In which unthinkable calamity propels a nation—and a family—into a rapidly imploding dystopia and slow-motion apocalypse.
It begins with what seems at first like a plane heading for the Golden Gate Bridge, except that it’s “too bright” to be a plane but more “like something cosmic come at high speed through the atmosphere.” Whatever it is, Skyler Wakefield, a 20-year-old college student and aspiring novelist, sees it shatter the bridge and bathe everything around it in near-blinding radioactive heat. Years after San Francisco and most of its inhabitants perish, America is a tense, fragmented society of colonies, territories, and prairie internment camps for Muslims. (Early reports alleged the words “Air Arabia” could be seen on the projectile that hit the bridge.) Skyler’s baby brother, Dorian, is 12 years old and haunted by dreams of a dead sister who the rest of his still-traumatized family insists never existed. Meanwhile, the family’s next-door neighbor, a 71-year-old veteran of something called Gulf War III, has made his way to one of the detention centers to adopt a Muslim orphan named Karim, who’s the same age as Dorian—who, as it happens, is cultivating a hard-core prejudice against Muslims. His impromptu expression of an ethnic slur at a backyard barbecue leads to a bloody fight between him and Karim. More grievances accumulate, leading to more bigotry and malign conspiracies on both sides of the American and Arab divide...and greater horrors to come. Hrbek’s (Destroy All Monsters, 2011, etc.) engagement with themes of loss and recovery and his vibrantly lyrical prose style reach a peak in this dark, allusive fantasy, which seems intended as a metaphor for the anxieties still lurking in our post–9/11 universe. As one of the book’s characters says, “What are we living in now, if not fear?” Which, as Hrbek implies (and FDR once famously proclaimed), may itself be a worse enemy than any other we can find, or contrive, for ourselves.
If you want a hint of where Hrbek is going, thematically, with this story, look to the title of a short story collection written about 80 years ago in an America far different from ours: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.