I first learned of James Howard Kunstler back in the 1990s when a friend sent me a galley copy of Home From Nowhere. That nonfiction book was a revelation, explaining why suburban sprawl is depressing and more traditional architecture and urban development is not (in other words, why I had chosen to live in Old Town Key West instead of Weston). I feel a little reactionary about it and I’m not against everything modern but in the Jane Jacobs / Le Corbusier divide, I’m on Jane’s side all the way. I noted that Kunstler was, at that point, primarily a novelist but was grateful that he had chosen to write, and write well, about urban planning, a subject in which I have always taken a small but persistent geeky interest. *
Since then, I have followed Kunstler’s career as a polemicist about the coming post-oil world — which he thinks is coming a lot sooner than the rest of us are prepared for — and occasionally looked in on his blog (which has the endearing name of Clusterf**k Nation). But I had never read any of his fiction. Until recently, when dystopia became a topic of interest. Not just because of earthquakes, volcanoes and oil spills although that certainly all seems to make one think post-apocalyptically. And my sister mentioned she had been reading Kunstler’s novel World Made By Hand. So I ordered it up via interlibrary loan (thanks again, Alachua County!).
The story is set in an unspecified but obviously near future, when America has essentially fallen apart and reverted to a pre-industrial society after oil wars, nuclear bombs and a lethal flu epidemic. The setting is Union Grove, New York, an upstate small town that has survived better than most but is starting to fall apart.
As I started the book, I found the exposition a bit heavyhanded — it was nice to learn what had happened to the world I knew, but it didn’t make sense for the narrator to be explaining it all. Soon enough, though, I was caught up in the story and I wound up reading it in one giant gulp — I love it when you catch a wave on a book like that (it helped that it was a Sunday of a holiday weekend) and it was especially nice after my recent reading experience. I had trouble catching on with The Difference Engine and I’m reading American Gods according to the One Book One Twitter schedule, which is two to three chapters a week.
One thing Kunstler does especially well is capture both the attractions and the difficulties of a post-industrial society, where you grow and make the things you eat and use. I felt this same pull of longing at the end of Julian Barnes’ satirical England, England, where England has devolved into a similar state. Maybe it reminded me a bit of my rural childhood where my family did grow food and put up preserves and raise sheep and make clothes and know how to build a lot of things. But Kunstler is also realistic about the problems of life without clean water, power, antibiotics, a reliable system of law enforcement and justice, etc. Lots to think about, and a good story to carry you along. I’m giving it four stars.
A sequel called The Witch of Hebron is being published in September and I happened to snag a galley copy of that the other day, and I’ll be reading that, too. Not sure if I have the fortitude to take on Kunstler’s most recent nonfiction, The Long Emergency. It’s weak and probably dumb to practice denial when you live on a low-lying island at the end of a 120-mile road smack in the middle of Hurricane Alley. I know this. I just don’t know what I can do beyond vote for the right people and practice my own minor acts of sustainability like riding my bike and recycling and drying the clothes on a rack instead of the dryer. I know I should think about these things more and make my opinions heard, but I also know that if I engage I will start feeling simultaneously responsible, enraged and powerless — which is no way to live and a big reason I left journalism.
Speaking of denial, in case anyone is wondering what’s up with the music video it’s obviously not directly connected but you have to love the Flight of the Conchords take on futurism — especially the binary solo, which appears here in the credits. This might be playing the acoustic guitar while the Gulf of Mexico burns, but so be it.
* Stealing a move from Citizen Reader here and adding a footnote for something too long to include in the mainbar — one of my favorite parts of Home From Nowhere is the two theories proposed by California architect Peter Calthorpe for why midcentury development got so damned ugly. Theory 1, the Stroke Theory: During World War II, the entire Western world went through such trauma that we, as a society, suffered the civic equivalent of a stroke and couldn’t get it together to use our brains and hearts on this stuff so we just threw up a bunch of ugly, junky crap. Theory 2, the Stupor Theory: During World War II, G.I.’s had the adventures of their lives (at least the ones who survived) and when they returned their everyday lives were so stultifying and depressing by contrast that they spent the rest of their adult lives drunk and just threw up a bunch of ugly, junky crap. Either one works for me.