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Review: A History of the Future by James Howard Kunstler

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And so we find ourselves once more visiting the quaint, upstate New York town of Union Grove, as the Christmas season gets underway. Since A History of the Future is the third novel in James Howard Kunstler’s A World Made by Hand series, there are no plastic Santas, electric Christmas lights or endless airings of It’s A Wonderful Life on everyone’s TV. No one will be glued to the tube to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, because the other shoe dropped years ago, when we ran out of cheap oil, the world was beset with wars and rumours of wars, and all the comforts and conceits of the cheap-oil era went the way of the dinosaurs.

In this world, there is no TV anymore. No gas, no internet, no jet travel. Welcome to Union Grove, Kunstler’s post-oil, post-iPhone vision of small-town America, in which the world has become a much larger place, the idea of a “global village” left to the dustbin of history. I happened to drive 40 minutes last night from Glens Falls to Greenwich, NY (the town Union Grove is loosely based on), a trip that I would have had to make on foot or horseback if I lived in the world Kunstler has created, and it would have taken days to get there, not 40 minutes. That’s how it will be after The Long Emergency plays out, and with ISIS bearing down on Iraq’s capital city as I write this, I wonder how soon it will be before Kunstler’s fictional War in the Holy Land becomes real history unfolding before our eyes. (I am a faithful follower of Kunstler’s weekly blog Clusterfuck Nation, which more and more seems like the Pre-History of the Future to the world of Union Grove.)

Opening up A History of the Future, I was delighted to visit the town of Union Grove once again. Kunstler deftly weaves together numerous storylines that have been developing over the course of the series, and we learn, finally, the truth about what happened between the world we live in right now and the world Kunstler first revealed in A World Made by Hand and further developed in The Witch of Hebron. All Union Grove’s notable personages are here, from the carpenter and default leader Robert Earle and the truly fascinating religious leader Brother Jobe, to the wealthy, powerful and somewhat scary plantation owner Stephen Bullock (did you hear what Bullock did to them fellers that broke into his place?).

Kunstler’s facility in bringing these very different characters to life is a genuine joy to experience. Booklist’s review of the novel, to be released this September, notes Kunstler’s “increasing literary finesse,” and while the author’s extensive exploration of this environment and its inhabitants may play a role in just how smoothly and delightfully this narrative goes down (it’s a true page-turner with many, many pleasures to behold), I have to say I had a similar thought while I was reading the book. I’ve admired Kunstler’s prose both fictional and non for over two decades now, but A History of the Future is a new high-water mark in showing off his gifts for storytelling, structure and character.

And what a story it is. Lots of things happen to lots of people here, not all of them pleasant or cheery, but the core of the narrative is right there in the title; Robert Earle’s son Daniel miraculously reappears after two years lost out there in what’s left of America, and over the course of the novel he lays out his long, harrowing journey; it’s a trek into the heart of Bible Belt darkness, in which Earle the Younger encounters the leader of the Foxfire Republic, in the personage of former country singer turned racist political leader Loving Morrow (perhaps the greatest character name in modern fiction).

Loving Morrow isn’t just a two-dimensional Tea Party satire, though. Kunstler paints her with nuance and complexity, so much so that by the time her story reached its climactic moment, I felt genuine sympathy and perhaps a little pity for her, despite the fact that she is unquestionably a monster of the most vile kind. The relationship that develops between Daniel Earle and the Republic’s Leading Light (Praise her!) is a highlight of the novel, and its ultimate resolution was one of the most compelling moments I’ve found in fiction in years. Just brilliant stuff.

There’s lots of other joys to be found in Union Grove at Christmas. Brother Jobe and his brethren have opened up an actual tavern with food and drink for the townspeople, and I found myself cheering inwardly at how something that would be so mundane in our time seems such a noble accomplishment in the new times Kunstler is documenting.

I don’t know if I’ve used the term “post-apocalyptic idyll” before to describe this series of novels, but that’s the best way I can explain the genre Kunstler has created. In other hands this would be hard-boiled sci-fi with terminators roaming the landscape, but Kunstler’s rumination on our nearly inevitable, tragic and bucolic near-future is so far above such facile ideas.

I recommend this series of novels to anyone interested in current events, the course the world inevitably seems to be sliding toward, or great fiction in general. By now the residents of Union Grove seem as real to me as the people next-door. I love them and care about them and want very badly to know what happens next in Union Grove. Happily, I am informed there will be a fourth novel in the series, so I’ll get to find out. Unhappily, I am going to have to wait a while for Kunstler to write it.

