The setting of James Kunstler’s novel is just before Halloween in an appropriately frightening post-apocalyptic era after “the banking collapse, two terrorist nuclear strikes, the Holy Land War and the sharp decline in oil supplies that shattered everyday life in America.” Kunstler offers a sharply cautionary tale, conjuring up bizarre characters who would be right at home in the scariest of haunted houses. As one character puts it, “The world we know is slipping away and something weird is taking its place.”
The novel itself is somewhat weird. In his previous non-fiction works, like The Long Emergency (2005), Kunstler garnered praise for raising questions about our energy future. By shifting to fiction in his 2008 novel, A World Made by Hand, Kunstler presumably sought to flesh out these questions more vibrantly, as only fiction writers can. The Witch of Hebron certainly does have a number of quite intense moments, but it also suffers from implausible plot elements and flaws in the portraits of some characters.
Kunstler sets his tale in and around the small upstate New York community of Union Grove, whose inhabitants suffer symptoms of what might be called “post-apocalypse stress disorder,” such as impotence, religious hysteria and a propensity for robbery and homicidal violence. The novel centers upon 11-year-old Jasper Copeland, whose puppy is killed near the outset of the novel, provoking him to an act of vengeance, after which he decides he must flee town and family. There is certainly a disproportion between global disaster and the death of a puppy, but Kunstler’s plot needs a precipitating cause for the 11-year-old to abandon home and family for a life on the road that will unfold as a coming-of-age story.
Anyone who has shivered his or her way through Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, which also featured a young boy traveling through a post-apocalyptic landscape, will recognize several of the conventions Kunstler uses. Jasper enters abandoned houses that harbor terrible secrets. He encounters highway bandits, including a particularly nasty 20-year-old sociopath named Billy Bones. And he stumbles upon the occasional life-saving food sources and helpful strangers.
Somewhat paradoxically Kunstler imagines the traumas and tribulations of the future as leading us back to a kind of Golden Age, when people lived off local gardens, bartered for goods and really knew their neighbors. Kunstler’s foreboding sense of the future thus contrasts with this nostalgia for a pre-automobile age. Also, linguists should be warned: many of the 21st-century residents of Union Grove speak in a throwback, cowboy-like dialect peppered with words like ding-dang, goldurn and lookit. This does not seem to be a step forward for the English language.
For at least one character, the town’s minister, Loren Holder, the apocalypse has also brought with it sexual impotence without any possible recourse to Viagra since there are no more pharmacies. Here enters Barbara Maglie, the “witch of Hebron,” who uses gentleness and a reserve of herbal aphrodisiacs to restore Loren’s potency. Since Loren’s ministry is somewhat ineffectual, the doors of Union Grove are open for a fanatical religious sect called the New Faith Covenant Church of Jesus, whose odd leader, Brother Jobe, seems to have telepathic powers to induce pain or even death in anyone who crosses him. The matriarch of the sect is “Precious Mother” Mary Beth Ivanhoe, who has had visionary seizures since age 19, when she was hit by a sport utility vehicle, which for Kunstler is the perfect gas-guzzling symbol of the evils of our age.
In Kunstler’s imagined world of the near future, sexism makes a big comeback. Women characters are marginalized, generally cast in a servile mode or a sexual mode. The novel’s sex scenes are awkwardly written and may upset the squeamish or anyone who takes gender studies seriously, as they are strongly skewed toward a masculine perspective.
The novel improbably asserts that by observing his physician father at work Jasper has acquired “as much knowledge as a first-year medical student might have in the old times.” The pre-teen Jasper treats a man with boils, which seems marginally plausible; but when he later performs an emergency life-saving surgery, all plausibility disappears. Jasper is inconsistently portrayed throughout the novel, vacillating between the immaturity of a child who throws tantrums over his dead puppy to the self-awareness worthy of a 25-year-old Hemingway character, as when he comments, “I’m a lost soul.”
The novel ends with several unresolved issues: the body of a murder victim is exhumed for further analysis; two sons are missing from Union Grove; and Jasper returns home not much older but significantly wiser, ready for the next chapter of his personal growth.
Kunstler has said he hopes to write four novels in this series, to correspond to the seasons. There is something seasonal and nostalgic about Kunstler’s approach to fiction about the aftermath of civilization’s collapse. He excels at writing lyric passages about nature, particularly trout streams, which function as symbols of nature’s beauty and freedom. His acute pessimism about the future coexists with his faith in the human instinct to survive and adapt. He also demonstrates that the human penchant for storytelling is unlikely ever to become extinct so long as a single human being has breath enough to speak and strength enough to write.