World Made By Hand
High gas prices, the war in Iraq, the tremulous stock market: Complain all you want, but these troubling times are doing their part to fuel post-apocalyptic literature. Unlike the bleakness of style and subject in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, James Howard Kunstler's World Made by Hand is an end-of-days novel that is more a pleasure than a burden to read; it frightens without becoming ridiculously nightmarish, it cautions without being too judgmental, and it offers glimmers of hope we don't have to read between the lines to comprehend.
After the collapse of civilization--due to a mishmash of problems ranging from environmental carelessness to geopolitical conflicts with the Middle East--the upstate New York town of Union Grove becomes one of the last remaining outposts of the concept formerly known as human society. Like ye olden days, Americans barter with each other for ransacked goods, live off the land, attend festivals where hot dogs are a delicacy, get high--not only is marijuana legal, but it grows in the wild--and speculate about the state of the outside world. The paragon of Kunstler's neo-feudal society is Robert, a former corporate hotshot who lost his family to a plague and quickly becomes one of the town's leaders.
Even after the end of the world, though, things can still go all to hell. A fundamentalist sect rolls into Union Grove and tries to assert control over the community--in one instance assaulting people on the street and forcing them to cut their shaggy beards. A murder committed by a corrupt general-store manager forces the community to re-establish law and order. A rescue mission to Albany proves that civilization isn't any more civilized outside the confines of Union Grove.
If World Made by Hand's conclusion feels anti-climactic, it's only because we've been trained to expect nothing but the worst from end-of-days literature. All the novel's crises are solved or tempered, and there is none of the conclusive desperation you'd expect from this genre. Kunstler feels more concerned with the technical processes of a post-apocalyptic life than in its dark existential ramifications.
There comes a point at which cautionary novels slap us in the face so many times that we become numb to any awareness. How refreshing then that Kunstler's tame contribution to the genre reads more like a calm, after-supper conversation between Mama and Papa about the end of the world--and how to survive it.