13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
rewarding quiet post-apoc novel,
This review is from: Lost Everything (Paperback)
Lost Everything, by Brian Francis Slattery, is a surprisingly small-bore and quiet post-apocalyptic novel. Where many deal with destruction on a country-wide or global scale and follow near-epic quests by some doomed or maybe-doomed survivors, Slattery takes his characters through a just-as-ravaged countryside but it all seems a little more domestic than the usual sort of end-of-the-world tale, a twist that is both the book's strength and its weakness.
The world has seemingly been in the grips of ecological disaster, prompted one assumes by global warming, so that sea levels have risen and rivers have slipped their human bonds and wreaked havoc. At some point, the United States collapsed as a government and in this region at least--along the Susquehanna River between Three Mile Island/Harrisburg and Binghamton NY--war has broken out between two factions. This is all laid out efficiently, concisely, almost with the sense of elegy, by the unnamed narrator who is seemingly researching this story:
Do you see? How the world is now? Nobody can quite say how it came to be this way. There is too much. There is not enough. It started generations ago, and so much has been lost, and even all that I found does not help . . . Our great-grandparents told our grandparents that things were different once, when they were children. A little colder. Simpler. Not as many people were dying . . . There must have been a day, a single day, when it was too late, when we could not go back, but nobody can remember when it was. Do you see? The story I have left to tell is so small, of the people who stayed when everyone else fled. Two men going upriver to get a boy.
The river is our path through the novel, as this is sort of an anti-Huck Finn novel, the connection made clear not simply by the river as the main guide but by the protagonist's name--Sunny Jim, as well as by their mode of travel--the old Mark Twain kind of riverboat. We don't know much about what is happening out in the larger world, or even the larger country beside this relatively small region, save for one large exception. That exception is the "Big One," an unbelievable (literally so for several characters) massive storm that is heading their way from out of the West, a storm that has achieved mythic and spiritual status and one that has choked off all communication with anyone in its wake, if indeed there is anyone left in its wake.
The human equivalent of the storm, for Jim, is the army moving up from the south. His wife had been a major figure in the resistance, while Jim had barely been involved. Somehow, though, he's been labeled a resistance leader of some importance and so is targeted for removal. While the army moves up slowly behind him, it sends out two more-quickly moving hunters: one is a squad trying to beat Sunny Jim to Binghamton and the other is a single woman, Sergeant Foote, trying to chase him down from behind.
Caught between the encroaching army behind him and the oncoming storm before him, Sunny Jim, joined by his friend Reverend Bauxite, races against time to head upriver and reach his son Aaron, whom he sent to his sister Merry in Binghamton to get him out of the war, this after his wife had been killed, a death Sunny Jim has yet to fully accept.
The story shifts amongst these characters--Sunny, Bauxite, Foote, the army squad, and various others Sunny encounters along the way. It also shifts back and forth in time as we follow these characters not only on their present journey but also are offered their backstories, showing how they got to this point in their lives. In many ways, the book itself is structured like the waterway at its center, flowing in one major direction but with all sorts of smaller tributaries feeding into it. And, like the river, some of its components are still as a quiet pool or lake while others are as fast and perilous as the floodwaters raging in.
The book is punctuated here and there by moments of stark violence, gun battles, massacres, atrocities. And also with moments of quiet human beauty and celebration, banjo music in the night, tenderness toward the orphaned or wounded. And behind it all always lies a destroyed world. But Slattery's apocalyptic landscape isn't the burned off radioactive wastelands or sprawling ruins that are common to the post-apocalyptic genre. Instead we get the wreckage of suburbia, exurbia, and downtowns. No huge skeletal skyscrapers or broken-off Statues of Liberty or drowned Washington Monuments. Instead we get small-town more domestic ruins: the hulks of two-bedroom houses, abandoned cars, sagging basketball hoops, crumbling sidewalks. We get "Garages, open, patrolled by feral cats. Front yards littered with cardboard boxes, sagging suitcases, picture frames, instrument cases." The ruins are of lives, not institutions.
There is lots of tension built into the story--Foote hunting Sunny Jim aboard the riverboat, the squad racing to be in Binghamton before him, the rain steadily increasing as the Big One nears, rumors of war behind and before them, the question of whether Jim will save his son, can his sister Merry protect him if Jim gets there late. The tension is heightened by the moments of random violence they encounter--fights breaking out aboard ship, attacks by bandits, a running game of Russian roulette.
But Lost Everything aims for much more than simply narrative suspense. With its sharp focus on a handful of characters and they way it examines their past lives, past relationships, past decisions, as well as the way it gives us insight into their hope and/or despair with regard to the future, it is a more character-driven story than a plot-driven one, one that though it has a basic storyline, meanders at a more leisurely pace. This is what I was referring to when I called its more quiet nature both strength and weakness. Some will find that meandering overly slow I'm guessing, will want to just cut through all or most of these backstories and relationship stories and get back to the gunfights and chase scenes. Personally, while I did think there were a few pacing issues, I felt myself thoroughly immersed in the elegiac, introspective nature of the story and was mostly content to let it carry me wherever the story drifted.
Give the book 70 or so pages. If you find yourself impatient, it's probably not going to be for you, as the start is more linear and focused than the rest. But if you don't mind the narrator's digressions, the more poetic passages and moments of stillness, settle in and enjoy yourself. You'll be well rewarded.