A dark age

Emily Barton's novel "Brookland" was recently published in paperback.

JIM CRACE is among the most inventive writers working in English today, a talent that was recognized when he won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2000 for "Being Dead." "Quarantine," about Jesus' sojourn in the desert, and "Continent," a series of linked stories concerning a fictional continent, are among my favorite books by living authors, chiefly because of the breadth of Crace's creative intelligence. Although his writing can be uneven at times -- "Arcadia" and "Genesis" leave me cold -- a mind that could conceive of "The Gift of Stones," which dramatizes the transition from Stone Age to Bronze Age, is a unique and brilliant one.

Crace's gifts are lavishly on display in "The Pesthouse," set in the indefinite future in a United States so ravaged by industrialization and war that it has reverted to a new Dark Ages. (Margaret, one of the protagonists, recalls that "in the historic north of Ferrytown ... once there'd been -- or so tradition claimed -- a vast workshop that produced shoes in enormous numbers, though why people could not make shoes for themselves in their own homes was never clear to her.") When agriculture fails and epidemics break out, the able-bodied take on a grueling migration eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean, seeking a better life in the Old World and reversing the direction of prior American dreams.

One migrant, Franklin Lopez, who is nursing a knee injury, is left alone as his mean-spirited brother goes ahead to Ferrytown for provisions. Looking for shelter in the woods above the bustling town, Franklin stumbles across an isolated stone house. This is the pesthouse, to which Margaret has been exiled because she suffers from "the flux," a disease that, causing "black and livid spots" on the face and afflicting the armpits and groin "with boils as solid and large as goose eggs," appears to be bubonic plague.

Even with her shaved head (removing all body hair, as in Leviticus, is considered a remedy), Margaret is beautiful. Smitten, Franklin ignores the risk of contagion and seeks refuge in the pesthouse. When it becomes clear that something has gone awry in Ferrytown -- a noxious cloud rose from the lake, killing all the town's inhabitants -- the two set off together, ill and injured as they are, to join the eastward tide.

Franklin and Margaret are richly drawn. Franklin is a sentimental youth -- he enters the pesthouse and cares for Margaret, whose own family was too frightened of her illness to kiss her goodbye. His tougher brother scoffs at his "infuriating, girlish laugh." Yet Franklin shows fortitude in bringing Margaret past blighted Ferrytown to safety, and when he must slaughter a horse for food, he does so efficiently. Crace paints Margaret with similar nuance. She is marked but not defined by her illness, and when she encounters a brutally beaten dog along the road, she decides it would be "[b]etter to be ugly and unwomanly than to leave a loyal dog to suffer," grabs "a piece of tarry stone to finish what the rustlers must have started," and kills the animal. "It took three blows," Crace writes; the simplicity of that sentence belies the complexity of her response to the act.

Many of the joys of "The Pesthouse" reside in its muscular prose. Even in his less successful books, Crace writes a supple and expressive English sentence; here, his descriptive powers soar. The book is crammed with sharp, pleasingly unpleasant sensory details and harsh Anglo-Saxon words. The toxic cloud is particularly vivid, its odor "the smell of mushrooms, eggs, and rotting, clamped potatoes." Franklin describes the scent as "the chemicals of hell, the madman's belch." Crace is equally precise in writing about lovely things, such as Franklin's yearning to touch Margaret's shaved skull, imagining that "he could feel the first growth of her hair under his palm, more like the underbelly of a pup than like a peach skin."

At one level, "The Pesthouse" is a suspenseful road novel; when Franklin and Margaret become separated, it joins the ranks of tales in which women fend for themselves in the wilderness. (I admire two others: Marly Youmans' "Catherwood," in which a woman is lost in the woods of colonial Massachusetts, and Douglas Glover's "Elle," about a woman abandoned in 16th-century coastal Canada.) Margaret's solitary journey is gripping. When two would-be rapists chase her, they keep "to the edge of the trees, peering in among the trunks and pursing their lips to make those 'Come to me, cat' noises that men seem to think are flirty and seductive but that are menacing for women."

But at its heart, "The Pesthouse" is a meditation on deep questions about America: the costs of relentless expansion, the fate of a wasteful industrial society. Margaret encounters a sect that shelters only those willing to give up every piece of metal they own. As one member says, "Metal is the Devil's work. Metal is the cause of greed and war. In here we are, like air and water, without which none of us can live, the enemies of metal. Check your pockets. Shake out all your rust. Remove your shoes. Unlace your bags."

This seems a fitting denouement to our culture, as does Margaret and Franklin's journey through a forest of "mighty metal blocks" called, eerily, "the junkle." When they encounter their first highway, they are disturbed by its "symmetry and parallels" and by the road's "now damaged surface, much degraded by the weather and time, comprised mostly chips of stone, loose grit, and sticky black rubble, which only the toughest of plants -- knotweed, sagebrush, and thistle -- had succeeded in penetrating." I can easily imagine the ruins of New Jersey thus.

"The Pesthouse" is never funny, but Crace's mordant humor shines darkly, making it both provocative and winsome. "This used to be America," he writes, "this river crossing in the ten-month stretch of land, this sea-to-sea. It used to be the safest place on earth." There is great authority in such lines, and great provocation to thought.

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