Tuesday, February 19, 2013

So Depressing it Could be a Post-Apocalyptic Nightmare but it Isn't

I'm working on a new genre category in which to place Andrew Smith's In the Path of Falling Objects. Apocalyptorical Fiction? Dystopical Fiction?

This novel, an earlier offering by the author of The Marbury Lens, features a bleak, empty landscape populated with the desperate and violent fringes of humanity. It has a lot in common with post-apocalyptic fables like Cormac McCarthy's The Road. But this novel is not set in some near future that has suffered an environmental or nuclear holocaust, showing us a world devastated by human stupidity. Instead it is set in the very familiar American Southwest and not in the future at all, but in the recent past, in the 1960s.

The story is of three brothers who have grown up in abject poverty in New Mexico and have, by the novel's opening, been abandoned by their parents. Their father, a heroine addict, is in prison and their mother has run off with a boyfriend. The oldest brother, Matthew, has enlisted and been sent to the war in Viet Nam. The other two boys, Jonah and Simon, both teenagers, fearing that they will be placed into foster programs and separated, set off on horseback to meet their father when he is released from an Arizona prison.

Soon into the trip, the boys' horse dies and eventually the boys are picked up by a couple, Mitch and Lily, travelling to California in Lincoln. Lily is beautiful and young and enticing. Mitch is odd and, Jonah realizes almost immediately, potentially violent. As they travel, Simon attaches himself to Mitch and Jonah falls for Lily who turns out to be pregnant. The boys' sibling rivalry grows into hatred and eventually, both they and Mitch grow increasingly violent.

This agonizing narrative is punctuated with letters from Matthew describing his experiences as a soldier in Nam, the violence their, the madness of jungle warfare, his dreams of escape.

Especially through the first half of the book, the narrative is so relentlessly bleak it's almost unbearable. If you take on this novel, be rest assured that Jonah, Simon and Lily, besides realizing their deep feelings for each other do eventually find human who exhibit human traits of empathy, generosity and general kindness, some of whom even help them face down the murderously insane Mitch. I wouldn't hold out for a completely happy ending, though.

Historical fiction is often interesting for what it says about the present, rather than what it says about the past. Many views of the 1960s emphasize the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll social rebellion of the time--not always happy stories, but often exuberant ones. Perhaps our depressed economy and ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan suggested to Smith this alternative view of that storied decade.

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