Anthropologists open Pandora’s box in South Dakota.
First-novelist Johnson, author of one of last year’s most impressive story collections (Emporium), has his wry way with the ecosystem, the breakdown of law, frontier universities, families, and other complexities in this very busy, highly original, largely entertaining, and occasionally maddening take on environmental disaster. Tenured but shaky one-book wonder Hank Hannah, professor of anthropology, fitfully labors in the spectacular disorder of his collected samples of ice cores, atmospheric layers, and other snips of the universe at the University of Southwestern South Dakota. Pining for his late stepmother, lazily lusting after Trudy, one of his two prize grad students, going not much of anywhere in his study of the early American Clovis people who may have wiped out most of the hemisphere’s megafauna twelve millennia ago, Hank more or less oversees the studies of Eggers, his other grad student. Eggers has wowed the anthropological community with his ambitious doctoral project, a year spent living with nothing but Clovis technology right in the middle of the otherwise featureless campus-on-the-steppe. Clad in fur clothing of his own tailoring, chowing down on the campus squirrels, scratching constantly from plagues of worms and insects, Eggers, the child of billionaires, has continued his studies alongside the conventional student body, and in so doing has unearthed the supreme rarity: a Clovis burial site on the fringe of one of those unspeakably garish Indian casinos. Interrupted by, among other things, an attack of Pomeranians, Trudy and Hank assist with the dig, eventually unearthing all of the troubles of the world. No kidding. A prize pig will be murdered, Hank will become gobsmacked by love for a Siberian plant paleontologist, Trudy will sink two automobiles, the Pomeranians will become sled dogs, and Hank will go to federal prison on the way to the Apocalypse. Johnson manages somehow to squeeze in some very tender observations about childhood and loss in the midst of this weird and ominous avalanche.
Maybe overwriting is the only way to handle the end of civilization. Seems to work here.