Modern novelists no longer need to feel embarrassed combining literary idealism with hoary genre structure. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union threw together Jewish mysticism, the hardboiled detective story, and general malaise into something that was a little more and a little less than all three, while Margaret Atwood has been using science fiction to work out feminist concepts for decades. So David Oppegaard’s second novel (following 2008’s The Suicide Collectors) isn’t startlingly original, but the premise has enough legitimacy to get it taken seriously. Being taken seriously is the least of Wormwood, Nevada’s problems, however. A not-terrible book that reaches the end without every really getting started, it mashes together two overly familiar concepts for a moderately familiar result.
Anna and Tyler have cut ties from their home in Nebraska and headed to the great desert for a new life in Nevada with Tyler’s Aunt Bernie. A former beauty queen edging up on her 30s, Anna has mixed feelings about the move, and the town itself doesn’t help those feelings; Wormwood is burning hot and dull as dirt. When a meteor crashes to earth near the local Mexican restaurant, it seems to offer new possibilities. Tyler becomes convinced the rock brought visitors from beyond the stars, while Anna suffers from nightly dreams of mass extermination. The people of Wormwood try to adjust to the flash of strangeness in their world, and some handle the change better than others. But what happens next? And just how crazy is the guy with a THE END IS NEAR sign?
Oppegaard is a solid writer, and while Wormwood’s prose occasionally mistakes sterility for mystique, he does well at capturing his two leads and evoking a mundane world where even the oddest events can lose their wonder. That last part is a problem, though. The alien invasion/visitation plotline isn’t engaging enough to hold together the characters or the world, and while the mundane aspect of the science-fiction elements is intentional, the lack of cohesion at the story’s center becomes increasingly clear as the book winds to a close. Wormwood is never a chore to read, but it often feels like a series of sketches striving to combine into a larger picture that never really comes into focus. There’s promise here, but it’s never realized. Next time, Oppegaard would be better off with either a little more angst or a lot more lasers.