Reviewed by: Tamar Mekredijian, Pacific Book Review
The novella’s driving force is the character of Pat O’Neil, through which the reader experiences the anguish, confusion, and anger regarding the widespread illness caused by the radiation emitted by the nuclear explosions. The government assures Americans the nuclear fallout is “safe as snow.” O’Neil uses this phrase many times to mock the government and assure his peers that the many sudden illnesses and deaths in the community are directly related to the testing. He continually points to the livestock who are birthing deformed calves, whose hair is falling out, and are overall sickly and dangerous for human consumption. Because he sees what the testing of nuclear weapons in Nevada is doing to its residents, O’Neil speaks out, but is put down and ridiculed by the town bully named Barney. O’Neil is not only angered by Barney’s resistance to hearing his eye-opening statements about the nuclear fallout, but believes that Barney is responsible for the murder of his lover, Alice. This leads him to kill Barney in a bar, and he is imprisoned and tried for murder. The town stands behind him as he fights for his freedom. In the end, he is sent to prison, and paroled six years later.
Although Lone Dog Barking is a novella based on a true story, it is a well-constructed narrative led by its hero, Pat O’Neil, spotlighting his fearless proclamations about the truth of the matter: the nuclear fallout is resulting in the spread of radiation, and thus cancer to the people living in Tonopah, Nevada. Both child and adult deaths caused by cancer illuminate the danger to people’s health due to government nuclear testing. The reader follows O’Neil, fighting and hoping alongside him, as he spreads the truth of the matter to the public. The reader is drawn into his character and his relationship with Alice, and is just as heartbroken as O’Neil is when he finds his love murdered. The moment he shoots and kills Barney caused both relief and a worry: relief that he got his revenge and worry because imprisonment or death would prevent him from fighting for awareness about the danger of illness caused by nuclear testing in the community.
Because it is a true story, all those involved in the events surrounding Barney’s death and Pat O’Neil’s imprisonment and trial have been included in the novella, making it slightly difficult to keep track of the dozens of characters mentioned in the story. Each chapter introduced at least one new character that pertained to the true events, which may confuse readers and make it difficult to follow. It’s also not completely clear who the narrator is, and whose perspective the story is told through. It seems to be told through O’Neil’s perspective, but the story begins with the point of view of a group of boys who spy on the town and its happenings. With a clearer frame, the narrative can be read without this consistent confusion.
Woven with imagery of whorehouses and town bars, violence in between the townspeople and impeccable dialogue between characters, Lone Dog Barking is a wonderful narrative and would be of interest to readers of historical novels. The dialogue is distinct and promotes strong characterization, drawing the reader in to the story. This is a must read for those with interest in American history, and wars’ affects on Americans just before the Cold War.