The publisher provided a copy for the purpose of review. Pre-order A History of the Future from Amazon.comYou can listen to my most recent radio interview with James Howard Kunstler here.

The KunstlerCast: Conversations with James Howard Kunstler

I am jealous of hell of author Duncan Crary. Might as well admit it right up front.

In my 25 years in radio, I interviewed Jim Kunstler maybe a dozen times, usually short chats to get a sound bite for a news story about local development issues in the Albany/Saratoga Springs/Glens Falls, New York area that I spent my entire radio career broadcasting in and around. A couple of times I did longer interviews with Kunstler, the author of a number of brilliant books about culture and cultural collapse, including the non-fiction landmarks The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency, and a pair of hugely entertaining and thought-provoking novels, World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron. A year ago, I profiled his appearance at a local book fair. I admit it, I enjoy reading Kunstler’s writing, and I enjoy picking his brain every chance I get. But Crary is the visionary broadcaster who got the idea to sit down with him week-in and week-out for a wildly entertaining and informative podcast, The KunstlerCast

In Crary’s deceptively compact new book of the same name, you’ll find the ultimate primer to everything Kunstler, as the author has mined scores of the duo’s podcasts to create an indispensable document of James Howard Kunstler’s personal history, philosophy, observations and predictions.

Crary doesn’t put on kid gloves in their interviews, for example tackling head-on the popular perception that Kunstler was wrong about Y2K (he wasn’t; it could have been a global catastrophe, but because it was a comprehensible, solvable problem, the disaster was averted). There are even a few passages where the pair don’t seem quite simpatico on some issue or other, and Kunstler’s bristling fairly electrifies the page. He’s a crusty curmudgeon, as readers of his weekly Clusterfuck Nation blog no doubt are aware, but Kunstler’s sharp edges are greatly mitigated by the fact that he is a blunt, no-bullshit observer of our times and our culture, and the book nicely encapsulates just why I’ve held JHK in very high esteem over the past couple of decades.  

Readers new to Kunstler will come away with a much better picture of his place in our culture. He is frequently dismissed as a “doom-and-gloom naysayer,” but it’s impossible to come away from these discussions with Crary without understanding in full that Kunstler believes once we get past the long emergency we are now fully engaged in, we could come out of it on the other side with a better world, operating at a more human scale, with smarter priorities and strategies for living. In fact, we have no choice, if the human race is to continue. The Happy Motoring Era, as Kunstler calls the past century-plus of cheap energy and cheaper lifestyles, is now racing so quickly to its conclusion that we are all dizzy from the ride and no longer able to deny that we see where this is all going. There can be imagined no better map and guide than The KunstlerCast book. Stick one in your go-bag and take it on the road with you in your inevitable post-apocalyptic trek through the wasteland that was once America. Let it keep you company as you Occupy your hometown. Put it on the shelves with the rest of your intelligent, forward-looking and wickedly funny books. But whatever you do, buy it and read it. You’re lost without it.

James Howard Kunstler Headlines The Chronicle’s Fall Book Fair

The Chronicle is a popular free weekly newspaper published in Glens Falls, New York, and every year they hold a Fall Book Fair celebrating local and regional authors in particular and the joys of reading in general.



This year’s highlighted guest was Saratoga Springs-based author James Howard Kunstler, reading three scenes from his new novel The Witch of Hebron, which I reviewed in August. Kunstler chose the three scenes well, starting with the comical but foreboding meeting of the supernatural evangelist Brother Jobe and the psychopathic, self-aggrandizing cowboy/thug Billy Bones, moving on to the strange and disturbing interlude between Jobe and the “Queen Bee” Mary Beth Ivanhoe (picture Jabba the Hutt as a resentful, suckling mother to four newborn babies) and wrapping it up with the masterful morning-after confrontation between well-off plantation boss Stephen Bullock and his hapless home invader Jason Hammershield, in which Bullock plays with his prey like a cat toying with a mouse with three broken legs.



Kunstler’s reading of all these dialogue-heavy scenes was dynamic, knowing and witty, utilizing character voices and mannerisms that made immersion into the world of The Witch of Hebron an easy and indulgent pleasure. Kunstler’s spent years with these characters now, knows them inside and out, and performs their roles with a masterful and mischievous facility.

