A grim post-collapse novel in which vagrants ride the rails in a ransacked American West.
In Goral’s dark and moving debut novel, main character Billy observes at one point, “It’s broken. The country’s broken.” Once, it was a “shining city on a hill,” but then financial ruin, crop failure and a series of environmental disasters combined to destroy the whole infrastructure, dispossessing millions and handing control over what was left to the ominous Department of Public Safety. The child of a vicious, abusive father in “a small provincial town in the northern wastes,” Billy had been an environmental science major in Seattle. He’s still smarting from the death of his saintly brother Alec. In the wake of the floods, fires, tornadoes and food shortages that brought America to its knees, Billy now rides the “high line,” the railways of a suddenly barbaric American wasteland full of armed camps and savage marauding bands. Sometimes there’s a show of kindness, especially from his fellow travelers, like no-nonsense Jill, who chides him, “If somebody on the road offers you something, for god’s sake, take it....You might be the only person I’ve ever met who could die of manners.” Billy has struck out from his small town, and he’s warily but readily accepted by a group of varied wanderers. “You’re welcome to travel with us as long as you like” one of them laconically tells him. “If whatever you’re runnin from starts catchin up, though, I’d appreciate a word.” Through abandoned farms and lines of empty cars sitting motionlessly on cracking highways, Billy encounters a changed world presented in sparse and utterly convincing detail by Goral, who expertly contrasts the cynicism of most survivors (one of them tells Billy the new millennium “ain’t for the faint hearted”) with Billy’s battered sense of hope. In one tense encounter after another, Goral creates a bleak and convincingly realized post-apocalypse for all the readers who made Cormac McCarthy’s The Road such a success.
A first-rate dystopian-America novel.