I think there is something like an inverse square rule at work here between one’s familiarity with Southern Gothic (or Western/Appalachian morality tales more broadly) and enjoyment of The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell. Or maybe it’s a bell curve, but I think there is a relationship. My knowledge of these things is limited – I had a shattering, eye-opening affair with Flannery O’Connor in my youth, and read The Road along with every other housewife on the planet, hit some of the short fictions, but I can only cast my eyes down and mumble when it comes to Faulkner, Welty, anything else by McCarthy, et freaking cetera.
So I know the genre exists, and I can nod my head when the tropes come up – the Faulknerian idiot man-child, the Old Testament vengeance, clannish hillfolk, the echoing Southern plantation with its fragile social/racial politics, the land, the land, the la-an-and – but I’m not so familiar that I kept tying the string to the push-pins in a hundred other fictions. And this seems to be the sticking point for more genre-versed readers; the line between allusive and derivative is thin and personal. I don’t know how this would read to someone who was slate-blank – and, by the by, just because this has a young adult protagonist does not mean it is a young adult novel at all; the sensibility is seriously wrong for that – but I’m guessing much at work here would perplex. So, bell curve. Maybe.
I’m using genre in its little-g sense – this isn’t a Genre exercise – despite the zombies. The novel opens with Temple, a teenager who has only known a wasted, apocalyptic America, trailing her feet in the water on her lonely island. She watches the minnows play in the water like light themselves, like the trout in the stream that close McCarthy’s own American end times. Then a jawless animated corpse washes up on the beach (whose head she caves with a rock she leaves as marker, his body bumping in the surf) and Temple knows it’s time to move on or be overrun. She swims ashore and begins moving through a series of communities and the wild.
This is why I say it isn’t genre: if you want to start nit-picking about how roads would be broken to crumble, or kudzu would have finally strangled every living thing without 25 years of human intervention, or no car would ever work, then you are in the wrong novel. This is a book that starts with, “God is a slick god. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.” We are solidly on metaphysical terrain here – do not look for science in your fiction lest you disappoint yourself for no good reason. This is the South of St Flannery of the Knife. The moral’s gonna hurt, and it might not even be a moral.
Temple herself is a fearsome creature, the inheritor of the character of generations of knowing, savage girls born onto dirt farms to absent mamas and even more absent fathers: the girl from True Grit, Ree from Winter’s Bone (whom I only know from the movie, of course), or even Katniss Everdeen. She’s comfortable, almost easy with the dead (if she could ever be said to be easy). She has a naturalist’s respect for their ethical simplicity. The living are always more the puzzle, and after an incident in an itchy, confining survivor community, she becomes locked into a vengeance plot with a taciturn, honor-bound old cuss. She runs, and Lord, can she run.
The man is old enough to remember the world that was, before the dead crawled out of their graves to put the modern world down. As someone who was raised mostly parentless, feral, living in drains, I wouldn’t have expected Temple to be so morally central – all these honorable and ethical knowings passing between her and the man, their truths in short, truth-felt lines to one another – but then I need to take my own advice about the metaphysical terrain. Temple is what is left when the lights go out on our civilization. She doesn’t need to be taught the theology of the American landscape – that is inherent, and inheritable, in the end. She’s like a child of the Reconstruction come forward, or likely she never left.
Though not written in dialect – and thank God for that – there are the dialectic cadences that worked for me, and a stripped down punctuation I thought was apt. The lack of quotation marks was especially cool, and made the care taken toward dialogue more noticeable – if you can’t just throw quotes around it, you make sure it’s easy to tell who is speaking. Again, I could probably just gesture to McCarthy, so derivative or allusive – that’s your call. I really enjoyed this, even though it’s occasionally overheated, it’s sentences portentous and overmuch. But I’m a sucker for that long slow pan of the American heart and soul, the road and train and feet on the pavement. Amen. The End.