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Life near a nuclear research lab

THE SATURDAY READ

Welcome to Shirley; A Memoir From an Atomic Town; Kelly McMasters; PublicAffairs: 312 pp., $24.95

May 17, 2008|Thomas McGonigle | Special to The Times

This review is being written by a white-trash guy who grew up in village a lot like author Kelly McMasters' blue-collar hometown, Shirley, on Long Island's south shore. It's one of those places beaten up by the weather and changing economic conditions, one that rich people speed by on their way to the fashionable Hamptons. Places such as Patchogue, where I grew up, Shirley and its neighbor, Mastic, have not been the subject of much literature.

McMasters is correcting that with a disturbing, ambitious book twining her life in Shirley in the 1980s with the relationship the town and its residents have to Brookhaven National Laboratory, a nearby high-energy physics and nuclear research complex, and the potentially disastrous environmental consequences of that geographical fact.

The basic story McMasters tells in "Welcome to Shirley" is interesting. She is the daughter of a stay-at-home mom and a failed professional golfer turned golf course pro who comes to town on the promise of a job at a nearby down-at-the-heels course. It turns out to lack grass and is owned by a sinister gangster. Her dad becomes a traveling golf equipment salesman and her mom becomes a grief counselor.

McMasters, a clever, inquisitive child, quickly discovers exactly what Shirley is: an unlovely housing sprawl whose only center is a series of strip malls along two major roads. Built after World War II to provide very low-cost summer houses for working-class city people, Shirley is situated on a sandy pine barren near a beautiful ocean beach. But by the time the McMasters family arrives in the early 1980s, it is a year-round community of tiny, battered houses on very small lots, inhabited by those who service the winners, ex-winners and those who hope to be winners in the surrounding affluent communities.

McMasters takes pleasure in describing her many young friends and the closeness that develops between the families. We too are devastated when the most popular dad on the street dies suddenly of an awful cancer. Occasionally, she shares a lovingly remembered resentment, such as losing out to another eighth-grader -- "Most of us knew her family name because her father was on the school board" -- in a contest to rename Shirley when real estate hustlers decide to upscale the town.

But McMasters' writing is devoid of style and the necessary distance when dealing with the larger story of death, disease, wasted lives and ambitions. I wish she had written a book just about the town and her life there -- detailed and particularized as D.J. Waldie did for his Southern California hometown of Lakewood in his classic "The Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir." Instead, she links it to a story that she and her publisher obviously think is of more importance: a history of the Brookhaven lab and its nuclear reactor, its origins in the early 1950s and the environmental contamination that resulted -- possibly from regrettable human negligence -- in it being named a Superfund site in 1989.

We follow with interest her discoveries from newspaper files and interviews of the struggles of people in Shirley and other communities bordering the laboratory as they try to find an explanation for the unusually high number of deaths due to breast and lung cancer, and in some cases very rare forms of cancer. It is right here that the reader gets lost. Although the stories of people diagnosed with cancer -- from the discovery of a lump to the various treatments and on to either remission or death -- are moving, they have the insidious predictability of pornography and they boil down to: Why me, and who is to blame?

One particularly disturbing case is that of a father parading around his young daughter, who has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma, in the hopes of convincing people that the lab is responsible for her illness. But according to the American Cancer Society, this cancer of the connective tissue is one of the few for which there is absolutely no evidence of a linkage to environment conditions. In another instance, McMasters seriously entertains a connection between the devastating 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island with a possible UFO sighting fours years earlier near the laboratory.

Vogue magazine Editor Anna Wintour is the one celebrity living in the area. Her 42-acre compound is on the Forge River. When algae begins to clot the river, Wintour becomes involved with a small environmental group that is trying to draw attention to environmental problems in the area. McMasters interviews Wintour with certain ambivalence -- noting that the editor wears sunglasses even inside. Wintour says she likes her solitude, adding, "I just import the people I want. . . . I don't mind the town. It's white trash, of course, but I don't care."

The people of Shirley deserve better than the self-absorbed sympathy of an Anna Wintour, who in the end seems to care more about her property values, and one can only hope that the next time McMasters writes about Shirley (and I hope she does), she will forgo creative nonfiction.

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Thomas McGonigle is the author of "Going to Patchogue" and "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov."

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