Fantastic Reviews - Science Fiction Book Review
Summer of the Apocalypse cover The Road by Cormac McCarthy & Summer of the Apocalypse by James Van Pelt
Cormac McCarthy - The Road
Alfred A. Knopf hardcover - 241 pages
Rating: 4/10  (Not Bad, But Not Recommended)

James Van Pelt - Summer of the Apocalypse
Fairwood Press trade paperback - 255 pages
Rating: 8/10  (Highly Recommended)

books copyright 2006, reviewed June 2007

Review by Aaron Hughes
The Road cover

          The Road by Cormac McCarthy recently won the Pulitzer Prize and was selected for Oprah Winfrey's book club, unprecedented treatment for a science fiction novel.  As a devoted science fiction reader, I suppose I should be happy with any acknowledgment SF can get from the literary mainstream, but I am unable to take much pleasure in the critical success of The Road.  The accolades were possible only because the book was not published within the science fiction and fantasy genre, and Cormac McCarthy was already widely renowned in the mainstream.  All too many mainstream critics and readers are willing to take a book like The Road seriously, yet still ignore everything published in the SF/F genre, based on their assumption that the writing skills of genre authors remain below the level of more heralded authors like McCarthy.

This assumption is false.  Today, the best writers in the science fiction and fantasy genre are equal or superior to their mainstream colleagues at the craft of writing.  To illustrate the point, compare The Road with Summer of the Apocalypse by James Van Pelt.  These two novels share a strikingly similar premise: an older man and young companion(s) travel on foot over a derelict highway through a ruined America.  Consistent with Cormac McCarthy's sterling literary reputation, The Road won the Pulitzer Prize and has spent much of the past year on all the national best-seller lists.  In contrast, as befits James Van Pelt's lowly status as a mid-list writer in the science fiction genre, Summer of the Apocalypse was entirely ignored by the mainstream press.

Yet Summer of the Apocalypse is the far better novel.  The writing of Summer of the Apocalypse is subtle where The Road is only brash.  Summer of the Apocalypse develops believable, three-dimensional characters; the characters in The Road are nameless (literally) figureheads.  In The Road, Cormac McCarthy attempts to compensate for awkward writing, lack of characterization, and an aimless plot by dazzling readers with the utter bleakness of his vision of the future.  Summer of the Apocalypse is also very bleak at times, but in the framework of a compelling story.

The Road is the dismal story of a father and son, walking together through a world that has been almost entirely obliterated.  McCarthy never tells us what caused the devastation, although he hints at a nuclear war.  Nearly everything has burned and the sky has turned permanently gray, presumably by nuclear winter, although the characters in the book are strangely unconcerned about radiation poisoning.

Nothing will grow, and so most of the few remaining survivors have stayed alive only by cannibalism.  The man and his son have not resorted to this, so they face a constant struggle to find shelter and food enough to keep themselves alive while avoiding their dangerous fellow survivors.  Horribly, the cannibals often do not kill their victims right away, but capture them and eat them one body part at a time for weeks or months on end.  (This begs the obvious question, what do they feed their captives and why don't they just eat that? McCarthy does not say.)

The Road succeeds in two respects.  First, McCarthy is very clever with his choices of words.  He describes a burned-out landscape as a "cauterized terrain" blown by "secular winds."  The impenetrable night is the "cold autistic dark."  Second, McCarthy accomplishes his goal of conveying an almost unthinkably miserable future.  He does this with such gruesome imagery, such as the sight of an infant being roasted on a spit, that one wonders if he has plans to become a splatterpunk horror writer.  In The Road, McCarthy very convincingly demonstrates that it would really suck if the world were destroyed...but perhaps you already knew that.

The Road is not so stylistically excessive as some of McCarthy's past works, yet I still find his writing annoyingly self-conscious.  McCarthy drops all quotation marks and most (but curiously not all) apostrophes.  He writes in sentence fragments by needlessly omitting verbs or changing them to gerunds.  When he does write a grammatically correct sentence, it is often deliberately but pointlessly awkward: "The snow fell, nor did it cease to fall."  None of this is in service of the story, it is simply an affect, an unsubtle and unwelcome reminder of the author's presence.

