James Howard Kunstler’s novel begins in the pastoral setting of a riverbank, where the narrator, Robert Earle, and his best friend Loren Holder have concluded a successful fishing excursion. Although they are slightly intoxicated by the natural beauty around them and by some home-made wine, they are also profoundly aware of the dire context of their lives: nuclear attacks on Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., combined with a cutoff of oil to the United States, have ushered in an apocalyptic age.
Kunstler is well known for his non-fiction work The Long Emergency (2005), whose subtitle reads: “Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century.” In his new book Kunstler assumes these catastrophes have taken place, and he offers a stark portrait of the ensuing daily life of a small New York town.
Kunstler’s version of the future is in many ways a regression to the past, to the “world made by hand” of the book’s title. The people of Union Grove must recover some long-lost survival skills, and in fact they do much better than just survive. Robert reflects, “You could argue that people are generally better-adjusted now, mentally, in many ways than we were back then. We follow the natural cycles.... We’re not jacked up on coffee and television and sexy advertising all the time. No more anxiety about credit card bills.” With dramatically reduced effluents and pollution flowing into waterways (virtually all manufacturing has ceased), rivers and streams teem with fish. Compared to the total annihilation portrayed in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Kunstler offers a sobering but far less grim vision of post-Armageddon America.
Kunstler also balances the harsh realities of the new age with a rediscovery of a primal spiritual authenticity. One character bemoans that “in the sight of God we don’t matter,” but Robert counters that a sacred goodness of people resides, “In all the abiding virtues. Love, bravery, patience, honesty, justice, generosity, kindness. Beauty too. Mostly love.” In this context there is a new relevance for religious communities: “Those of us who remained did not have diversions like television or recreational shopping anymore, and the church had become our get-together place in a way it had ceased to be for generations.”
While Robert affirms a sense of the sacred in nature and in humanity, he also expresses wariness about a band of retro-puritanical folk called the New Faith Church of Jesus, led by the mysterious Brother Jobe, whom Kunstler has described in an interview as “a comically dark figure who is a combination of Boss Hogg [from “The Dukes of Hazzard”] and Captain Ahab.” Brother Jobe pursues the classic American dream of building a city on a hill. In this effort he preaches a new emancipation, because he believes Americans had fallen into material slavery: “They made themselves slaves to the car and everything connected with it and it destroyed them in the end.” Jobe’s pronouncement is just one example of a recurring concern in the novel about social and environmental collapse.
Brother Jobe’s foil to some extent is Loren, the town preacher who is called upon to become a constable, thus upholding both divine law and what’s left of human law. Loren’s services are certainly needed, as Union Grove has become a kind of Wild West wasteland menaced by several bad guys. One operates a huge salvage market out of the former town dump, while another controls all commerce on one stretch of the Hudson River. When a crew of townsfolk goes missing on the river, Loren and Robert form a posse that is in effect a SWAT team on horseback.
Kunstler suggests that much of the social progress made over the last decades in the United States would quickly unravel under the pressure of working simply to survive. Union Grove’s town trustees are all male, because “As the world changed, we’d reverted to social divisions that were thought to be long obsolete. The egalitarian pretenses of the high octane decades had dissolved and nobody even debated it anymore, including the women of our town.” There are other disquieting changes in the social fabric: Loren shares his wife with the widower Robert, and only a single child has been born to the entire community of Union Grove in the first eight months of the year.
Anyone who has read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us senses that topics formerly labeled as “unthinkable” have now become a central preoccupation for a number of writers who wish to describe in a compelling way the dystopias we will avoid only if we can find a way to change our lives and lifestyles significantly enough. Kunstler plays on primal fears about where we are going, but he also raises primal hopes. A number of times in the novel he describes fireflies flickering in the evenings, perhaps to suggest that even in an apocalyptic time of darkness there are likely to be remnant lights, however small, to give us hope and motivation to come up with a brave new “world made by hand.”