4 / 5 Stars
This paperback edition of Barrett’s novel 'Through Darkest America’ (1986) was published in 1988 (256 pp.) by Worldwide Library as part of its ‘Isaac Asimov Presents’ imprint. The cover art is by Vincent DiFate. The sequel is ‘Dawn’s Uncertain Light’ (1989).
The novel takes place in the US several centuries after World War Three has converted society to an agrarian level equivalent to that of the mid- 19th century.
Howie Ryder is a young boy growing up on a prosperous farm in the southeastern region of the country; he shares a home with his little sister Carolee, his mother Ev, and his father Milo. For Howie and his family life is good, despite the burdens of the weather and an economy beset by the existence of a war in the West, between the government and a force of rebels led by a man named Lathan. To fund the war, the government is increasing taxes on its farmers, something Howie’s father accepts only grudgingly.
The book’s major contrivance is that beeves have been replaced as a food animal by a race of simpleton humans, who are referred to as ‘livestock’. Cannibalism is seen as something perfectly ordinary and commonplace, as most of the continent’s animal population was eliminated by nuclear war. The shock value – if there is any – to this feature of the narrative wore off for me rather quickly, and I felt the book would not have suffered if Barrett had simply retained beeves as his livestock of choice.
In any event, Howie’s pastoral life comes to an abrupt halt when the government decides to rely on harsh measures to exact tribute from its citizens. Howie finds himself the subject of a manhunt, and flees west to seek safety among the wastelands. But he soon finds that the West is no safer a place than any other part of the country, and sometimes a young man must do morally objectionable acts if he is to survive. Through various adventures Howie lands in the middle of the conflict between the rebels and the government, and his life will be in danger no matter which side he chooses.….
I found ‘Darkest America’ to be reminiscent in some ways of Leigh Brackett’s classic SF novel ‘The Long Tomorrow’ (1955) which also deals with a boy’s abrupt transition into adulthood when circumstances converge to force him to survive on his own in a hostile world where violence lurks just under the surface of society. Like Len Colter, Howie must learn the hard way as to how to negotiate a post-apocalyptic civilization, where those best able to scrounge for the artifacts of the dead can achieve the greatest power.
‘Darkest’ is of course much more violent, even gruesome, in its depiction of lawlessness and cruelty and is definitely not a novel for Young Adults. The novel is also much more cynical and downbeat than other examples of 80's post-apocalyptic fiction, such as Brin's 'The Postman' (1985), Graham's 'Down to a Sunless Sea' (1986), or Strieber and Kunetka's 'Warday' (1984).
The narrative consistently moves at a quick pace, sending Howie into one dire situation after another, culminating in a final 40 pages that are truly suspenseful and worthy of the term ‘page turner’.
Fans of post-apocalyptic fiction with a unique Western flavor to it- think of a depraved Louis L'Amour novel- will want to have this book on their bookshelves.