World Made by Hand
By James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press, 317 pages, $24
A number of brilliant commentators on American life and culture currently attend us on important matters ranging from food to medicine to politics, art and economics. I'm thinking of, among others, Michael Pollan, Andrew Weil, James Gordon, Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, Harold Bloom, David Brooks, Paul Samuelson and James Howard Kunstler. What is the difference among them, besides their subjects and their incisiveness about what we eat and how we live and how we choose our leaders? Most of them haven't written many novels, except Kunstler.
The New York City native began publishing fiction several decades ago, and then he found himself drawn to social criticism, which led him to write, using his novelist's sense of form and narrative skill, such well-regarded non-fiction books as "The Geography of Nowhere," "Home From Nowhere" and "The Long Emergency."
In his latest book, "World Made by Hand," Kunstler segues from his analysis of the possible effects of a decline in oil production on modern industrial society to a full-blown, and artfully carried out, semidystopic dramatization of what small-town American life might be like in the wake of major terrorist bombings and industrial decline on U.S. soil.
The setting is Union Grove, N.Y., a hamlet not far north of Albany, a few decades into our new century. As Robert Earle, the narrating protagonist of the book, points out, it doesn't do anyone any good to look back at all they have lost, which in Earle's case includes his wife and young daughter, both of whom died of illness, and his son, who gave in to teenage wanderlust in the post-industrial American landscape and has simply disappeared.
It's best to avoid nostalgia, Earle says, "because it could destroy you." A former software-company executive turned carpenter, Earle has come to terms with the disaster America has become, even enjoying the world without electricity and gasoline (Union Grove has running water, because of a gravity system that draws water from the nearby Hudson). He has a mistress, who happens to be the wife of his best friend, the local minister, and ekes out a living as a fisherman, barterer and handyman, a life he doesn't find distasteful or disappointing.
"The tranquility was pleasing," he says, "despite what it signified about what had happened to our society."
But things don't remain tranquil for long. Earle soon encounters a newly arrived preacher and some of his 70-plus followers, who have drifted up from Virginia; then comes a murder the Union Grove inhabitants are almost wholly incapable of dealing with; then a trip on horseback down to Albany (which Earle describes as having become once again "a frontier town") to search for some missing Union Grove boatmen and an ensuing shoot-em-up reminiscent of some of the material in Kunstler's earlier fiction about the first American frontier.
The stakes are raised even higher for Earle when his friends kick out the old do-nothing head of Union Grove and elect him mayor. He's reticent, but he also realizes "that somebody had to be responsible for things in town after years of apathy and paralysis, and that I was ready to try. I figured if I managed to accomplish the least little thing it would be an improvement over the current situation."
Well, things in Union Grove get worse before they improve, and certainly the world never returns to the level of technological accomplishment of our day.
But in the end, the beauty of Kunstler's brilliant cautionary fiction, aside from the charming narrative with its many convincing details of life after apocalypse, is that most readers will admit that Earle's world, the world made by hand, after all the terror bombs and bad actors and missing luxuries are dealt with, sounds at least as unpredictably pleasing as our own.
Alan Cheuse is a book commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered," a writing teacher at George Mason University and the author, most recently, of "The Fires," a book of two novellas.