Thursday, July 29, 2010

“The Unit”, by Terry DeHart (Orbit)

DeHart-TheUnitA bleak family tale in a Post-Apocalyptic America

Jerry Sharpe is an ex-marine and, for him, survival means protecting his family by any means necessary.

Susan is learning just how far a mother will go for her children. But how far will she go for a man she doubted before the bombs fell? As Jerry’s training and instincts take over, she is certain of one thing – her children need her.

Melanie was going to go to college. Now, she is struggling to find a way to live in a world gone mad without losing sight of what she believes in.

Scotty has a new mission – more than survival. He was saved, and he’ll be damned if he won’t fight for what’s right.

And Bill – Bill was locked up, but the power went out and the guards left. Now he and his fellow inmates have realised that everything is free for the taking... if you’re strong enough to hold on to it.

The background for the novel is only revealed piecemeal, so just a quick summary: Turns out, the US government has told the people that terrorist bombs were set off in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. This lead to intense panic, a “survivalist heaven”, and the obligatory all-guns-blazing US retaliation against seemingly everyone foreign. The cycle of death is begun,

“And then people went all to pieces. There were plenty of guns and not enough food, and so here we are.”

The Unit feels pretty much exactly as you would imagine a post-apocalyptic survival tale would feel: bleak, dangerous, depressing. The novel is good, and DeHart is a confident writer, but I’d be lying if I said I found it particularly innovative or original to begin with. It was a little dull, I’m afraid. Partly, this is because it wasn’t clear what was going on (where, for example, are they walking to, and why?). It’s also not clear if or when anything interesting is going to happen. This meant that I contemplated putting the book to one side, but I chose to stick with it. I’m not the biggest fan of the genre, you see, which I should say coloured my impression of the book as a whole.

The multiple, frequently changing perspectives did strange things to the narrative - slowing it here, speeding it up there, derailing it from time to time, but not hiding the lack of activity or events. Also, strangely for something written in the first-person, you're never given enough time to get to know the characters - which is why one's feelings are a little disconnected and not what one would expect (though still acute) when Melanie is put through possibly the worst treatment imaginable for a woman. Bill Jr acts tough and cold on the outside, wanting his band of lost boy “pirates” to fear him, but also keen on gaining respect and warring with his unexpected desire to get to know Melanie beyond the physical.

DeHart’s understanding of the human spirit and human nature is the strongest aspect of this book. It becomes clear that the multiple perspectives is a device to take a look at the various personality types and traits that come out when people face adversity and tragedy, not to mention delve into the misunderstandings, selfishness, and egoistic internal monologues of his characters. Some of our narrators rise to the challenges of post-apocalyptic America with a sense that is almost pleasure (Scott, and certainly Bill Jr.); others hold on to long-remembered mores of yesterday and perhaps faith (Melanie and Susan); while others just get the job done (Jerry particularly, and also Bill Snr.). As the story develops, however, the characters go through changes, a hardening. In the case of the family, they grow closer and there are a few touching scenes as they draw strength from each other to get through the latest trial they are confronted by; while still retaining certain conflicts (internal or external) that all families must deal with and work through.

Melanie, the daughter, is the “peacenik” idealist who was meant to go off to Berkeley (she’s the typical bleeding-heart liberal, almost - hater of guns and “neocons”). Melanie is a difficult character to like at the beginning – her stubborn liberal ideals were annoying and self-defeating, and made it hard to empathise as much as we were perhaps meant to (I don’t want to spoil it, but something terrible – yet predictable – happens to her pretty early on in the novel). What redeemed her in my eyes was her continued capacity to care for others, despite what she goes through.

Scott has become more gung-ho, with a furious familial loyalty -“There’s only love and family now, and I’ll blow the shit out of anyone who threatens us. It’s down to love and hate, baby, and I’ve never felt so alive.” Scott’s probably the most fun character, as the disaster seems to have awakened his inner survivalist: of his life before, he says,

“There wasn’t any real meaning at all, that I could see, so shoot me if I don’t hate this new world. At least this shit isn’t boring.”

It is somewhat heart-warming to see the family pull together as they go on, and there’s clear character development throughout the novel. This redeemed the book for me, but I still didn’t enjoy reading this as much as I had hoped. The tale’s just so bleak, with only some occasional black humour to provide ‘levity’. You won’t finish this novel happy – rather, you’ll probably close it hoping the apocalypse never comes, but still consider stocking up on canned goods and looking into a firearms training course...

There’s a Wild West feel to some locales – as if the United States has regressed to the wild, lawless mentality of pre-expansion (there’s even an old-style saloon featured in Virginia City, adding to the wagons west feel – if only for a short while).

If I wanted to be glib, I would say this is a more commercial The Road by Cormac McCarthy, only with appropriate use of language and proper spelling. Bill’s crew are like a post-apocalyptic Lord of the Flies-with-guns crew, devolving into their baser, animalistic instincts (faster than most, given their delinquent, juvenile offender nature). It’s a bleak, brutal, and rather depressing.

“A writer can entertain, pull readers away from their daily troubles into worlds of speculation and, hopefully, small truths.”

The author says this in the interview included at the end of the book. DeHart’s The Unit is high on uncomfortable truths, but a bit too bleak for me to provide too much entertainment.

The most depressing thing about the book – and where its power lies – is that it’s entirely believable that in a post-apocalyptic world, there will be pockets of “civilisation” – not just in America, but all over the world – that will become this bleak and brutal.

Plenty of action, some excellent analysis of the human condition and human nature, this should appeal to fans of the post-apocalyptic genre of science fiction.

For Fans of: Cormac McCarthy, Alden Bell, Dark Future, Mad Max, The Book of Eli

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