The Road should be a heart-wrenching struggle to survive, but it is written in a way that interferes with our connection to the characters.  This is partly because the story is so unrelentingly dismal and hopeless that it is hard for our sympathies to gain any traction.  The greater problem, however, is that McCarthy is too obvious in pulling the characters' strings.  For instance, he tells us that the man and the boy are alone because the boy's mother committed suicide, unable to face this devastated world any longer.  But in the single flashback to the mother making this terrible choice, all McCarthy gives us is a transparent mouthpiece for his own rambling philosophical musings:

They say that women dream of danger to those in their care and men of danger to themselves.  But I dont dream at all.  You say you cant?  Then dont do it.  That's all.  Because I am done with my own whorish heart and I have been for a long time.  You talk about taking a stand but there is no stand to take.  My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born so dont ask for sorrow now.  There is none.  Maybe you'll be good at this.  I doubt it, but who knows.  The one thing I can tell you is that you wont survive for yourself.  I know because I would never have come this far.  A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost.  Breathe it into being and coax it along with words of love.  Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body.  As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.
This should be a tragic moment in the novel.  Instead, it only had me thinking: "Whorish heart"?  "Phantom crumb"?  Who talks like that?

McCarthy never brings us to believe that his characters are real people.  In fact, McCarthy goes out of his way to remind us that they are not real people.  He doesn't even allow them names.  Would a father stop calling his son by name after a great cataclysm?  Of course not.  The lack of names is a persistent, heavy-handed reminder that the characters in this story are nothing more than placeholders in an allegory.  (And don't bother telling me McCarthy is making an allusion to Beckett's The Unnamable or somesuch, because I don't fucking care.)  In sharp contrast, in Summer of the Apocalypse, James Van Pelt makes a similar point, but much more believably and subtly and without interfering with the story, simply by having people stop using last names after society's collapse.

I actually mildly enjoyed reading The Road, mostly due to its intensity, which called to mind Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream".  After finishing it, however, I was hard pressed to think of The Road as anything but a wasted effort, and then to get annoyed with everyone in the mainstream marveling at Emperor McCarthy's new clothes.

If Cormac McCarthy's name had been placed on Summer of the Apocalypse, that book would be the one garnering awards and acclaim, and they would be much better deserved.  (Although perhaps I am giving mainstream critics too much credit.  Maybe they would have ripped Summer of the Apocalypse for having too many apostrophes.)

James Van Pelt's Summer of the Apocalypse alternates between two different cross-country trips.  In the earliest, set in the very near future, 15-year-old Eric travels across the western slope of Colorado in search of his father, shortly after nearly all of mankind has been wiped out in a pandemic.  The second journey takes place sixty years later, as 75-year-old Eric retraces his earlier trip while leading his 10- and 12-year-old grandson and friend to a greatly altered Boulder.

Society's collapse is due to a pandemic virus that is fatal to all but the 1% of the world's population.  Teenage Eric and his family join the exodus of people from the doomed cities hoping to escape this plague.  Van Pelt does not dwell on the gruesome details like McCarthy - although there is a scene with an endless row of body bags you may not soon forget - yet his version of apocalypse is the more frightening because he explains enough to make you believe it all could happen.

In these scenes, Eric behaves like an actual 15-year-old.  He is terribly frightened.  He looks for batteries for his walkman.  He disparages his father.  He trusts his father implicitly to keep his family safe.  He imagines holding hands with the girl he has a crush on.  He grows up much faster than anyone should ever have to.

