Cheeseburger Gothic

Atomic City, by Sally Breen

Posted June 2, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham
Ms. Breen

I'll be launching this bad grrrl at Avid on 21 June. Sally is one of my favorite writer-writers. She has great craft, as you'll see below, but none of the breathless pretense of Big-L literistas.

Atomic City is a grifter novel of the Jim Thompson school. There are no good guys, only bad guys you sorta want to hang out with anyway.

Elmore Leonard is probably the most famous modern exponent of these sorts of characters, but although he's more famous than Thompson, he didn't have the same eye for darkness.



This is Jade. Her story begins the first time you remember being lied to. Jade is the colour of a lie. A silicate of lime and magnesia, a hard green, blue or white stone. Green. A green that is not leafy lush or verdant but unripe. A green that is sour and inedible. Betrayal. A caustic taste in the mouth. White bile in the guts. Green, white, blue. White lies, the green eyed monster, licentious blue. Jade, the colour of a lie. There are certain people who are prone to being lied to. There are certain people who aren’t. But there are certain cities where the colour of lies is so camouflaged inside the fabric of the streets that every word ends up being tinged with a shade of something untrue. The Dealer lives in such a city. He was born into this prevaricated space. He has made it his life. Jade was never from here and that is why she belongs.


Jade arrived on the Gold Coast in the cold season. I remember the time: 3.57 pm. It had been a long afternoon, the floor subdued. I was still a rookie then, what the other dealers call a lumpy, but I was working my way in. She came directly to my table. Blackjack. Round 701. A bunch of papers and keys in her left hand and a modest wad of cash in the other. She dragged back the vacant chair in front of me resting her stash on the rubber lip of the table. I checked out the papers under her hand. Usual hotel check-in paraphernalia and a bus ticket. Couldn’t see the details, but wherever she was from she wasn’t wasting any time.

Jade settled quickly. She put the papers between her legs, drew out a few hundred dollar bills, waited for the next round and asked me to hit her. She was serious. She was young. Not an average combination.

I remember her hands – quick, elegant hands with fast fingers – but I didn’t miss the way they shook. The shaking got me. It wasn’t nerves. The rest of her was clear, focused. It wasn’t

drink, because her eyes didn’t drift. It was something else. Jade had the sickness; something I knew about, something I hadn’t seen for a while. Everyone in the Casino had symptoms; not everyone had the sickness like her. I felt it as soon as she sat down; the mix of intensity and distance. Jade was on the take.

But she wasn’t like the others. She was sick but she wasn’t diseased. Jade could have left that table, that room, anytime. What drove her wasn’t addiction; I saw addiction every day. She knew about the game, she knew where her decisions were taking her. It wasn’t fear or excitement making her shake, but knowledge. Jade was here for something else, something bigger than a dice or card. And when she looked at me, straight into me, she knew I’d seen it.

We played.

Our hands conducted the game on that table. The game between us was happening in our heads. Her eyes, our subtle smiles were locked in a forcefield the table kept at bay. The faster I dealt the more she defied me. It wasn’t the cash she wanted then. In twenty minutes she had my number.

Like most practised gamblers, Jade didn’t attempt to speak to me. She hit the table with her index finger when she wanted something and sliced her hand through the air when she didn’t. And I liked talking in symbols, it was what I was trained to do but I found myself wanting more than anything to speak to her. The game on the table kept me quiet. Three other players on either side of Jade, one of them Asian, all good but typically last-minute and fussy. Jade, win or lose, just kept firing.

I remember she sat the last one out. No play, just sat there and watched my hands and every movement I made was cleaner, magnified, better because she was there. I forgot about the machines and their tidal noise, the sound of money falling into steel traps, the rattle of tokens flushed repetitively down holes. None of it was there. My eyes didn’t register the swirls of insistent light, flowing up the walls, rolling reflected over our bodies. I concentrated only on the fluid movement of my hands. The precision of my splays and folds was perfect; the

effortlessness in my features right; it was a ballet, a test, and when she pulled her papers out of her lap in preparation to leave I found myself, mid-deal, wanting to stop but I didn’t. I kept dealing and tried to let her know with my eyes there had to be more time. And in that moment I sealed my fate.

Jade smiled.

She took her room key, a flat acrylic card, white and shiny and angled it towards me so I could see the number ‘1109’ then she stacked her tokens and left. A look back wasn’t necessary; Jade knew she had me. And that’s when I got scared. As soon as she’d fallen out of my line of vision I remembered why I wasn’t on the take anymore. Why I’d spent so long trying to undo the fallout. Why I’d started dealing because I thought working on the other side of the table would keep me clean. I faced people all the time who acted like they knew but all they did was make gambling easier to refuse. Jade changed all that.

I was still vulnerable to the rush. Still curious.

Whatever she wanted me for, the possibilities, the idea of what might happen was charging in like rapid fire between me and an old friend – but I didn’t have any friends by then and I didn’t even know her name. All I knew was my past was irrelevant. A woman I’d never spoken to had superseded it and I was heading as fast as I could to that room.

6 Responses to ‘Atomic City, by Sally Breen’

Barnesm reckons...

Posted June 2, 2013

Look that was all very well, the darkening gloom, the morally ambigous tones, the sparse pared back style all their well represented. As fan of this stuff I liked what I read.

My only complaint, a significant lack of Atomics for an atomic city? and don't tease me with the word Fallout unless it is nuclear.

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HAVOCK21 reckons...

Posted June 2, 2013

And much much better fkn looking than you I might add!

Dino not to be confused with ducks in to say...

Posted June 2, 2013


Now that you mention it...

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan would have you know...

Posted June 3, 2013

I thought that was John.

Sometimes a bloke just wants to feel pretty.

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Dan mumbles...

Posted August 8, 2015
I'm just not 'buying it.' Just like The Casuals it is a thoroughly boring and predictable read. Made only worse by Ms Breen's insistence that she is interesting. Her delusion that she is an important author shines through in everything she writes. A bit sickening.

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 9, 2015
Jeez, Dan. You're a little slow getting your review in, mate.

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