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"The Pest House" | An unlikely Adam and Eve set out in a ravaged America
Special to The Seattle Times
"The Pest House"
by Jim Crace
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday,
255 pp., $24.95
It says something about America when a book as dark as "The Road," Cormac McCarthy's archetypal, apocalyptic novel, becomes both an Oprah pick and the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. Apparently, the effects of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina and the threat of global warming have cast a pall over our "have-stuff" era. McCarthy shines a light on the hidden fears lurking behind our power and prosperity.
But wait, the fun isn't over yet. Now comes a second novel, "The Pesthouse," from another important writer who also imagines our nation's catastrophic decline. Less spare and more idiosyncratic, this new book risks being swamped in the tsunami of publicity for "The Road." And that would be a shame, because "The Pesthouse" boasts three noteworthy features that McCarthy's story lacks: women characters, a smooth landing and some sly humor to leaven the bleakness. If for no other reason, read it to compare.
As with "The Road," "The Pesthouse" never names what hit us. Spinning ahead a century or more, the decimation and depopulation seem to be less the result of a single cataclysmic event than an unrelenting decline brought on by environmental degradation and human folly.
For whatever reason, the collapse of the economic and social order is complete: Our great cities and once-mighty industrial base have disappeared, leaving only the rubble of interstate highways and rusting machinery. Smoky fires and lanterns have replaced the electrical grid. Superstition and illiteracy are the coin of the realm.
The book opens with a geological event — some sort of tectonic plate shift that's inexplicable to the uneducated denizens of this post-apocalyptic world. It squeezes the oxygen out of a riverside settlement called Ferrytown, leaving two survivors in the "pesthouse" on the hill.
It's long past "that healthy time, that time of remedies and cures," which suggests that our intellectual and technical knowledge evaporated even more quickly and completely than the material signs of past glory. Margaret, a 31-year-old, near-sighted spinster, is a victim of a contagious disease known as "the flux." Shaved head-to-toe to identify her as an outcast, she has been banished to the pesthouse to recover or die.
Franklin Lopez, a blushing, bearded teenager en route from the heartland to the sea, finds her there when he seeks shelter from a storm.
His destination is not the Pacific, however. Mocking the "Go west, young man!" imperatives of the 19th century, Crace makes him part of a mass migration to the Eastern seaboard and the promise of ships that will reverse the tide of Europeans who once came here in search of a better life.
The two survivors agree to make the journey together. The risks are daunting: Food is scarce, and thieves are rampant. But it seems the only choice, and Margaret's shaved head will scare off some bad actors. So they set out through a retrograde frontier, pushing a wheelbarrow of provisions.
The settler imagery is deliberate, reminding us of the contrast between the dark ages of Crace's near-future and America when it was a stew-pot of hope and optimism.
The couple meets up with some fellow travelers, including a sniveling, thieving older pair who desert their granddaughter — that's the new America. Margaret, who is "knotted from strong twine" takes the baby girl as her own; Franklin, kinder than he is tough, is captured and enslaved by a marauding band that teaches him the skill to survive.
Crace, a Brit, paints the picture of the brutal, survival-of-the-fittest world in which Margaret and Franklin stand out — each, notably chaste and innocent at the start (she with no body hair!), progresses on a defining journey that will yield courage and wisdom.
Each is an archetype. Together, they become a latter-day Adam and Eve — and "The Pesthouse" becomes a quintessential American story.
Ellen Emry Heltzel is a writer based in Portland, Ore. Her blog can be found at www.thebookbabes.com.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company