Saturday, July 10, 2010

Book Review: 'Through Darkest America' by Neal Barrett, Jr.


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.

2 comments:

Will Errickson said...

I haven't though of Neal Barrett, Jr. in *years*. I read THE HEREAFTER GANG when it came out. Don't recall a thing about it, alas, nor ever seeing another book by him. Weird how some people just fall through the cracks.

Anonymous said...

Biting Dog Publications has released Through Darkest America, and Dawn's Uncertain Light by Neal Barrett Jr in ebook format, available at all major ebook retailers.

Through Darkest America

Post Apocalypse America
Bluevale was about all Howie had seen of the world.
Even his Pa, who knew everything, didn’t know much about the way it was before the war.
Scriptures said all of the unclean animals had been wiped out. Howie didn’t know what that meant exactly. He’d seen horses. And stock of course. Stock looked like humans.
‘Cept stock had no soul. That’s why they was meat.
Howie had a good life for a boy. Then the soldiers came. And what they did to his folks made him grow up right quick. He got his revenge—‘cept now the whole darn army was after him. But he had a huge country to run across…and lots of miles to stay alive.
Includes new bonus chapter!

Dawn's Uncertain Light

*Sequel to Through Darkest America
After The Fall...
America's Great Dream is over. Centuries ago it was devastated by the ultimate war. The effects still linger.
Food is scarce, water even scarcer and human compassion nowhere to be found. Even so, society is slowly rebuilding itself.
But is it a society whose thirst for success is built on an enormous , barbaric lie:

Silver Island
...an almost legendary place to most Americans.
The citadel where the government is building a new and better nation from the ashes of the war-ravaged land. Everyone envies the few children who are chosen to be sent to Silver Island to help realize that dream.

At least, that's what Howie Ryder was told when his little sister became one of the Chosen. And that's what he believed before the soldiers slaughtered his parents.

Six years on, Howie has discovered the horrifying truth about Silver Island. And will do anything -- anything -- to rescue his sister from it's grip...

A Day At The Fair (A free short story)

Off to the south you could see 'em---two big Portugees floatin' high and slow, flat-looking bodies all pearly blue in the sun. They weren't real hungry, or looking for anything special, just drifting along, trailing their stingers like long rags of rain 'gainst the ground..


Available at all major ebook retailers!