Thursday, February 19, 2015

American Neolithic by Terence Hawkins

Several years ago a I wrote a review for Lives of the Monster Dogs, an odd, wonderful book that exists somewhere at the corner of speculative fiction and social critique. As a strange coincidence, Terence Hawkins reached out to me with a copy of his book, American Neolithic, after having read that review. American Neolithic, he explained, was inspired in part by the writing of Kristin Bakis and her Monster Dogs book.

American Neolithic is equally peculiar and wonderful in its premise: in a near future police state where a theologically tinged Homeland Security has supreme control over civil liberties and the court system, Raleigh, a jaded lawyer with a cynical, old-school sensibility and an affinity for lost cause cases, gets drawn into a high-profile murder case involving hip hop artist Newton Galileo and the member of his entourage left holding the gun -- Blingbling, a guy everyone thinks of as a half-witted dupe.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Blingbling is really an honest-to-God Neanderthal, one of the last of a band of Neanderthals secretly surviving in hiding on the lower east side of Manhattan.

I have to say, I didn't think I would enjoy this book. I've gotten a little burned out on dark, dystopian futures, and not even run-of-the-mill versions that populate mediocre YA and genre fiction. I recently finished Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, which is just fantastic, and Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation, a twisted, weird, and liberating mix of Lovecraft, psychological horror, and environmental dystopia. I felt like I had my fill of the dark possible futures where we've all gone wrong because we can't seem to get it together-- whether that is the environment, our science, or a political trainwreck of a future not too far off from where we are now.

And that's just what kind of future American Neolithic gives its reader: if you're even somewhat politically astute, this dystopian future where Homeland Security usurps the rule of law, where Constitutional rights are suspended because "National Interest!," and lawmakers use the political system to try to deny the reality of scientific facts right in front of their faces-- well, the fiction of American Neolithic doesn't feel beyond the pale, and maybe not even that far off.

Two things changed my mind about this book though, two things which make any book a pleasure to read: First, the writing-- Hawkins has a deft hand with satire, which keeps the book fun and sharp. He also churns up a heady mix of genres-- legal drama, social satire, dystopian speculative fiction -- all of which play well together on the page, shifting back and forth to keep the narrative moving forward.

But most of all, the characters shine here. The two central figures rise above the novel itself-- Blingbling, a poet at heart, unmoved by extreme circumstance, not out of ignorance but out of a deep, genetic-level hope that sustains him through each and every bleak situation he describes, and Raleigh, a protagonist in the classic mold of the cynic who hopes to be proven wrong-- it's these two that I will think of long after I've put down this book.

And every time I'm confronted by some event or action in the world that would seem to crush the faith I have in our ability to set a path far from the many imagined dystopian futures I've read, I'll think of Raleigh, but more especially of Blingbling, and hope we have one tenth the humanity this beautiful nonhuman expresses here in American Neolithic.

As I said at the beginning of this review, this is a peculiar book, and maybe not a great fit for this blog-- I don't know that I would have read it when I was a teen. But it's well worth reading.

You can order it through your local independent bookstore or find it online here.

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