"Every character has his or her own particular preoccupations and Zerndt handles them with aplomb, using his large cast to shine varied lights on the themes of family, grieving, and hope after loss."– Kirkus Reviews
In Zerndt’s (The Roadrunner Cafe, 2016, etc.) literary novel, three lost souls cling together in an angry Wisconsin town.
Orphaned Shawna Reynolds, who is Ojibwa, is a few years out of high school and desperate to get out of her hometown of Mercer, Wisconsin. She resents most white people, who’ve exhibited no shortage of racism. “The poor kid didn’t stand a chance,” thinks Shawna as she watches a young white boy fish with his father. “Whether he wanted to be or not, he was a racist-in-training. Half the kid’s heart was probably already polluted, and by the time he reached high school, his insides would be entirely black.” She gets on OK with her next-door neighbor Kay O’Brien, at least. Kay is mourning her recently deceased husband and worrying about her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. She mostly worries about what will happen to her son, who doesn’t yet know about the disease. That son, Douglas O’Brien, is doing his best to keep the family auto repair shop from going under, feeling responsible for the death of his father, hanging out with Shawna, and making drawings that nobody ever sees in his sketchbook. The three form a moody family unit of sorts, attempting to protect one another from the rest of the world, but when a local dispute over fishing rights turns into a larger conflict about race, the wounds that each of them has been nursing threaten to rupture. Zerndt’s prose is smooth and matter-of-fact: “As they waited at a stoplight in town, Shawna found herself staring at a fire hydrant. It resembled a little girl in a red coat, and, for some reason, this little girl looked to Shawna like she was about to jump off the sidewalk into traffic.” Kay and Douglas are compelling characters, but Shawna steals the show with her frank declarations and hard-bitten worldview. Engaging from the first chapter, the trio propels the reader through a meandering plot that neither shies away from timely issues nor drifts too far into despair. By the end of it, the reader is left with that wonderful sense of having truly been somewhere else for a little while.
A moving, character-driven tale of the limits of bitterness and regret.
Two brothers deal with a totalitarian water emergency in this debut YA sci-fi eco-fantasy.
In a near future of permanent worldwide drought, Oregon has had no rain for a year and suffers drastic shortages of water and food. After the disappearance of their mother, Margaret, a poet, and father, Richard, a scientist working on cloud seeding, 18-year-old Thomas Banks and his 9-year-old brother, Dustin, join the water-patrol, where they hand out tickets for resource-wasting infractions such as failing to recycle urine, growing vegetables indoors, taking baths rather than wiping down with towelettes, and pirating scant renewable electricity. Complicating their duties is Thomas’ girlfriend, Jerusha, whom he can’t bring himself to turn in despite her being a bootlegger with a “water-brewing system” that condenses atmospheric moisture for sale on the black market. For no compelling reason, Thomas, Jerusha, and Dustin set out on a car trip to California through a desiccated landscape scoured by dust storms and brutal water cops. Along the road, they meet a car repairman with information about Richard and join a group of “Leftovers,” misfits who break the rules by digging wells, growing produce, and drinking goat milk. Alas, the police raid their idyllic camp and haul Thomas and Dustin to a “rehabilitation facility” for a baffling (and somewhat tiresome) coercive regimen: They are plied with fresh water and rare delicacies like pizza and orange juice while starving inmates watch; then their food and water are cut off; then a guard threatens to torture Dustin unless Thomas divulges secrets from Richard’s weather research. Zerndt’s dystopian yarn gives a sinister twist to environmental dogmas, making sustainability slogans like “Go Green 4 Life” the rhetorical facade of an Orwellian police state. But like many such novels, this hit-and-miss book suffers from haphazard plotting and an imagined society that makes little sense except to adolescents who think the adult world is nothing but an arbitrary power play. Thomas and Jerusha spend much time on quasi-parental fretting over Dustin’s emotional well-being, which often slows the narrative to a crawl. Still, the author’s prose is well-crafted and evocative—“The hills look like shriveled up nut-sacks, and I can barely see what’s left of the beach with all the dust tornadoeing around”—and her characters are intriguing enough to make readers sympathize with their parched predicament.
An atmospheric but squishy tale of a thirsty American dictatorship.
A former record executive, a young administrator, and two American expatriates cross paths teaching English in South Korea in 2002.
In this novel, Zerndt (The Tree Poachers and Other Stories, 2016, etc.) switches among three narrators: Moon, who left a high-powered job in the music industry to deal with his alcoholism; Yun-ji, who works and goes to school, dreaming of opening her own internet cafe; and Billie, an American, who, along with her boyfriend, Joe, has come to South Korea to teach English in the school where Moon and Yun-ji work. The three interact frequently, but remain in their own worlds, never learning that although their backgrounds are different, they are united by ambivalent feelings about parenthood and a complicated relationship with alcohol. The main characters’ story arcs take place against a backdrop of tense relations between the United States and South Korea following the killing of two young girls by an American tank—Billie and Yun-ji become pregnant, Moon takes music lessons from Joe and develops a relationship with his toddler son, and Billie and Joe’s deceptions cause problems for their overseas adventure. The story is a quiet one, with most of the narrative taking place within the characters’ minds, but the interpersonal conflicts are sharply realized, driving the plot and bringing the narrative to life. The prose is mixed, sprinkled with clever turns of phrase (“She was a striking woman, though. And by ‘striking’ I mean she had the air of someone who might just hit you if you so much as looked at her the wrong way”) and burdened with choppy sentences and fragments (“Pusan National University. That was where Moon had met his wife. She’d been taking classes to be a nurse. The first time he saw her was at a bus stop”). But the characters are thoroughly engrossing—even self-centered Billie becomes sympathetic as she struggles to connect with a classroom of rambunctious children—and readers will likely keep turning pages to find out what happens in the book’s emotionally satisfying conclusion.
An engaging, character-driven tale set in South Korea.