Sunday, March 23, 2008

World Made By Hand by James Howard Kunstler: A Review

James Howard Kunstler is best known as a novelist, social critic, and prognosticator. Two recent works of nonfiction of his are The Geography of Nowhere, a critique of American architecture, suburbia, and the absence of city and community planning, and The Long Emergency, an examination of those problems that will accompany the forthcoming absence of fossil fuels. Howard’s newest novel, World Made By Hand, creates a time and place where his characters have to negotiate an America without government, without oil, and without any goods or services except for what the people grow themselves or offer in trade.

Set in Union Grove, a small community in upstate New York, the novel occurs at a time when both Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., have been “bombed” because of what the narrator refers to as a “Jihad,” brought about because of America’s role in a protracted war in the “Holy Land.” Although the military had ousted the president that kept the country embroiled in the Middle East, the bombing of Washington, D.C., destroyed the last visages of government and its “revolving cast of political characters.” Oil-producing countries seem to exist within this fictional world, but they aren’t trading with the United States; this absence of imported fossil fuels has caused the country to collapse in on itself. “Everything was local now,” the narrator says. Any news about the world outside of Union Grove is brought by travelers and is either outdated or filled with rumor.

Narrated by Robert Earle, a former marketing executive for security software, and now a carpenter and musician, the novel occurs within a single summer. Widowed by the Mexican Flu, “when every community was shuttered up in desperate quarantine,” and which killed a large portion of the population in Union Grove and elsewhere, Robert lives alone when the novel opens and finds moments of comfort in the quick but amorous liaisons with Jane Ann, the preacher’s wife.

Those townspeople who have lost hope work for Mr. Bullock, someone who provides them with shelter and food in return and who has created a prosperous enterprise on the land he owns outside of town and who sends goods down river to Albany. Wayne Karp provides a similar umbrella operation for people and has them either digging through the former landfill for what can be salvaged and what can be sold or traded or has them scouring the county for building supplies and whatever else can be carried off by horse from the deserted houses and the barren retail outlets.

Religion, as to be expected because of the comfort it offers, is omnipresent in this world. Preachers prepare the people for the apocalypse in their radio broadcasts. The narrator keeps his radio on constantly, even though “the electricity had been on for half an hour all…month” and powers nothing but these reminders of mass communication. Brother Jobe, the leader of a religious cult, has brought his people to Union Grove, after having lived in Virginia and Pennsylvania. This religious cult purchased the old town high school, which they begin to renovate. Loren, the town preacher, and Robert meet Brother Jobe outside of town as the novel opens.

Robert works on improving the town after he is elected mayor and seeks the help of both Brother Jobe and Mr. Bullock in his first project, renovating the town's water supply. Robert and Brother Jobe’s followers later assist Mr. Bullock in finding and returning the crew of a boat that had carried cider to Albany. This journey allows the narrator to provide a clearer view of the hopelessness and fear that prevails among the people on the route to Albany.

While reading the novel, I had hoped that Daniel, Robert’s adult son, would return from his travels through the country with Evan, Loren’s son, to provide a larger view of what had been occurring elsewhere in America. In keeping with its focus on the local, the narrator emphasizes what occurs among the people in Union Grove and how they work together, in spite of conflict and loss, to improve their environment.

This future of the Long Emergency is one punctuated with violence. It’s this violence that might repel some readers. Not merely an observer of the violence, some of which is told in too much detail, the narrator is a participant. Fortunately, there is plenty of marijuana and home-brewed alcohol to make this future more tolerable. The narrator, too, is sexually active and descriptive in its liaisons, which is a strong element in the genre of science fiction.

Ultimately, the novel provides a unique look at our future and, while focused on the particular, allows the reader to visualize what could happen in this country in the years ahead and causes the reader to wonder whether it would be possible to survive solely on oneself and others in a time when nothing else that currently makes up our society exists. Would we exploit those weaker or sell our labor to someone more powerful? Would we be willing to sacrifice our notions of right and wrong? Or would we do whatever it takes to maintain a semblence of normalcy?