ON JANUARY 3, 1961, a small nuclear reactor exploded in Idaho, killing three operators. As with all such tragedies, mistakes had undoubtedly been made. Andria Williams’s refreshingly unflashy yet trenchant debut novel, The Longest Night, approaches this real-life Cold War disaster through the side door of one fictional nuclear operator’s marriage.

The novel opens in 1959, when protagonist Paul Collier and his wife Nat are deployed with their young daughters to Idaho Falls, a high-altitude, exposed Mormon town where there had been an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II — a detail that reflects the novel’s concern with how military power can engulf individual lives. Paul has high hopes for his first tour of duty. Having been raised by impoverished, violent drunks in rural Maine, he joined the army expecting to be surrounded by “upstanding and useful” people. Although he was disappointed in training — discovering that “even with all the military did to raise them up, they settled back into their character defects like a dog curling into a round bed” — Paul arrives in Idaho Falls a man invested in army protocol and discipline. He prides himself on staying in his lane: “his job was simply to do his job: to walk onto a reactor floor and keep the machine running.”

This job proves more difficult than it sounds. Paul is assigned to a small, aging reactor, a prototype for portable reactors that the army is building in the Arctic Circle. The reactor core urgently needs replacing. Most worryingly, the rods that the operators must move to regulate the reactor’s temperature get stuck, making daily maintenance a brow-drenching ordeal. Paul’s frequently soused superior, Master Sergeant Richards, is more concerned with cruising effortlessly into retirement than he is with the safety of his men, let alone their families living less than 40 miles away. He discourages the operators from recording their difficulties in the logbook and reminds the men that if they tell anyone about the reactor’s decrepitude, the team will be subjected to increased scrutiny, like “teenage babysitters.” When Paul expresses his serious concern, Richards calls him a “hysterical woman.” Richards’s subordinates reinforce one another’s masculine stoicism with talk of how careful they’re being, as if care is any kind of shield against a nuclear explosion. Boys’ club loyalty, pride in silence, and a fear of being labeled feminine keep the men upholding a status quo that endangers them and their families.

Although her descriptions of the reactor’s mechanics are absorbing, Williams’s novel is concerned less with technical failures than with human ones, particularly a conformist culture’s pernicious habit of mistaking that which endangers — military and marital discipline, masculine and nuclear power — for that which safeguards. A similar misapprehension of danger characterizes Paul and Nat’s marriage. Powerless at work, vulnerable to the whims of a boss who disrespects him, Paul clings to his control of his wife, which he frequently expresses as concern for her safety. So while Paul goes to work each day in the failing reactor, his anxieties fixate on Nat’s comparatively harmless behaviors. When she joins some other young people cliff diving into a lake, he is furious — she could have killed herself. When she asks for permission to drive the car while Paul is at work, he resists. She is not a good driver, and what is more, he doesn’t want her out of town alone.

Paul has firsthand experience of the menace in people, and he fears where Nat’s naive middle-class carelessness might land her. “She couldn’t comprehend how effortless her own life was, and how fragile, but he knew,” Paul thinks. Class difference is a subtle but powerful force within their marriage, and it works, alongside gender difference, to delegitimize Nat, her wishes and decisions, in both his mind and in hers. For him, her impulses (to go driving) and her unsanctioned thoughts (sympathetic musings about the Soviets who are targets of American missiles) signal the luxurious and morally suspect freedom that middle-class women enjoy. For her part, Nat quells her restlessness by frequently reminding herself of how comparatively lucky she is.

The novel offers glimpses of women who are indeed less lucky than Nat: a bitter waitress in a country diner whose uncle lurks in the parking lot, for instance, and a Mormon girl who is abducted by a much older employee of her father. The vulnerability of these other women is sexual as well as economic. They remain on Nat’s mind, perhaps because she feels some unsettling connection with them as potential objects of punishment, regardless of social class. Nat was raised near the beaches of San Diego by middle-class parents who suddenly became distrustful of her when she hit adolescence. Nat’s mother tells her, “Evil people seek only rebellion,” and ends every phone call with the exhortation to “be good.” If being good means being satisfied, Nat has internalized her mother’s instruction in the form of self-reproach. When something goes wrong — her husband disappoints her, his drunk boss harasses her, the car transmission burns out — she tells herself she is getting her deserved punishment, “paying” for some rule broken, some impulse followed. In one of the book’s most unforgettable scenes, the reactor staff picks up a Native American prostitute. When her breasts unexpectedly lactate, Richards declares that she must “pay for being so naughty […] pay for that little trick,” ties her to the roof of his car, and takes off down the road. This is what it means for an impoverished Native American woman to pay for the infractions of her maternal body, whereas Nat, the white wife of a good provider, merely pays for her occasionally unruly being by enduring the censure of herself, her community, and her husband.

