Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady: The Nuclear Family Explodes

In 1958, a 50-foot woman attacked movie theaters in a rampage of "revenge and desire."  The science-fiction camp classic has been revered and reviled in equal doses over the years--audiences either love the tale of Nancy Archer, hard-drinking socialite who turns into a giantess and goes after her husband and his mistress, or they put Attack of the 50 Foot Woman on par with Plan 9 From Outer Space.  Either way, Nancy Archer has served as a prototype for cautionary feminist tales for the last 50 years.

In her novel, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, Elizabeth Stuckey-French (The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa) has gleefully embraced this same spirit of a scorned woman seeking retribution.  Stuckey-French's story is set in 2006 and stars the unforgettable septuagenarian Marylou Ahearn who, we're told in the book's first sentence, has "spent countless hours trying to come up with the best way to kill Wilson Spriggs."

Marylou is on a mission of murder: "She tried to spur herself on with angry thoughts.  Would she feel better after she'd killed him?  Darn tootin'."  When she finally catches up with Spriggs, now a doddering old man living in Florida with his daughter's family, Marylou has the first of many surprises in the book: Wilson Spriggs has Alzheimer's.  She's thwarted, but not completely undone.  If she can't kill Wilson Spriggs, then she will at least make his life miserable.

But who, exactly, is Wilson Spriggs and what did he ever do to poor old Marylou Ahearn?

For that answer, we have to go back to 1953 when Spriggs was a doctor participating in a secret government experiment.  Bow-tied, foppish, pretentious, he supplied a pregnant Marylou with a radioactive cocktail "in a cold metal cup of pink fizzy liquid that smelled like strawberries."  This, he assured her, was "a vitamin cocktail to keep her baby healthy."

Eight years later, Marylou's beloved daughter dies of cancer.  Then, decades after that, the truth about Spriggs and the government program comes out and, like the 50-foot woman, Marylou's anger grows to enormous proportions.  Swollen with rage, she starts planning the murder of the man responsible for poisoning eight-hundred women and their unborn children.  Now, "lusty, powerful, ready to get hers," Marylou is ready to "fly at him and fling his parts all over the flat-assed state of Florida."

If the thought of two elderly people duking it out to the death isn't hilarious enough for you, then Stuckey-French's whimsical style will surely hit your funny bone.  Offbeat, jaunty, and sometimes poignant, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady plants its tongue in its cheek from the start and only takes it out for an ending that earns its feel-good denouement honestly.

Stuckey-French stirs a lot of ingredients into her stew, but laughter is the primary spice.  Once Marylou finds Spriggs in Florida and ingratiates herself into his family (taking the alias of the 50-foot "Nancy Archer"), she realizes killing him might not be as easy as she once thought:
She did not feel a bit sorry for him.  In fact, after meeting with him and talking with him and observing him, she hated him even more than she had when he'd simply been an abstract bogeyman.  It was easier to despise him now that she had particulars to focus on--his spotty, shaking hand waving in her direction like an underwater plant when he was trying to tell her something but couldn't form the words; his habit of farting like a pack mule when he walked; the way he sat three inches away from the TV screen and stared at the idiotic commercials for Depends diapers as if they were words of wisdom from on high.  And him--some smart research doctor who thought he was better than everyone else!  A Nazi doctor who treated pregnant women like his own personal guinea pigs!

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady is told from a multitude of viewpoints--mostly from the "American Nazi's" family.  Chapters alternate between Spriggs' menopausal daughter Caroline, her hurricane-obsessed husband Vic, and their three children: Ava who sees Elvis in the marbled swirls of shower stalls, clouds, and half-used bars of soap; Otis, a boy genius with Asperger's who is building a model breeder reactor in the shed out back; and 13-year-old Suzi whose sibling rivalry with Ava will eventually have disastrous results.  Though not all of the character's voices succeed (I found Vic to be rather flat and uninteresting) and I wished Marylou hadn't stepped so far off-stage once the novel began, when Stuckey-French clicks, she really clicks.  Her character studies of Ava and Suzi, especially, are vivid portraits of the modern American teenager.  She has their distinct patter down to--well, down to a science.  She knows how these girls tick, how they talk, how they dream, and what kind of posters they put on their bedroom walls (My Chemical Romance).  Stuckey-French is a writer who pays attention to the world.

What begins as a tale of vengeance eventually turns out to be a sharp-eyed dissection of the nuclear family in America, with all its foibles and failures.  Stuckey-French shows how just one little old five-foot lady can disrupt a family, splitting the homey image of Ward and June Cleaver like an atom.  In this case, Revenge is not only sweet, it's very, very funny.

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