A Book for the Times: World Made by Hand

For many years now, curmudgeon-blogger-painter-author James Howard Kunstler has been predicting the downfall of America’s vast consumer society in stark terms, in his non-fiction books (like his 2006 The Long Emergency) and on his iconic blog, Clusterfuck Nation. Read Kunstler for a couple of weeks, and he will piss you off. Read him for a few months, and you’ll question the financial underpinnings of the western world – some of the verities slowly begin to fray. Two months ago, for example, Kunstler posted a typical essay called “The Coming Re-Becoming” that factored the assumptions we Americans make for our strength and general well-being in the alleys and by-ways of sheer luck:

Everywhere you turn in this nation, you see a society primed for implosion. We seem unaware how extraordinary the American experience has been, especially in the last hundred years. By this, I don’t mean that we are a better people than any other society — these days, ordinary people in the USA make an effort to appear thuggish and act surly, as though we were a nation of convicts — but for decade-upon-decade, we were very fortunate. Even the Great Depression of the 1930s may seem like a relatively peaceful and gentle “time out” from a frantic era of hypertrophic growth, compared to the storm we’re sailing into now.

Fortunate, indeed – and now that the entire financial system is shaking, I’d like to recommend Kunstler’s 10th novel, World Made by Hand, a sharp cinematic imagining on everyday American life after the failure of the energy grid.

I read the book between trips upstate this summer, which was perfectly appropriate, as World Made by Hand unfolds in the sleepy town of Union Grove, New York along the Hudson River north of Albany – a region down on its economic luck even before the apocalyptic events hinted at in Kunstler’s tale. But as Robert Earle, a former software engineer, attempts to balance his base own survival with more human pursuits in a town edging toward violence and anarchy, we glimpse that world through his eyes.

The New York State Thruway as a walking trail. Abandoned strip malls, gas stations, and shopping outlets. The absence of mass media, except for the occasional Bible-thumping when the power cranks the radio back on. The real meaning of horsepower. In short, it’s like a field trip to an Amish village or a 19th century agrarian recreation – but littered with carcasses of automobiles, commerce, mass production and media. The Hudson is again the super-highway it was when the French and British fought for it. All food is produced locally. Drugs are scarce to non-existent, and contagion sweeps away whole generations. Recycling isn’t a feel-good fad – it’s survival. And violence in the absence of real law threatens the last of civilization.

The people in World Made by Hand are thin; they’re hungry, sure – but there’s not too much meat to their characters, either. Women fare the worst: feminism has not survived, and they are reduced either to a means of production or sad, wandering specters. The men aren’t much better, because life has become cheapened and introspection has as much validity as 50-inch Trinitron.

The most affecting character is the cultish preacher Brother Jobe who comes to town to build a new community of believers, only to find personal tragedy. Jobe has seen trouble all over the east coast, and knows that his chances in upstate New York are his last; although things are bad, they’re not as bad as elsewhere – there are terrorist bombs and lynch mobs across the land. The failed nation is rarely addressed directly, but unfolds in conversation – like this one between Earle and his new live-in lover, a young widow of Union Grove’s increasing violence:

“The world has become such a wicked place,” she said quietly, just a statement of fact

“There’s goodness here too.”

“Where is it?”

“In all the abiding virtues. Love, bravery, patience, honesty, justice, generosity, kindness. Beauty too. Mostly love.”

“I’m afraid sometimes that we drove those things out of existence.”

“No, we carry them in our hearts. They’re always with us.”

“I don’t know what’s in my heart anymore. It’s too dark to see.”

“Light follows darkness.”

To a writer and soap-box shouter like Kunstler, World Made by Hand is not so much of a warning as a promise. Yet, you can also sense a yearning from the author – who lives, after all, in Sarasota Springs – for a return to that earlier time. Indeed, there are portions of the new life in Union Grove that are admirable; the reliance on a communitarian movement for survival is one. A closer tie to the means of food production is another. You get the feeling the author himself thinks he might do well in the reinvention years he hints at in economic/political blog posts circa 2008.

This economic spasm is a result of the credit explosion in all its variety and complexity and derivation. Kunstler’s bleak future stems from energy policy. Yet the events of these last two weeks can be tucked neatly into the back story for World Made by Hand. It’s a good read. And it sure as hell beats watching the Dow or sorting through the bailout paperwork.