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.