James Howard Kunstler is best known for nonfiction writing in which he speculates about whether or not “peak oil” has been reached and how an ever-decreasing oil supply might impact society from that point onward. Kunstler’s nonfiction paints a gruesome picture of what life will be like when there is no more oil to be had and he places that scenario in the relatively near future. I’m not particularly inclined to agree with what Kunstler has to say in his role of gloom and doom prophet, but I did enjoy World Made by Hand, the novel based upon his predictions of what is to come.
World Made by Hand, and the post-apocalyptic world Kunstler has created within it, can certainly be challenged as to the likelihood that a gradually disappearing oil supply would ever create such a drastic societal change. But if one reads the novel as simply a depiction of one of an infinite number of possible futures for this country, it starts to resemble science fiction and can be a good bit of fun.
The novel is set in Union Grove, New York, a little Adirondack community peopled by survivors of a series of catastrophes that have devastated the United States over the last decade. They have survived a major flu epidemic that seems to have wiped out a huge segment of the population, nuclear explosions in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, and the complete disappearance of the crude oil supply that made their former lifestyle possible. They have created their own little world, one without contact with anyone much more than thirty miles in any direction, and they have settled into a relatively apathetic new existence of making-do and doing-without.
The Union Grove area is already home to three separate groups when what appears to be a fundamentalist Christian sect searching for a new home suddenly appears in town, buys the old high school, and begins to create a new home for itself there. The townspeople themselves are, for the most part, people who had formerly lived a middle-class, white-collar lifestyle. There is also a self-sustaining group living a serf-like existence on a large paternalistic farm where they give up much of their independence in exchange for better food and a few of the luxuries, like electricity, that have disappeared elsewhere in the area. And there is a lawless group, living in trailers and whatever other shelter they can throw together on the edge of town, that is headed up by a ruthless leader determined to take from those weaker than himself whatever he needs or wants.
When conflict and violence threaten the citizens of Union Grove, distrust of outsiders has to be set aside and new alliances formed if any semblance of an orderly society is to survive there. World Made by Hand is the story of good people forced to adapt in ways they never expected to have to adapt, and not all of the changes pertain to their physical lifestyles. They are also challenged to change their whole concept of right and wrong, their willingness to use whatever force is necessary to protect themselves, and the way that they see their place in this diminished world.
Kunstler has created a post-apocalyptic world that still offers hope to those determined to live a moral life under such changed circumstances. His novel maintains a realistic atmosphere throughout until his unfortunate decision near the very end to give it a touch of the supernatural, a change of tone that largely diminishes the novel that it could have been. Whether or not Kunstler was having difficulty finding an ending for his book or not is only something he can answer, but his decision to end it the way he did, with a Cormac-McCarthy-meets-Stephen-King ending, was so jarring to me that I rated the novel a full point lower than I otherwise would have. That said, this one was still a good bit of fun.
Rated at: 3.0