World Made by Hand (Book Review) by jgn on Saturday, February 23, 2008 in Reading and Reviews

James Howard Kunstler, World Made by Hand (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008). [Amazon ]

James Kunstler's novel World Made by Hand is about the end of the world as we know it; it's a must-read, and I hope everyone I know reads it so we can have a big argument about it!

In the near future (by around 2015, it would seem) both Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. are destroyed by nuclear weapons. As a consequence of this, oil no longer flows to the USA, and therefore fertilizers, insecticides, plastics, petroleum-fueled vehicles, and, generally, modern life, are all swiftly defunct. The power grid comes on only a half-hour a day; the only radio transmissions are the rantings of preachers. The Internet has become a fairy tale.

The story focuses on a small upstate New York town that has the good fortune to have its water supply gravity-fed, and to be populated by a number of residents skilled in the essentials of nineteenth-century living: a doctor, a dentist, a minister, a carpenter, etc. Despite the great changes in the world, they live on. Their population has been decimated though, from flu and encephilitus.

The novel explores the kinds of groups that populate this new world. There are roughly six factions: First there are the townspeople: the remnants of a middle class and "normal" life: the novel is narrated by Robert Earle, who was once a manager at a Boston-based high tech firm. Robert has lost his family to illness. Then there is a Mr. Bullock, who is a de facto plantation master, whose peasants work for him in exchange for stability and a top-down collective economy; Bullock has accomplished some remarkable things, such as getting a small hydro generator going. Another group is the hive-like New Faith Brotherhood, led by Brother Jobe -- they've arrived recently from Pennsylvania, which they have fled due to race-based fighting among the refuges from D.C. and Baltimore. Wayne Karp is the top dog in Karpstown, a loose-knit cabal of scavengers who live near the town dump, which they excavate for spare parts from the past. Further afield in Albany is Mr. Curry, who runs the docks. Finally, there are those who live outside these groups in isolation.

What Kunstler does is spin these characters and groups into a ripping yarn that wouldn't be out of place in a nineteenth-century novel by Twain or Dickens. There are a couple of levels to this: At the level of individual characters, the novel is a bit of a soap opera, with hair-raising escapes, romance, sentimentality, tears and even some laughs. All this will keep you turning the page. There's also some solid scene-painting of the post-oil remnants:

The once meticulously groomed grounds of the state capitol building, an impressive limestone heap in the Second Empire style, were now choked with box elders, sumacs, and other woody shrubs. Knapweed, vetch, and blue chicory sprouted from the cracks between the broad front steps where a few ill-nourished layabouts sat listlessly surveying the scene. Inside the grand old building, every surface had been stripped down to the bare masonry. Carpets, draperies, chestnut wainscoting, metal fixtures, all gone, probably long gone. The stink of urine and excrement told the rest of the story. I would have turned and left had I not heard a familiar tapping sound seeming to come from distantly above somewhere up the southeast stairs. (p. 166) On another level, though, he's posing a great sociological question: Can civilization survive after this disaster? What combinations of these groups might balance one another into a kind of stability? It's a little hard to know how serious Kunstler is in this orchestration, because the last few chapters of the novel veer into some weird territory. But I don't want to give away the ending. For exploring social organization through fiction, he's right up there with Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein, and I'm a sucker for this kind of speculative fiction that works its way through problems via believable characters.

Some readers are going to wonder how the world could go to pieces so quickly after the destruction of two cities. After all, the United States has recently suffered the partial destruction of New Orleans, an important port city. But Kunstler knows whereof he speaks: He's the author of an important book The Long Emergency , which is about the consequences of " peak oil," that moment when the maximum rate of oil extraction is reached, and it becomes increasingly hard to get it out of the ground and run society. If even 1/10 of what Kunstler reports in The Long Emergency comes to pass, then the story of World Made by Hand won't be fiction, it will be fact.

Kunstler was born in the late 40s, so he came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. One thing that amused me . . . somewhat . . . is that once the power goes off, people revert to a stereotype of . . . hippies! There's a lot of pot-smoking, long hair, and mate-swapping; taste in music tends towards folk. A brief mention is made of "Smells like Teen Spirit," but the characters in the novel make fun of it. I wondered at times if Kunstler was having a bit of satire with his melodrama.

But this is just quibbling. It's a good book, and if you believe "it can't happen here," then go read The Long Emergency as a followup.

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