I am not a fan of Jame Howard Kunstler. I think he is in the business of pointing out problems without offering real solutions, unless you think going completely Amish and moving to a log cabin in the Adirondacks is a solution, and I hate that. I much prefer the Al Gore philosophy that Man is a clever and ingenious animal who can invent his way out of any jam, including the ones posed by overdependence on fossil fuels, global warming, and overpopulation. I also like watching TV shows like Life After People, and thoroughly enjoyed the miniseries about the fall of Rome and the Dark Ages on The History Channel, so you can understand why, after reading and hating The Long Emergency, I decided to try out Kunstler's fictional account of a life with a whole hell of a lot fewer people. A story about the dawn of an American Dark Ages is quite compelling, and this one did come recommended, so I figured I'd give it a go. My review after the jump.
The events that set up the story include Peak Oil, a terrorist attack on Los Angeles and Washington DC involving nuclear weapons, and a flu epidemic far more virulent than the 1918 Spanish flu. Nothing that other alarmists haven't already sounded the alarm about until people were tired of listening to them, but not completely outside the realm of possibility. Fortunately, Kunstler didn't spend too many pages talking about the causes, for it would have made the book even more preachy and more heavy-handed than it was. That wasn't the story; the story was about the people of Union Grove, New York, approximately ten to fifteen years after the falling apart, and how they managed to keep things more or less together.
The Upstate New York village in the story was made up of factions, which had to come together in some fashion in order to function. These were the Congregationalists who originally lived there, Stephen Bullock's ranch near the Hudson River, which attracted several of the Union Grove residents and some outsiders because Bullock offered them a living (some believed the residents were serfs), the New Faith Brotherhood, which came from Virginia looking for someplace quiet to live, and Karptown, which was what the other three groups called the trailer park near the town dump, which came to be run by Wayne Karp, a former drug dealer and general ne'er do well.
While the story was interesting and at times quite engaging, I thought it was poorly written, as if by someone not practiced in the art of writing fiction. William Shatner (Tek War) comes to mind. While he is a competent if not stellar actor, his fiction is amateurish, and tends to be as uptight...as...Captain Kirk can be. Kunstler is a pundit, and his fiction, this example of it anyway, reads like his non-fiction. If you have already read The Long Emergency, World Made By Hand will seem redundant.
I'm not a writer, but I think I can identify the most serious of writing sins when I'm reading something. Here are my biggest beefs with World Made By Hand. Call it a how-not-to guide for writing novels.
- Mad-Libs and repetition. Over and over throughout the book, you had Robert running into old acquaintances, and the introduction always went like this: (random person's name), who used to (insert now-useless former job) is now (insert current physically strenuous and/or unpleasant job). There is very little variation on this too-often recurring theme throughout the book. It implies a lack of skill at writing novels by someone who is more used to writing nonfiction. A reasonably competent editor could have taken Kunstler aside and pointed this out before wasting so many trees.
To sum up: Wayne Karp was a former drug dealer who now runs the salvage operation at the dump and maintains a cult of personality with the people working for him. That is interesting. One thing leads to the other. The fact that So-and-so working for Stephen Bullock tending a field of corn used to sell Chryslers (who is only in one of the nearly sixty short chapters of the entire book), with no indication of how he went from one to the other, is just needless padding to a novel already full of needless filler. Repeating this bit over and over is just silly.
- If the dollar is worthless, why pretend it still has value? In the part where Robert is in Albany with the "New Faithers" trying to get Stephen Bullock's men out of captivity, the captor quotes a ransom (euphemistically referred to as "excise taxes") of $500,000 in "U.S. Government scrip." I doubt a real crook would accept something essentially worthless for his trouble. Earlier in the book, Brother Jobe buys five trout for $1500 (an exchange rate of roughly 100:1 for a resource that the author points out repeatedly has become more plentiful because there were fewer fishermen). In yet another instance, at the junkyard, a fifty pound box of roofing nails and some other sundries gleaned from salvage go for $1300 (an exchange rate of roughly 25:1 based on what I could buy the same for at Lowes). Why use paper U.S. currency at all if there isn't any government to back it up?
- Constant editorializing by the editor. No decent sci-fi novel, or any kind of novel, has the author injecting his two cents throughout. You let the story to the job. That's the whole point of the story. If the story won't stand on it own two feet without constant commentary from the author, there is no story and the book shouldn't have been green-lit in the first place.
In numerous instances, Kunstler himself, not his characters, points out the inferiority of everything in our modern world, from factory-farmed produce to fast food to the coffeemaker on your kitchen counter that you bought from Target last month to replace the one you bought from Wal-Mart last year. A lot of this is obvious, so why not allow the inherent superiority of home-grown produce to stand on its own? Why not let the fact that the characters are enjoying the fruits of their own labor convey this fact? Anybody who keeps a couple of tomato plants in the summer already knows how much better they taste compared to supermarket tomatoes. Same goes for just about everything else you grow in your garden. Some of it is bunk, like the stuff one might build in one's workshop, although given sufficient knowledge and skill, which may take time to develop, satisfactory things might eventually result. The retaining wall holding back the dirt next to my garage, for example, was the culmination of no fewer than four attempts at building something the lake-effect snow wouldn't knock down. A contractor would have gotten it right the first time.
Here's an example of a more interesting way to make your point: Robert and Loren are taken captive by the Wayne Karp gang. A musician is on a stage playing what is recognized after some effort as Smells Like Teen Spirit. One character says to the other, "I hate that song," and expresses a hope that the worst of the world gone by simply vanishes. That's how you make a point.
Since I had already read The Long Emergency, I was able to skim through most of this commentary and finish the book in a single weekend. Given my usual reading pace, I would estimate that the actual story might consume no more than 150 pages. Instead of the incessant editorializing and padding, Kunstler might have painted a more vivid picture of Union Grove and its inhabitants and a far more intricately constructed novel. As much as I wanted to, I can't recommend it.