Wormwood, Nevada, the latest novel by David Oppegaard, is the story of Tyler and Anna Mayfield, who transplant from Omaha, Nebraska, to their temporary home in central Nevada. They moved west for a new start on life, a year of teaching, and with hopes that they could parlay it into something bigger.
Tyler and Anna met in college, where they were both literature majors and shared many formative experiences: He was defined by the sudden disappearance of his older brother, Cody, and she by her victorious run as a Nebraska beauty queen. Moving in with his aunt in the desert community of Wormwood, the two explore their new reality: a town populated by the lonely and the desperate. Before they can get comfortable, a meteorite lands in the center of the town. This bizarre event has an equalizing effect: Everyone in Wormwood, from the authentic cowboy to the town drunk to the former Miss Nebraska, embarks on a journey to find what they seem to have lost in the open desert: themselves.
The strongest aspect of Oppegaard’s work is the way in which he captures the essence of a small central Nevada town. Wormwood is a “scrubby cluster of aluminum-sided buildings and concrete,” with a “gray strip of highway to the east, and beyond the highway just more sagebrush, as far as a person could see.” Economically, it is a town at once embittered by the belief that it is disregarded by the state’s population centers—“Hell, even the government would forget about us if it didn’t want our taxes so bad”—and eager to find a tourism draw that might bring with it “heaps of money, commercial development, a major chain restaurant.” Socially, it’s a rural community like any other that peppers the Nevada landscape, full of people who have chosen the solitude of the desert, and the others who just seem stuck there.
Though Oppegaard convincingly and at times beautifully describes Wormwood as though he had spent many days there, you will not find it on a Nevada map. He gives clues to its location, though at times these contradict one another: Late in the book, he implies that it is on old US Highway 50, the historic Lincoln highway which runs through the center of the state, east to west; earlier, he writes that it is 300 miles northeast of Las Vegas, putting it, presumably, near Austin, Nevada, a town that could work with his description of Wormwood; and even earlier he states that it is two hours from Vegas. Nevada is somewhat famous for its relaxed traffic laws, but traveling 150 miles an hour seems impossible, save by alien spacecraft. Luckily, late in the book, Oppegaard provides the reader with just such a vehicle.
Aliens as characters and plot devices aren’t such a great leap for readers aware of Nevada’s rural population’s long focus on beings from other planets. Home to the mysterious Area 51, the Extraterrestrial Highway, and even Art Bell’s famous radio show, Coast-to-Coast AM, broadcasting from Pahrump, Nevada, the desert is a place where alien adherents and aficionados have gathered for decades. Pahrump, the towns along the Extraterrestrial Highway, or anyplace near enough to Area 51 to benefit economically from its presence could easily pass for Wormwood. For the people of Wormwood, the visitors serve as an impetus to start experiencing the lives they have been putting off.
The name Wormwood serves as a multiple metaphor, symbolically referencing at least four interpretations of the bitter plant. Most obviously is the use of wormwood in the preparation of absinthe, the banned-in-America bitter known for causing hallucinations. It is also a loose translation of the Ukrainian word chornobyl, thus referencing the devastating 1986 nuclear disaster, Biblically speaking, wormwood offers two references: in Exodus, Moses grinds up wormwood and puts it into his followers’ water for them to drink; at the other end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, God punishes his people with the plague of wormwood, one of the signs of the end of the world. Oppegaard invokes all these meanings as the townspeople search for real meaning in their own lives. Hallucinations, premonitions, dreams of nuclear holocaust, all push them to seek fulfillment, closure, and a sense of being a part of something that matters. Oppegaard weaves these various interpretations through the novel masterfully and subtly, leaving the most intriguing for the final pages. The result is complex and compelling, a book that appeals both for its treatment of the spectacular and its interesting take on its characters’ personal growth.