As a novel largely concerned with dislocation and discontent in the face of an immutable code of social conduct, Andria Williams’ The Longest Night delivers a poignant and convincing portrait of Cold War-era marriage. Set in 1961 in Idaho Falls, a quasi-military town, the novel ventures inside the minds of two army wives and an Army Specialist, who has moved his family to eastern Idaho to work at an experimental nuclear reactor.
Socially, The Longest Night operates in two distinctly separate spheres. First is the remote, walled-off world of the reactor and the province of men—the worst of them drunk, distracted, misanthropic and menacing. Second is the catty, secretive circle of army wives, made only more suspicious of one another by their sparseness in a town with a relatively small military population. We gain much of our insight into their world through Jeannie, a “seasoned” Master Sergeant’s wife who dominates the social whirl of army wives while her womanizing, alcoholic husband runs the crew at the reactor.
Paul, the new Army Specialist, and his wife Nat arrive in Idaho Falls and are “assigned to live in a small yellow house” in a town where “military families lived scattered among civilians.” They’re reasonably optimistic about their new adventure but demonstrably ill-equipped to meet the challenges that immediately present themselves: isolation, social protocols and the dysfunctional dynamic of the men in charge of the nuclear site. So keen on coasting to retirement, these men refuse to acknowledge a dangerously defective reactor.
In both Paul and Nat we find echoes of Frank and April Wheeler in Richard Yates’ classic novel of late-1950s suburbia, Revolutionary Road. Particularly for Paul, their marriage seems fraught with the micro-frustrations and debilitating moment-to-moment failures of two young marrieds unable to communicate their most basic desires to each other.
When Paul is deployed to a six-month hitch at a reactor site in Greenland, Nat strikes up an ambiguous friendship with a local mechanic. Their relationship elicits a predictable response from the other army wives, even the one friend she makes in town: “I’m an army wife just like you,” she says, “and we do not do this. This is not how we act when our husbands are deployed. You’re breaking the rules.”
Even more so than Yates’ April Wheeler, Nat evokes characters from another iconic chronicler of life in America’s nascent mid-century suburbs, John Cheever. He often portrayed corrosive, unnamable dissatisfaction and desire as both a curse and the most insidious sort of social taboo. As Nat reflects, “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 the longing in you; they had pointed fingers at [her] for as long as she could remember, hissing, That one, that one is not satisfied. Because there was no cure for it, it was worse than anything you might do.”
At the same time, the soul of the book is Nat’s disruptive, chaotic energy and her inclination to resist restrictive and arbitrary social mores that cut against everything that makes her feel alive and human. In that way, Nat becomes more of a “Sister Carrie”-like precursor to an expansive future than an April Wheeler-like casualty of a constrictive present.
Nat’s humorously seditious thoughts ultimately breathe great fun and excitement into The Longest Night. Her growing resolve brings the book to a finish that not only packs taut, enthralling and utterly absorbing drama, but unexpected triumph and grace.
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.