Martin’s 12th novel (Facing Rushmore, 2005, etc.) tracks the exploits of a self-proclaimed king and his followers in a post-apocalyptic America.
Mary and husband John are up a tree, their sanctuary from a monstrous feral pig. Welcome to America after the “calamity,” brought on by the disappearance of oil and the collapse of banks. Mary and John used to have it good in the Washington suburbs; poet John was also a professor. Now half the population is dead from starvation; marauding bands terrify the survivors; and the rich have withdrawn to heavily guarded enclaves. Mary is a 42-year-old Lakota Indian; the older John is Irish-American. They have only survived by giving everything away. But wait! John dreams of a king who will save them all, and the skeletal couple walk to Washington to find him. It doesn’t take long. John spots him, mobbed by admirers, stringing up dead politicians outside the White House. He has achieved local fame by liberating warehouses and organizing food-distribution networks. His name is Tazza, and with his green eyes and swarthy skin, he’s a hunk. John, teeming with ideas, becomes his adviser, nudging him toward kingship; when the unarmed Tazza confronts and then enlists the most vicious marauders as his guards, that’s it, he’s king. Mary, breaking her blood pledge to John that she would never cheat on him, becomes Tazza’s lover and gives birth to David, who will be raised as the future king. Then—surprise—U.S. Army tanks appear on the streets. Who’s in charge? We never find out, for this is a novel of surfaces. Martin plays with plot twists and then moves on. After losing many supporters to the tanks, Tazza concedes defeat and begins a trek westward, turning from nonviolence to brutal reprisals against nonbelievers in his royal mission. Yet through it all Tazza is dull and synthetic, the hole at the heart of the novel.
Covering well-trodden ground, Martin’s attempts at novelty (a king as leader, Canadians as our worst enemies) seem merely capricious.