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To Pay Paul
Seamus Quinlan is a geophysicist with a problem neighbor that also happens to be his employer—the Manhattan Project’s once top-secret Hanford Nuclear Site, currently the largest radioactive waste cleanup project anywhere on the planet. After Seamus’s father succumbs to the cancer that killed the rest of his family, Seamus attempts to make something of the family’s barren acreage, while overseeing ground stability assessments for the Department of Energy in a region whose past was riddled by basalt lava flows, catastrophic floods, and seismic hijinks. Anomalies around the Quinlan farmhouse lead to a collapsing graveyard, sending Seamus on a subterranean quest during which he learns more about his family’s roots, decides to blow the whistle on a coming environmental catastrophe, and, not incidentally, falls in love with his colleague, Cody Getz. An improbable doomsday scenario ushered into the frightening realm of the plausible, To Pay Paul is a tale of how individuals survive when longstanding environmental debts finally come due.
Seamus Quinlan, a geophysicist who works at an abandoned nuclear site, must cope with both physical and emotional fallout in a gripping story that is part thriller, part psychological novel. Longtime residents of Washington State, the Quinlan family has been decimated by the radioactive pollution at HEW, a Manhattan Project site that still holds secrets. Now, Seamus is trying to ensure the long-term safety of radioactive waste, until a potentially fatal accident forces Seamus and his engineer friend, Cody, to take stock of their lives, as their situation becomes a metaphor for the pair's own personal issues, the precarious state of the region, and the history of the Quinlan family.

Curnes (author of For the Love of Mother, to which this is a sequel) grew up in that area, allowing him to paint beautiful and haunting pictures of the region. He has also painstakingly researched the geology of the zone and treats the reader to an account of the millions of years of history that carved out Washington, turning the ground itself into a character as real as any person. Although readers seeking action above all else may find the scientific detail overwhelming, Curnes' goals are more ambitious than the average thriller, as To Pay Paul connects the personal and the geologic in metaphoric unity.

Nowhere is this clearer in the scenes in which Seamus and Cody must extricate themselves from a geological disaster. The descriptions of the men coping are earthy as they essentially become part of the ground itself, and the experience gradually changes them and their relationship to each other. Their rescue is cathartic, and they gradually commit to taking their personal and professional lives in new directions, even in the face of a new geologic crisis and a final personal problem. The book ends on an elegiac note, not fully concluding the story, but satisfying nonetheless.

Takeaway: Fans of eco-thrillers will revel in this richly detailed story with a surprising human element.

Great for fans of: Kim Stanley Robinson, Ash Davidson’s Damnation Spring.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: B+