Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Wasteland Blues

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. The publisher generously provided me with a copy of this novel.)

Wasteland Blues, Scott Christian Carr and Andrew Conry-Murray
Read: 14 to 21 April 2014
4 / 5 stars    

For me to find a post-apocalyptic yarn to be a successfully executed one, there are just a few requirements that I need to be satisfied, namely a uniquely fabricated world of end-times horrors; conversely, there are numerous mainstays of the genre that I take great delight in seeing turned on their heads, disregarded altogether or swapped for new takes on a literary genus of seemingly infinite permutations.

Wasteland Blues is another answer lobbed at the question of how exactly society would fall apart in the wake of mass devastation and how its survivors would forge ahead with limited assets and mounting adversity. It begins with a band of four men--Derek, the hotheaded, self-proclaimed leader; his mostly genial brick wall of a brother, Teddy; John, their pious friend; and Derek's captive, a grizzled old man, Leggy, whose moniker mocks his halved gams and whose town-drunk persona hides lifetimes of experience in battling the elements in this wasted world that keeps trudging on decades after the ruinous, toxic final war that dismantled civilization as we know it--who set out for whatever remains of New York City from San Muyamo, their blasted West Coast refuge cobbled together from the broken relics of a time none of them ever knew.

The basic need to carve out a habitable place in a poisoned world is no longer an immediate struggle. The story begins in the refugee village where the four men have been living for years, and it's clear that there are outposts dotting an otherwise ravaged country where nascent societies offer glimmers of hope about rebuilding the world and establishing cohesive communities. It is, however, that fledgling sense of safety in numbers that force Derek and Teddy to flee their home in the first place: One of Teddy's lapses into a blind, destructive rage resulted in the accidental death of their father, and Derek knows all too well that their fellow residents would never tolerate a murderer living among them. The cross-country trek that ensues allows for the true point of this story--self-realization in times that test an individual's breaking point and determination--to slowly emerge against a landscape comprising the very stuff of which nightmares are made.

There's the standard menu of life-after-the-end-of-life-as-we-know-it fare, like the ongoing struggles against both an unforgiving environment and all the other living things that could prove inimical for any number of reasons, never knowing who can be trusted, and conjuring up and clinging to a vision of the future that's worth fighting for. To prove that it's something looking to enrich the genre rather than listlessly regurgitate its hallmarks, Wasteland Blues has to serve as more than just another story told from the other side of a world-changing catastrophe, which, gratefully, it does with aplomb. The novel focuses not on what greets this growing band of misfits when it reaches the city Derek sees in his dreams (and conflates into a heavenly vision to coax the reluctant John along) by following the group as it makes its way across the Wasteland of post-nuclear fallout America. This is a story about a journey and the lessons it imparts about not just surviving but thriving to those who are receptive to a perspective-widening education.

What begins as a ragtag quartet with little chance of survival given three of its members' nearly lifelong isolation in San Muyamo slowly grows to include both human and animal allies, some of whom stick around for the long haul and others who tag along 'til they get to their intended destinations. As the story progresses, the caricatures that Derek, Teddy, John and Leggy began as blossom into more realized characters who possess something integral to not only their own survival but also that of their roving companions. It is that flourishing humanism that sets Wasteland Blues apart from its end-times-lit brethren, as it shows how the same set of circumstances impacts different personalities, and how each character both serves and is the product of the story and its world in their own ways.

Perhaps the most effective element within this book's 200-some pages is the present state of the world itself. While there isn't a definitely given time in which Wasteland Blues takes place, there are casual references to the last World War taking place during 2085, or nearly a century ago. In that time, any recognizable traces of the world the reader knows are lost, ruined or misremembered, and that sense of chronological discombobulation is a difficult reality to face. What we know to be astronauts have become almost mythological moon men dwelling on the lunar surface, and our satellites are now likened to angels and "tin houses floating around in the sky." Having to face not only a mass extinction by way of radioactive fire but also a dissolution of the world in which the reader is safely encountering this post-apocalyptic world makes for uncomfortable reminders of one's mortality every time those sensitive spots are cruelly but effectively poked throughout the unfolding of this story.

The lack of a neatly wrapped ending would feel like a frustrating cop-out if weren't such a fitting continuation of the harrowing disorientation permeating through these pages. As Leggy ruminates toward the end of the novel, "(w)e're all heroes of our own stories... and heroes are supposed to live happily ever after, at least in the story books. But the Wasteland keeps its own book, and writes its own ending." This story, in keeping with the uncertainty of a world ambling toward some hopeful rebirth, deserves more than a forced conclusion tacked on for the sake of a "real" ending, as if there's anything the Wasteland teaches those who dare to traverse it, it's that endings are sudden, messy things that come of their own accord and that closure is a promise no man has a right to demand.

1 comment:

  1. Post-apocalyptic writing IS a strange beast. I remember really liking Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower. I'm not keep on religious texts, but it had a sense of faith that moved these characters along. The book doesn't even really tell if there WAS a full-on apocalypse, but it seems like it, since humanity has degraded so much.

    I saw The Road recently and wanted so badly for the father and his son to stop walking, eat a bottle of pills, and stop. I just didn't see the love between them like I wanted to--possibly because things were so bad. Then again, I haven't read the book.

    I'm also reminded of the movie 28 Days Later in which Jim's parents DO swallow a bottle of pills before they are killed by or turned into the infected. The other characters tell him that he's lucky because they didn't have to see the end of destruction or watch his parents change.

    Just yesterday I posted a review of Lucy Corin's One-Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses in which she looks at the way people react to or think about the possibility of an apocalypse. That is told in 100 flash fiction pieces. Here's the link! http://grabthelapels.weebly.com/1/post/2014/04/100-apocalypses-by-lucy-corin.html

    So, I do think there are a variety of approaches to post-apocalyptic landscapes and characters, but I also think an awful lot of writers and movies rely on what is basically a rehashing of Road Warrior. I don't need to see that again!