James Howard Kunstler wrote several novels before this one, but it’s perhaps fair to say that he’s most famous for his non-fiction, in particular The Long Emergency, a book about why we’re living in the age of peak oil and what life will be like soon when energy is prohibitively expensive. Peak oil, which a 2006 article in Harper’s once described as a “left-wing Left Behind”, is an old idea which has gone sightly out of fashion since it was discovered that large reserves of oil could be had in the US heartland via hydraulic fracking, and that the US populace considers being able to set one’s tap water on fire a small price to pay for cheap, domestic, and “terror-free” oil. This is new technology, and just how much petrol can actually be extracted economically is an open question, but given that plenty of buyers appear to be willing to accept any cost to get it I’m sure that technological limits will continue to be pushed back. Personally, I feel Bill McKibben’s predictions of a multiple-metre rise in sea levels and multiple-degree increases in average temperatures happening this century if we burn all known reserves of oil make the question somewhat moot, but either way our lives will likely be changing drastically and what that might look like day to day is as much a question for novelists as anyone else.
This book is essentially a sequel to The Long Emergency, in which Kunstler’s various predictions have come to pass. We’re a few decades past the end of oil, high technology, and an effective government in the US, with no news of the world further afield. Our protagonist, formerly an executive for a Boston software firm, is now a carpenter living in his parents’ house in his small hometown in upstate New York. Money still exists, but people would rather barter, and trade with people beyond what was once a few hours’ drive is almost non-existent. The town still has a doctor and a few other skilled tradespeople like our carpenter who exchange their services for food and other goods, but generally speaking what Kunstler calls the “egalitarian pretences of the high-octane decades” is a distant memory and most people are peasants working for those landowners who managed to adapt to the changing times. I’m sure life without oil won’t be pretty at first, but this all verges on the misanthropic – and don’t even get me started on the roles of women in this book, although perhaps if you’re not yet fed up of reading books by older balding men about older balding men that young women keep throwing themselves at, it might annoy you less.
I picked this one up in order to see a novelist’s taken on life after oil, and by that measure the novel is not bad, although the light touch of magical intervention here and there was distracting. Whether or not you think we’ll run out of cheap energy in our lifetimes it’s an interesting intellectual exercise to think of what our lives would be like if we all forced to be truly self-sufficient.
PS: For the shape note geeks, this book name-drops a few songs: 50t Mortality, 567 The Great Day, and 178 Africa, plus Shiloh, another piece by the author of Africa which is not a traditional shape note song. Africa is a personal favourite, and I now feel like trying to learn Mortality with my local singing circle.