2016 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction
“A unique, alarming portrayal of the American military-industrial complex, the crisis of climate change, and the nature of truth and despair. Baumgart's dreamlike, nonlinear narrative is composed of dizzying juxtapositions, illuminating the parallels and paradoxes of modernity and antiquity, devastation and healing, science and the supernatural. Resisting simple answers and constantly challenging assumptions, the author explores collective and personal anxieties surrounding human-nature relationships and the planet's current peril, interwoven with childhood nostalgia and reflections on family, loss, and time. Nearly indescribable and utterly engrossing, this book is an urgent and terrifying cultural reflection, a startling look in the mirror.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A devastating artistic achievement.”—Foreword Reviews
“No two ways about it, Barret Baumgart’s China Lake is a brilliant, often hilarious, and thoroughly original work of nonfiction that looks at climate change and many other things, important or not, through the exploration of the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in the Mojave Desert. Baumgart, dragging on his ever-powered-up e-cig and listening to his cherished heavy metal whenever he can, takes us on a tour of paranoiac conspiracy thought, petroglyphs, cloud seeding, chemtrails, climate manipulation, his mother’s brain and body, the Pentagon, New Ageism, and numerous other mesmeric curiosities. China Lake is an apocalypse of the weird. In places it is wildly funny. I found myself bursting into laughter, slapped by startling eruptions of wit and humor. The book is unfailingly entertaining, keenly intelligent, and, in fact, is an almost shamefully good read.”—Richard Preston, author, The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus
“This is an astonishing debut. At once tragic and hilarious, frightening and timely. China Lake is our most provocative and personal statement on humanity’s failure to come to grips with the monstrous reality of climate change.”—John D’Agata
“Prehistoric shamans, weather warfare, chemtrails, geo-engineering: Baumgart ties these disparate threads into a fast-paced, engaging and very personal narrative about our greatest existential threat: rapidly changing global climate. This is an important book, marking the appearance of a talented and distinctive new literary voice.”—David S. Whitley, author, Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origin of Creativity and Belief
“John Hawkes spoke of the ‘terrifying similarity between the unconscious desires of the solitary man and the disruptive needs of the visible world.’ What I find most impressive about this remarkable book is Barret Baumgart’s willingness and ability to explore this paradox. China Lake gets at something alarming and true about nature and human nature.”—David Shields, author, Reality Hunger
Barret Baumgart’s literary debut presents a haunting and deeply personal portrait of civilization poised at the precipice, a picture of humanity caught between its deepest past and darkest future. In the fall of 2013, during the height of California’s historic drought, Baumgart toured the remote military base, NAWS China Lake, near Death Valley, California. His mother, the survivor of a recent stroke, decided to come along for the ride. She hoped the alleged healing power of the base’s ancient Native American hot springs might cure her crippling headaches. Baumgart sought to debunk claims that the military was spraying the atmosphere with toxic chemicals to control the weather. What follows is a discovery that threatens to sever not only the bonds between mother and son but between planet Earth and life itself.
Stalking the fringes of Internet conspiracy, speculative science, and contemporary archaeology, Baumgart weaves memoir, military history, and investigative journalism in a dizzying journey that carries him from the cornfields of Iowa to drought-riddled California, from the Vietnam jungle to the caves of prehistoric Europe, and eventually the walls of the US Capitol, the sparkling white hallways of the Pentagon, and straight into the contradicted heart of a worldwide climate emergency.