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.