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A Long Strange Trip Up Tom's River

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I’ve read more books than I can count about chemicals, cancer, and the environment, virtually all for reasons related to duty not desire.  So when the latest arrived, I steeled myself for yet another excruciating scholarly experience that would leave me begging for the relief a root canal might bring.  Boy was I wrong.

At first glance, Tom’s River, by Dan Fagin, seems like all the other tomes that have come before it: a thoughtful but dry to the point of desertification dissection of what happens when one odious group of chemicals or another holds a house party in our veins and starts rearranging the rungs on our DNA. But obligation cannot be denied. So after briefly considering suicide, I opened the cover with a sigh and prepared to  sacrifice a perfectly good weekend on the altar of professional education.

Tom’s River failed to meet those expectations. Instead, it bravely pokes its finger in the glazed eye of environmental science literary tradition, and boldly dares to be an insanely fascinating and utterly gripping story of, well… everything.

It starts in Tom’s River, a forgotten Jersey shore town lost in the pines between Atlantic City and Manhattan. Here a familiar tale unfolds: Big companies throwing their weight around as they dangle good jobs at the end of bad sticks. Desperate people eager for honest work. Corporate suits faking assurances and governments playing along. Public health agencies tackling big problems with tiny budgets. Pipes gushing toxic waste. Taps spewing fatal drinking water. Smokestacks belching death after dark. Secret dumps. And cancer. Lots and lots of cancer.

It’s the story of every single place that’s been sickened by money and killed by greed, the complete tale of 20th Century environmental calamity told in brilliant microcosm as if it were a LeCarre spy thriller peopled with a cast of Dickensian characters you’d find in a John Irving novel—from shady waste haulers to reluctant-hero parents. Even old friend and Seventh Generation alumni Dave Rapaport shows up as a Greenpeace organizer breaking into clandestine facilities and hunting murky seas for discharge pipes.

It is, to coin a phrase, one ripping good yarn. Yet two-time Pulitzer finalist Fagin doesn’t stop there.

Wrapped in the outrageous story of Tom’s River are the intertwined histories of cancer and the international chemical industry along with the biography of toxic waste and its terrible toll. Crossing continents and centuries, we travel from the laboratory of medieval medic Paracelsus to Philadelphia cancer wards where Tom’s River’s murdered children succumb to an epidemic of oncological terror.

We learn why it so hard to link disease to pollution despite obvious evidence and how corporate criminals take full advantage of this fact. We see how committed citizens can make a lasting difference anyway, and we uncover the pernicious truth about chemicals, the companies that make them, and the cancer they’re causing.

The result is remarkable, a landmark page-turner that’s part science, part history, part comedy, and pure tragedy. It’s also one of the most illuminating, engaging, and deliciously readable books that I’ve encountered in a long while, period. 

These days, we all wonder: How did the air get so black, the water so brown, and the people so sick? How did things get so far over the line and what can we do about it? Those are good questions. I just never expected to find the answers in Tom’s River.

Photo: Jill Clardy


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