomes a generational archetype while remaining a memorable character. This is a unique work, and one that remains interesting all the way through the reveal of its Chekhovian secrets.”  Read more ….

—Jeff Fleischer, ForeWord Magazine

Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb is a book to be read somewhat slowly (or read it twice). Woollen includes a lot of small details, little musings, quick humorous bites that add so much but require careful reading.” Read more ….

–Catherine Ramsdell, Pop Matters

Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb is smart, mildly ironic, and self-consciously funny. The plot sails along at a clipper’s pace.  And there’s a lot to chomp on from our temporal distance: topics ranging from family dynamics, gender roles, government reach, to sexuality.”  Read more ….


Click here to read an interview with Ian Woollen

“In the grand tradition of Hoosier authors Theodore Dreiser and Booth Tarkington, Ian Woollen’s Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb weaves its compelling narrative in personal, romantic, and historical threads from The Cold War to the present day, linking housewives and counter-spies, disgruntled fathers and rebellious sons, creating an indelible American tapestry.”

—Dan Wakefield, author of Going all the Way and New York in the Fifties

“An absorbing, touching, wise, often funny novel. Woollen is a master at writing about families, people’s vulnerabilities, and about mortality itself.”

—James Alexander Thom, author of Follow the River and St. Patrick’s Battalion.

“Famously, Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby concludes that his was a story of the ‘West.’ Ian Woollen, in his grand generational novel Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb, writes another classic ‘Western’ now with reversed polarity. This is a Chekhovian book as well—vivid, epiphanic, rich with secrets intimates keep from each other and then reveal in stunning dramatic fashions. There is a gun too, high caliber, and it goes off. Boy, does it go off with a teeth-rattling BOOM.”

—Michael Martone, author of Michael Martone and Four for a Quarter

“Here again with great verve and admirable nerve is the wily Ian Woollen with a wild and curious saga, told as Vonnegut might have, with the strange shadow of a weapon over the carnival of years. Disco, acid fog, prep school, white gloves, and my favorite sentence: ‘How do you think Anthony would feel to know that his father is the Devil’s Spymaster?’ ”

—Ron Carlson, author of Five Skies and Return to Oakpine

Spring, 1951. The Cold War. Two fresh college graduates renew a childhood acquaintance on a long train ride home to Indianapolis. Embers ignite. Mary Grace Stark is about to embark on her first State Department posting in Moscow. Ward Wangert III reluctantly returns to his family business, after turning down a job offer from He Who Remains Classified, a powerful friend at the C.I.A. A few months later, while supervising a bomb shelter project, Ward receives an emergency summons from Moscow. He travels behind the Iron Curtain to rescue Mary from a diplomatic debacle. The couple decides to wed, even though Mary won’t say who fathered her unborn child.

Ward and Mary produce two more sons and struggle to maintain their standing in the deteriorating rust-belt city of Indianapolis. Their family saga, which spans the latter half of the American Century, is a tragicomic mix of upper-crust romance, sibling warfare, boarding school drama, and C.I.A. skullduggery.

Says Woollen, “In 1989 I was driving home from work, turned on the radio and heard the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hit by an inexplicably large wave of emotion, I pulled over. Suddenly it was visible—the insidious Cold War TENSION that pervaded American life for so long that it blurred into normalcy. I began to think about a novel that would capture the charged interweave of big-stage influences with a local, day-to-day family drama.”

Ian Woollen was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana. Shipped off to boarding school at age fourteen, he eventually graduated from Yale University and Christian Theological Seminary. A checkered job history includes house painter, furniture stripper, script reader, psychotherapist. His first novel, Stakeout on Millennium Drive, won the 2006 Best Book of Indiana Fiction Award. His short fiction has surfaced in a variety of journals, including The Massachusetts Review, Juked, decomP, The Smokelong Quarterly, and The Mid-American Review, from which he received a Sherwood Anderson Prize. Click here to find Ian online.

Keep reading for an excerpt:

As live-ins with a night-terror baby that even old Meemo couldn’t soothe, Mary felt compelled to participate as much as she could in the household maintenance. Tuesday was silver-polishing day. Wednesday was dusting. Thursday meant the crystal and windows. The main house dated from 1870. Everything was elaborately wallpapered. The wing additions came later. All of it with a baffling internal symmetry, due to separate stairwells, entrances, sleeping quarters, and facilities for the servants. Mary occasionally found herself lost in the wrong stairwell or hallway.

“Miss Mary, you could leave a trail of breadcrumbs,” Meemo suggested.

Meemo instructed Mary on baking K-bars and negotiating other domestic idiosyncrasies, such as how to execute the imperceptibly small faucet turns to adjust water temperature in the claw-foot bathtubs, and which of the thick, swollen doors required shoulder-shoves to open. Mary could not bring herself to tinkle the little porcelain bell on the dinner table to summon Meemo for the next course, despite Constance’s assurances that this was how it was done.

Meemo was the only servant in residence now. She oversaw a small day staff. They were kept busy preparing for the next big Wangert Public Relations party, or cleaning up from the last one.

The house, which loomed above the street from a small rise at the front of a double lot, was surrounded by meticulously trimmed yew hedges. A pea gravel path from the side screen porch meandered to the new bomb shelter, located among the walnut trees along the back alley. At first glance, the bomb shelter appeared to be a square, flagstone patio, carved out of the walnut grove. Flush to the ground at the south edge of the patio, a steel covering, somewhat like an old-fashioned cellar door, opened upward to reveal a marble stairwell. As Ward predicted, the bomb shelter served primarily as a wine cellar. One design flaw was the failure to anticipate the effect of walnuts falling from great heights onto the steel door, creating noise not unlike an artillery barrage.

Constance and Ward Sr. patriotically championed the new bomb shelter. Their parties commenced with guests strolling back into the walnut grove for cocktails and guided tours of the four richly appointed subterranean rooms.

Mary convinced Constance to implement some updating of other Wangert party traditions. They no longer separated the men and women after dinner. Young Ward Jr., white towel on his shoulder, personally indulged his bartending interest, shaking martinis and mixing drinks to order. Another innovation, thanks to Mary, was targeting invitations to select members of certain industries, such as real-estate and construction, rather than a random crop of prominent citizens.

However, Constance held to the traditional format of name card place settings and equal pairings of male and female dinner partners. Mary’s first attempt to invite Rusalka Jones failed because her husband was out of town and Constance did not have a bachelor gentleman available to seat with her.

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