Kunstler also brought the audience up to date on recent events in what he calls The Long Emergency, the confluence of events such as Peak Oil, climate change and the economic “frauds and swindles,” as he puts it, that are rapidly bringing society as we know it to the brink of irrevocable change. Kunstler has for years been talking about the many global difficulties that we are staring down the barrel (and/or in complete, befuddling denial) of, and noted that all these elements seem to be in a horse race to see which one will finally bring the curtain down on Life As We Know It. He said that there was a time when it might have been possible to direct enormous amounts of capital toward such solutions as overhauling the nation’s rail system and focusing on alternative energy sources, but said that with the astonishing amount of wealth that has been lost in the past few years, and continues to “leave the room,” any realistic hope of continuing to live as we have for the past few decades is long gone.

Despite that, Kunstler said that many lay their hopes for continuing our “Happy Motoring” lifestyle on what he calls “technograndiosity,” the idea that somehow, in a manner not yet outlined by any reliable source, our fossil fuel-dependent lifestyle will continue on for many decades yet to come, thanks to a vaguely-defined rescue at the hands of technology. I was tempted to chime in that we have multiple generations that believe in the myth of the flying car and refuse to give up the idea that we’ll always have individual, motorized vehicles that will take us from Point A to Point B, always with increasing speed and efficiency, when the more likely scenario is that we’ll be out of gas and out of our cars long before the roads being built and re-built with squandered “stimulus” funds break down into thousand-mile-long snakes made of broken chunks of pavement, mocking our arrogance and our short-sightedness.

As always, Kunstler reflected on the upside of The Long Emergency, decades down the line, when communities have by necessity become radically downsized and profoundly local. This was brought home in the reading of the Bullock/Hammershield scene, when Bullock describes the local delicacies like homemade cornbread and “Duanesburg cheddar,” an example of the canny way in which Kunstler demonstrates how a downsized society might also take great hedonistic joy in the pleasures of life that our Cheeze Doodle and Chicken McNugget world has all but lost.



I felt a bit stalkerish both asking the first question of the Q&A following the reading and requesting a photo of the two of us, but this is the third time I have interviewed or otherwise covered James Howard Kunstler in the past decade, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get my picture taken with my favourite living author (thanks to my wife Lora for taking the picture).

My experience of Kunstler and his writing is that he has always been ahead of the curve in predicting social change, from his reflections on the disastrous effects of suburban living in The Geography of Nowhere to his ahead-of-their-time warnings about Peak Oil in The Long Emergency, and that was evident in one of the questioners in the Q&A, who seemed shocked that Kunstler gives the American Way of Life (“non-negotiable,” you’ll recall Dick Cheney calling it) perhaps another decade at best. The questioner seemed to feel that American ingenuity and the desire to overcome the challenges upon us now and in the very near future will be enough to sustain us for decades to come. Given that there is virtually no acknowledgment of Peak Oil at the highest levels of government, that, as Kunstler noted, four of the incoming Republicans on the Congressional Climate Change Committee are staunch Climate Change deniers, and that there’s no viable proposal on the table that might salvage our savaged economy, I personally think ten years is an enormously optimistic estimate for how much longer our Wal-Mart and NASCAR-obsessed society gets to continue to pretend that it’s not all dropping rapidly down the shitter.

The Long Emergency has been upon us for a few years now, but it has only just begun. It was wonderful to get to see and talk to James Howard Kunstler about these and other issues today; I had perhaps the most fun I’ve had all year. But it really gives one pause to think there were people in the audience still buying into The Psychology of Previous Investment. Perhaps it won’t come as a surprise to you that that particular gentleman had an infant on his lap, when he told Kunstler he thinks society has much more than ten years left on its dance card. He has every reason to want to hope that life as he has known it will continue and that his little one will grow up with the same privileges, benefits and potentialities that he did. But he might better raise his child to understand that, no matter how badly Dick Cheney might wish it, or say he does, anyway, the American Way of Life is not permanent, the center cannot hold. “Things change, it’s scientific,” as David Byrne once cannily noted. Where’s your flying car? It’s a distant dream long faded into the rear-view mirror, as soon will be the non-flying variety. Enjoy it while it lasts, because it’s already over, we just haven’t realized it yet.

Read my 2007 interview with James Howard Kunstler.

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