For 25 years, a hippie commune has survived in a fold of the Sierra Nevada, growing wine grapes and marijuana, dealing with the outside world through intermediaries, unmapped and almost undocumented, wanting only to be left alone. But the world has stopped cooperating. A power plant is being built, with a dam that will flood the valley, drown the vineyard. The land is leased from the federal government, and an eviction notice has just arrived.
The hippies, unsuited for life anywhere else, are terrified--none more so than their leader, Priest, who used to be an L.A. street hoodlum. Running from the law in 1972, he found refuge in the woods among people with names like Star and Flower and Poem. But what can they do? Only a recent arrival, Melanie, who happens to have been married to a seismologist who “knew more than anyone else in the world about the San Andreas fault,” has an idea.
“No one can cause an earthquake,” Priest objects. “It would take such an enormous amount of energy.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” says Melanie, bitter at society because of the pollution that has given her little boy life-threatening allergies. “It might take only a small amount of energy, if the force was applied in just the right place.”
So plans are made, and “The Hammer of Eden,” Ken Follett’s latest thriller, rumbles into action. The hippies announce anonymously that they will trigger earthquakes unless all power-plant construction in California ceases. The FBI starts investigating the threat. Meanwhile, Priest goes to Texas and steals a seismic vibrator--a giant, truck-mounted jackhammer of the kind oil companies use to map underground formations.
A test run in the Owens Valley works beautifully. The vibrator thumps the earth at a point where, according to data Melanie has stolen from her ex-husband, Michael Quercus, a fault is under maximum stress. Voila! A quake.
Mechanically, “The Hammer of Eden” is a model of how a thriller ought to be written. Follett (“Eye of the Needle,” “On Wings of Eagles”) keeps it crisp and ratchets up the tension even in minor scenes, such as when Priest has to ingratiate himself with the oil exploration crew that has the vibrator. Time speeds up (as indicated by the section titles: “Four Weeks,” “Seven Days” and “Forty-eight Hours”) as the danger escalates: The target of the second quake is a small town; of the third, San Francisco.
The adversaries too are interestingly matched. Priest’s advantage is that the world doesn’t know he and his followers exist. They have left no mark on written or electronic records for a quarter-century. But living in a time warp also has drawbacks--he has no idea, for instance, how quickly modern police can trace a phone call. And Priest, despite great charisma and a high IQ, can’t read or write.
FBI Agent Judy Maddox has access to computer databases, SWAT teams, psycholinguists who can profile a person from a few recorded words--plus Quercus, with whom she falls in love. But she is young, female, a minority (half Vietnamese) and frustrated by an old-boy network in the agency that is only slowly being replaced by people like her--"fit, hard-working, well dressed, honest, and smart, the smartest young people in America.”
A thriller, though, is more than mechanics. It should also have a meaning, and what does “The Hammer of Eden” mean? We’re supposed to be alarmed that terrorists could do so much harm in such a cheap, easy way. But are we also supposed to see ourselves in danger from--in contrast to, say, the billionaire eco-fanatics in Tom Clancy’s “Rainbow Six"--forlorn bands of leftover flower children?
No, Follett chose his hippies to make Maddox’s task as difficult as possible. The trouble is that we sympathize with them more than he’d like. How else can they save their commune? Even Maddox, raiding the place, feels “a sense of spiritual peace.” Should we be glad that modern technology enables her to track down anyone, no matter how isolated and nonconformist? Some will find that scarier than a quake.
Realizing this, Follett has no choice but to make Priest a Charles Manson figure, a psychopath whose better side proves to be a veneer that peels off and reveals the manipulator, the street rat he has always been. His followers are ignorant, weak or deluded. Since Tom Robbins’ “Another Roadside Attraction"--remember when hippies were the smartest young people in America?--we’ve come a long, peculiar way.