Raw Humanity

Ann Cummins' debut novel masterfully explores loneliness and clashing cultures in the Southwest

At the beginning of Ann Cummins' novel Yellowcake, we encounter a one-time uranium miner, Ryland Mahoney, who can't breathe. His lips are blue; he's chained to an oxygen tank. All of this troubles him, but at least it's a private struggle, between him and his family--until Becky Attcity, the half-Navajo daughter of one of his former employees, shows up at his door.

Cummins, known for her short stories, has produced a remarkable first novel, a delicately woven tale of two families, one Navajo and one Anglo, and what happens when illness, loneliness and sheer, ruthless fate force them together.

It turns out that Becky's father, Woody, is dying of lung cancer. Ryland supervised him at the uranium mine where they both used to work. Becky has joined a group seeking compensation from the mining companies; Ryland's wife, Rosy, quickly joins the cause. Ryland's daughter is about to get married; he's concerned enough about having the strength to walk her down the aisle. This new drama leaves him scheming about how to sneak two daily Xanax tablets beneath the watchful eye of his wife.

In the middle of the building commotion, Sam, Ryland's longtime best friend, arrives from Florida for the wedding. Alcoholic and reckless, Sam is unaware that his half-Navajo son, Delmar (who is also Becky's cousin), has just been released from prison.

And then there's the 26-year-old Becky herself, fiercely proud but terribly alone, who indulges in 13-mile runs to fend off the hardened panic of her father's impending doom. After spending her days working a tedious bank job, she goes home to try to reconcile the wishes of her deeply religious family--half for Jesus, half for Navajo tradition. She conducts her days beneath a hardened glaze, angry, determined and unable to cry. So when she meets the tall, handsome Harrison, a Navajo language teacher who ribs her for not knowing her people's language, she is tempted to finally open up.

Loneliness is the book's central theme, whether induced by illness, loss, plain selfishness--or a combination of the three. Rosy's sister Lily, who is also Sam's ex-wife, works herself into a frenzy of fear, sure that Sam's return will utterly destroy her. Sam himself carefully toes the line of love, first with his friend Ryland, then with his ex-wife and finally with his son Delmar, but always ends up retreating to the bottle and its subsequent disasters. Becky cordons herself into a humorless void, and Delmar, fresh from prison and desperate for sex and drugs, hardly trusts himself, much less anyone else. All of them choose this loneliness--indulge in it, even. So when they're all forced together, forced to abandon the sanctuary of self-centeredness, raw humanity is all that's left.

Fortunately, Cummins works well with this medium: Her father worked at a uranium mill, and she spent much of her youth on an Indian reservation. It's no wonder she is able to tap these souls so completely. Yellowcake is a deeply intimate book, and Cummins mines to the core of her characters' beings. She is especially adept at conveying the loneliness of disease, the interior monologue of the dying and the annoyance at the living. As Ryland tries to cough, she writes, "He doubles over, groping his stomach, Dear God, he prays, a torrent of hard nothing whiplashing through and behind it the something that never comes--oh he wants it out, the thing that never comes."

Still, the book is not all sad. Yellowcake's backdrop is one of parched splendor, finding beauty in the mesas and the horses and even the torpedo bugs of the Southwest. And Cummins deftly blends in suspense, first with the dying men, then with the reckless Sam's slow stalking of his former life, with Ryland sinking, sleeping, into a bath and Delmar disappearing for days on end with Becky's truck. All of these minor dramas are tightly wrought, like little springs that might set off the narrative, but Cummins keeps them controlled, exciting and startlingly real.

Finally, we witness the inevitable conflict between the two cultures, most notably when it comes time to bury Becky's father. The mixed-blood Delmar and Becky find themselves negotiating between Christian and Navajo tradition--and finding a strange self-completion in the process. Cummins slowly reveals a symbiosis--one fraught with tension, of course, but solidified by necessity.

Cummins is a skilled writer, but she has another deeply admirable trait: fearlessness. In Yellowcake, she delves into the souls of the sick, the dying and the deeply lonely, delivering a portrait of two families that could be remarkably depressing. But Yellowcake ends up having just enough hints of redemption to make it very real.