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Nine Shiny Objects begins like a science fiction novel, or maybe a Stephen King book. In the summer of 1947, Oliver Danville, a drifter and washed-up actor with gambling debts, leaves Chicago for Washington state. He’s chasing the famous “nine shiny objects” that private pilot Kenneth Arnold saw hovering over Mount Rainier, a real event that kicked off a Cold War-era obsession with UFOs. They moved like saucers skipping over the water, he told the papers, and they ran with it, calling them flying saucers, kicking off Danville’s quest for the aliens inside— and he doesn’t doubt, even for a second, that there are “people” inside, he says. As he hitchhikes westward, he picks up a couple who follow him to Washington, exhibiting the same reverence.

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Then we lose them. The thrust of the book is that Danville becomes the leader, called the Tzadi Sophit, of the UFO cult the Seekers, who dream of a utopic, integrated society. But the reader is never privy to the world of the Seekers or their prophetic vision. Instead, the book flips through eight points of view after Danville’s, jumping ahead five years at a time, covering four decades of richly described American life. The perspectives hop across the country as the Seekers do, almost like a collection of short stories. A narrative begins to unfold, slowly: The Seekers leave for Long Island, where they hope to build a racially diverse, radically equal society. But the neighbors in the community up the hill are thoroughly against this kind of living. One night, a dinner party erupts into unseen but devastating violence, and the Seekers are left with a shattered dream.

But that dream continues to resonate with those touched by it in the two decades after—most notably in the seedy ’70s warehouse commune that Max Felt, just a teenager at the time of the attack, ends up running, where the shiny objects worshipped are sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Felt’s failed utopia is another cult we don’t see much of. Instead, as with the Seekers, the chapters inhabit the perspectives of the people whose lives have been shaped by these groups’ ideas and hopes. Even after the Seekers are reduced to a tiny group, even after the Sophit is assassinated, they continue to resonate across generations.

On just the level of the writing, the book is a triumph. Author Brian Castleberry’s ability to inhabit each character’s mind, giving each distinct tics in their thought and speech patterns, makes their self-righteousness, confusion, guilt, and hope achingly legible. A plot like this one, where details are spooled out slowly via clues and recollections, could easily leave readers frustrated and disinterested, but Castleberry keeps up the momentum with ease. He draws the book’s social web across decades and thousands of miles, giving the readers plenty of time and space to connect how the characters in each chapter are related—and when there are surprises, they’re earned, and you’ll kick yourself for not catching them sooner. Most masterfully, Nine Shiny Objects makes the tragedy of the Seekers clear without tripping over itself to answer all the questions their history raises (especially in the final chapter, where the book returns to the promise of its otherworldly premise).

Hidden behind the facade of a book about UFOs is a novel about 20th century America, its flaws and its fears. The world changes around the chapters and characters of Nine Shiny Objects like a rolling offscreen force, but very few of the people depicted are the ones doing the changing. Instead, social progress is seen as an inevitability, not the result of work and struggle. That gives the book a blinkered perspective, but in that narrow focus is a clear-eyed look at the reactionary American mind and the resentment and confusion that so many adopt as a coherent political position.