Jim Kunstler's new novel World Made By Hand is a tale of a former software company exec dealing with his small piece of a world in collapse. He lives in a small town in upstate New York, a community that has been ravaged by disease, cut off from reliable communications as transportation networks have collapsed and slunk into lassitude. Into this isolated world comes a band of refugees, what would have been dismissed as a religous cult in pre-Collapse times, and then commences the tale of how one man, Robert Earle, begins the long, hard work of building something new on the ruins of the old world - a world darker, more dangerous and more violent than anything he ever knew as a younger man. World Made By Hand deals as much with the psychology of hope and the frictions and comfort of small town life as it does with the violence ever-present in this new era. There is a lyricism to his words that can be haunting and much of what is left unsaid looms large in the reader's mind.
There is not as much "backstory" as I would like - but then again I am a sci-fi fan and have always enjoyed tales of collapse and catastrophe. That's not the point of this novel. Kunstler, in my reading, is trying to specifically avoid falling into this sort of "doomer porn" niche fiction and build a story that illustrates how hope, love, jealousy, anger and hard work will play out in this new world.
Coming from a small town, I can relate somewhat to much of what Kunstler describes - how the once-solid infrastructure of small-town America might be rebuilt - but that it will not be easy and small town life, while it may have many benefits, is not a utopia by any means.
I don't want to give away any plot spoilers, so I'll relate my views of some of the characters.
Robert Earle - I found myself coming to like the main protagonist. It took awhile. He seems to walk in a fog of sadness at first, gets a bit preachy and carries around some vague sort of generational guilt associated with the crash. That said, you can understand his mindset a bit and it is refreshing to watch him break out of his lassitude.
Wayne Karp - A former truck driver who has found a position of power in this new world. I liked him. I know people like him - men whom post-modern society has condemned to the margins of society, men who will be tossed in jail for fighting, drugs and other petty crimes. Kunstler avoids the easy stereotypes and cliches (well, until that final gruesome scene - I'll let you be the judge there) and Karp comes across as a hard-ass, but in his own way he is a leader of a community that is trying to salvage something from the ruins. In world where the networks of authority are much looser, the raw talents of violence, charisma and leadership shine through. He's a small-scale Napoleon, given his chance to shine in a different kind of revolution. He takes his power too far though...
Brother Jobe - A religous leader trying to do right by his flock. Kunstler had a chance to really fall back on cliches and sterotypes with Brother Jobe as well - and didn't. Here we have a complex character who has kept his sense of humor in the face of all that has been lost.
Stephen Bullock -I liked his character as well. Here we have someone who was wealthy in the pre-Collapse world, but who saw what was coming and prepared for it - and remained wealthy and important as the collapse rolled over the country. He is driven, intelligent and does right by his people. The fact that he is laying the groundwork for a new feudalism can be seen - and everyone involved knows it. That said, he is offering a sense of purpose and security in a world with little enough of both. A fascinating man.
There are many others that shine through in this tale - Loren, Jane Ann, Britney - and they are well done. Others serve as spear-carriers or snapshots of Kunstler's animus against car culture. One of my favorites was the old man who has kept his car functioning in the face of the end of the petroleum era. There was a sort of Ayn Rand feel to these slivers of the story (and I mean that in a good way - one of the things she did very well in Atlas Shrugged were these one or two page out-takes that had a very real, very human feel to them, used to illustrate a point). I was pleased with the characterization and pacing. Kunstler weaves his tapestry well.
I give it an A-. This is an excellent story of a formerly upper middle class management-type and how he has adjusted to very "reduced circumstances" (in a strictly material sense).
The sense of sadness, loss and torpor can be cloying at times. I found myself wanting to yell at the book - "Come on! Get off your asses and save what you can!" Then I recalled the many stories out of the old Soviet Union and how many in the older generation never adapted to the fall of the USSR, that they would just sit there, sunk in dreams of the past, letting others pick up the pieces and build a new Russia. It does make me wonder what will happen to my fellow Americans when this debt-fueled, television-induced trance finally breaks during the coming storm. Many will not be emotionally or pschologically prepared to deal with it at all.
The story ends with an almost esoteric flavor to it. I took it as the hints of new path for human civilization, one that reaches deep into the mists of human experience for news ways to interpret nature and explore what talents the human race may have abandoned over the last few hundred years of focus on material, industrial civilization.
Buy it and read it. It is well worth the investment.