Imagine a world of endless Cold War, with the U.S. and Russia continuously threatening each other with annihilation. Imagine you are living in the panhandle of Florida during this time, an English grad student with a peculiar sensibility:
“For me, I hear unheard voices, important ones. Hear how? By an inner ear as I read another’s words and sing them to myself. Through sound, I know what’s truly brilliant and what’s not.”
You are one of the unfortunate to have been radiated while still in your mother’s womb during the The Accident aka Incident ’80. You were thus born with radiation sickness, which is why your body is rapidly aging, why you hear voices, why your eyes have a glow, and why you want to go where no one knows you.
You are John Needle and you came up from south Florida to escape the notoriety of being “Rad Sick,” one of those “radiation sickness weirdos.” While your relocation gives you new friendships and romances, you also find others like you, which is good and bad. You see, there are people who want to collect Rad Sicks like yourself, to control your preternatural abilities, to use you for their own nefarious plans. Before too long you find yourself in the midst of a conspiracy on campus that involves a LSD-like drug called TallaTec and strange human experiments at the pool.
Meanwhile, you romance at least two women, discover the natural and mysterious beauty of north Florida, and have long drunken debates with your college friends about the best places to submit writing. Your body might be 35 years old, but you think and act like a 20-year-old grad student.
Rad Sick Record is written in the form of a diary, giving Needle’s story an intimacy and immediacy that well suited this strange but entertaining novel. Michael Trammell is also a poet, evident in how he weaves words together:
“The Arctic cold must be brutal, so bitter they can’t think for the pain, are sick from it, noses raw like beef jerky. Freezing dew must stick to their hair. If sleet drummed atop the ships, the cold would become an encircling, unsolvable misery.”
Trammel’s novel is not strictly science fiction or speculative fiction or a coming-of-age novel, or a thriller, or a romantic comedy. It blends all these genres fluidly, immersing me in Needle’s sometimes quirky, sometimes scary world. It is a character-driven novel, with a finely drawn cast that continue living in my head long after I put the book down. I highly recommend Rad Sick Record. The novel pushes boundaries in wonderful prose written by a talented and gifted writer. Once I dipped into T-Town with John Needle, I was all in.
–End of review–
Confession: I know Michael Trammell. We were in grad school together at Florida State University in the early 1990s (the novel takes place in 2000). Michael was in the doctoral program, myself a lowly Master’s student, but we had a few classes together, including a fiction workshop with the late Jerome Stern. I didn’t see Michael again for years after I graduated, but I’ve always remembered him as a kind and honest reader in our workshop, a wonderful poet, and a really nice guy. When I next saw Michael in early 2020, almost thirty years after I had graduated, it was at a book reading for his wife, the poet Mary Jane Ryals. He mentioned having written a novel and planning a reading for the next month. Cue the pandemic. I believe he went on with his book reading, but by then it was mid-March 2020 and I was avoiding human contact as much as possible. I still got a signed copy of Rad Sick Record and promptly read it. My bad for taking so long to write a review.
An interesting experience for me in reading Rad Sick Record was trying to identify people that we both knew. “Oh, I bet this character is based on Mary Jane and that other one must be Ron!” I think I might even be in the novel: “A woman beside me was clicking plastic sticks. No flip, she was knitting!” Maybe, maybe not. I remember I used to knit during some of my social work classes, but I don’t remember if I’d had the courage to knit in any of my English classes. Still, I like to think it was me.
I always enjoy reading stories that take place in familiar locations, and this was no exception. Trammell’s description of the campus took me back the 90s when I spent most of my life in the Williams Building, a maze of stairwells and half-floors reminiscent of the Winchester Mystery House. As John Needle, he reminded me of the first times I visited the sinkholes and rivers of Florida, getting to know local flora and fauna. This added a layer of pleasure to my reading, but you don’t need to have been on the FSU campus in the 1990s to enjoy Rad Sick Record. The novel stands on its own.
–Insert gratuitous cat photo–
P.S. Maxine had her last checkup, at least for a month. Her creatine is down to 4.1, close to where it was before the craziness. Her urine is still clear so we stopped the antibiotic injections. She’s looking good, eating and drinking well, grooming more than most cats her age, and likes to lie on my lap when I’m watching TV. I like it too.
Marie A Bailey
Writer, blogger, knitter, cat lover, and introvert.