Nat’s forgiving, friendly, and unsuspicious nature, which initially allowed Paul to court Nat successfully, ultimately becomes something he feels he must keep in check once they are married. Paul’s ego and reputation are in her hands, and her husband believes that their safety relies as much on her contentment as on her conduct. Paul wishes “to think of her as completely fulfilled,” and her yearnings imply that she does not already have everything she wants in him, which he finds “insulting.” When her blithe attitude touches on matters of sexual propriety, his suspicion easily morphs into contempt, revealing an unarticulated but corrosive assumption that women are, in some essential way, to use Simone de Beauvoir’s words, “in the wrong.”

While there is nothing revolutionary in The Longest Night’s depiction of how gender norms undermine a marriage, it is compelling to follow Williams’s charting of how those norms shift the tides of affection and resentment, dependence and distance. For all The Longest Night reveals about the cruel restraints placed on women, it is not a novel of partisan gender politics. It alternates back and forth between Nat’s and Paul’s perspectives, approaching both spouses with delicate Chekhovian empathy as they learn to endure their vulnerability to the other’s ungovernable and sometimes incomprehensible impulses.

Nat and Paul drift apart, living in different worlds, his hazardous, hers cloistered. Yet his base and her neighborhood actually have much in common: both Paul and Nat are required to adhere to a strict code of conduct, and both are scrutinized carefully by their peers for any signs of deviance. While being a good soldier at the base means pretending there is no rot in the reactor, so too, a wife’s primary duty is to keep up appearances. Adultery goes unnoticed and unpunished in a wife who runs alongside her husband “cheering, shooting off confetti, waving banners and flags, calling attention to his every move” and makes “vacuum marks freshly ridged into the carpet like paths to righteousness” before guests come over. The job of these military wives is to fluff their husbands’ prestige, and thus any display of dissatisfaction is just as bad a dereliction of duty, if not a worse one, than actual infidelity. Nat understands that:

It was improper to be lonely; it was improper to be bored; it was improper, most of all, to be filled with anything like longing. And even if you were good and stayed in your house and loved your children and your husband […] people could sniff out this longing in you; they had pointed fingers at Nat for as long as she could remember, hissing That one, that one is not satisfied.

The military set in Idaho Falls instinctively understands the inner movements of desire are what matter most.

Although a few small details help place the novel in time — the 1960 Olympic women’s swimming competition; the stripping of Oppenheimer’s security clearance; an interracial couple’s need to travel from Virginia to Ohio to get married — for the most part, Williams leaves out zeitgeisty chatter, and presents the historical period through interpersonal relations. Through such discipline, Williams avoids the trap that many historical novelists fall into, straining to show their research (as in Garth Risk Hallberg’s far more bombastic debut novel, City on Fire). Williams’s quietly confident style is without swagger or gimmick. Her prose is like a transparent developing fluid, in which her distinct characters spontaneously emerge.

The Longest Night draws strong and convincing connections between the social pressures that underpin a suffering marriage and a nuclear meltdown, without being sensationalist, hyperbolic, or didactic. Nat and Paul occupy different realms of a culture that considers mental and spiritual independence the utmost threat, but, in fact, as the explosion makes clear, it is conformity that most threatens this community and its families. Those things that are meant to protect — men who keep their worries to themselves, the military, the nuclear enterprise — are just what imperil everyone, and Paul’s fidelity to the rules makes him a failed whistleblower. Paul fears Nat’s desires and her disregard for rules, but in a curious twist, her indiscreet friendship with a townie supplies protection to their children at a critical moment, and her decision to drive where she is forbidden to go, against the instructions of the military and of her husband, is the act of fidelity that rescues her marriage.

Williams’s novel tells a small-town story, but its vision is sufficiently broad to include Paul’s “lifelong worldview” — his belief that “this darkness was really what life was” and that “anything else you made for yourself was a temporary and tentative fiction” — alongside Nat’s sense that real life is found in others. When lying on the floor with her family listening to their sleeping sounds, she realizes that she “overheard her own body in five places at once.” In this novel, locating one’s life in another is perilous, but the only source of comfort there is. In the end, what emerges most powerfully from The Longest Night is a kind of quiet wonder at the exquisite intricacy, but astonishing durability, of familial love.

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Catherine Steindler’s work has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City and teaches at Columbia University.