Wednesday, August 29, 2007

By Neal Barrett, Jr.

It’s not very often that a fiction writer can make me cringe. Very little of what makes its way into print is even a tithe of the awfulness that is splashed across headlines and that is usually watered down to meet the demands of a public that has no tolerance for news that might be upsetting.

But Neal Barrett, Jr. pulled it off here. There are lots of apocalypse tales that make the Apocalypse seem like not such a bad place. Sure, all that radiation killed off the weaklings, but a new race of übermenschen will arise and liquidate those pesky mutants. What’s to worry about? Mr. Barrett has a few suggestions of what you should worry about.

At first glance Through Darkest America might seem to be one of those cozy Apocalypse tales. America functions at a lower level, but not much lower than our pre-industrial past. Rape, murder, and torture inflicted by soldiers, outlaws, and warlord militias are pretty common, but that’s true of 21st century DR Congo. There are some unusually disturbing details to this new world, but Barrett’s protagonist, Howie, is such an earnest and engaging lad that one can’t help but identify with his world view.

In many ways Through Darkest America is much like a Western. Howie avenges a savage attack on his family and lights out for the Territories. He encounters outlaws, Johnny Rebs, and dance hall girls with hearts of gold in this off-kilter version of Huckleberry Finn. But Barrett only lets his readers go so far on that path before bringing them around to a very nasty elephant in the corner.

This is science fiction with guts. Barrett doesn’t mind launching brutal attacks on our deepest taboos about food and sex. Definitely not for the squeamish, if you want a cozy Apocalypse, look elsewhere.

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

I'm glad to hear this. I was just thinking about reading this. It's on top of my pile, but I was afraid it would be a humorous take on it, which Barrett sometimes does. This is next up on my list then.

Dave Hardy said...

I'll post my review of the sequel "Dawn's Uncertain Light" tomorrow. Not a lot of laughs there either. Good, though I'd say "Darkest America" is better.

pk said...

Excellent review, and it sounds just my speed. I probably never would have heard of it. I'm glad someone takes such care in reviewing books from the 80's, generally considered something of an SF wasteland. Or is that just me?

Dave Hardy said...

I'm happy to oblige when it comes to reviewing 20-year-old+ books. It's sort of my mission.

While there's always good new stuff, the old stuff is still enjoyable. When I find an author I like, I try to make his work better known. Barrett strikes me as someone who should have a wider audience.