Sixty years later, Eric sees his world crumbling in a different way.  Society has stabilized, but at a primitive level.  Eric is increasingly frustrated that the new generation, including his own son, has no interest in recapturing the glories of the "Gone Times."  They don't want to reinvent the technologies of the past; they don't even want to learn to read and write.  Joined by two boys who are atypically fascinated with the Gone Times, Eric heads off to Boulder, warily making his way through the scattered remnants of humanity, to prove a point about what the past still has to offer.

By not entirely eradicating the world, Van Pelt leaves more potential story elements to work with in Summer of the Apocalypse than McCarthy allowed himself in The Road.  In both timelines, Eric has to contend with rogue humans, wild animals, firestorms, and the like.  This greater story arc makes Summer of the Apocalypse an easier book to read, even if on occasion the twists to the story feel a bit strained.  In particular, there is a sequence involving an unconvincing paramilitary group that seems dropped out of another novel - David Brin's The Postman, maybe? - just to give the plot a nudge.

Unlike Cormac McCarthy, Van Pelt does not attempt to shock the reader, but instead describes catastrophe in an understated way that ultimately proves more effective.  Here is an example of how Van Pelt uses simple, straightforward language to convey a terrible sense of loss.  It begins with Eric startling a jittery policeman by unwisely reaching into his patrol car:

The peaches dropped from the policeman's hand, and in it he held the gun.  He was very fast.  Eric tried to swallow, couldn't.  The end of the barrel, only a foot from his face, looked a mile wide and infinitely deep.
Trapped, his head in the car and off balance, Eric heard the policeman's hard and heavy breath.  The man said, "Do you know Gloria?"  The gun didn't waver.
Eric tried to answer, but he couldn't force a word through his throat.  He shook his head no.
The gun sank to the backpack, and the officer gazed out the front window, turning away from Eric.  His voice became distant and soft.  "She's about your age.  At the hospital with her mom now.  They got a touch of something," the policeman said.  He focused suddenly on Eric, and his voice became businesslike.  "I thought maybe you went to school with her."
Cupped loosely around the pistol grip, the man's hand fascinated Eric.  He tried to speak again and squeaked out, "I go to Littleton High."
"A Littleton Lion."  The policeman slid the gun onto his lap and stuck it between his legs so the barrel pointed down and the grip was still visible.  "I was a Golden High Knight.  Played football."  He licked his lips.
Eric let out a long breath silently and realized he hadn't been breathing.  "Uh huh," he said.
"Thousand people buried in that football field now."  The policeman gripped the steering wheel.  He was wearing a black glove on his left hand.  "Don't think the Knights will have a good season this year," he said.
The policeman's wife and daughter do not have a "touch of something," they are dead.  This passage and the one quoted above from The Road both depict parents unable to cope with the destruction of their world.  Judge for yourself, but I find the passage from Summer of the Apocalypse a great deal more powerful.

Perhaps the most telling contrast between Summer of the Apocalypse and The Road is in the characters' destination.  In Summer of the Apocalypse, Eric and his two young companions are trying to get to the University of Colorado library, hoping to learn why their people are suffering ever more illnesses and stillbirths.  To Eric, the university symbolizes all of mankind's past wisdom, but his journey causes him to question that wisdom.  The trip to a monument out of the past, retracing Eric's earlier journey as an adolescent, also effectively underscores Van Pelt's theme of the barriers between generations.

In The Road, the man and the boy are trying to get to the ocean...for no particular reason.  At one point, they even walk away from a huge storehouse of food, inexplicably anxious to get back on the road.  It is entirely unclear what the point of their journey is, either literally or metaphorically.  The man and the boy call themselves the "good guys," which seems to mean: (i) they don't eat other people to survive, (ii) they don't willingly curl up and die, (iii) they don't use apostrophes.  If you are so fortunate as not to be tempted by suicide or cannibalism, it is not very inspiring stuff.

          Like the characters of Summer of the Apocalypse, James Van Pelt has a purpose; he has something to say and he says it through an engrossing story.  Like the characters of The Road, Cormac McCarthy is pointlessly trudging nowhere.
What do you think? Comments are welcome!
Please send them to:
vanaaron@excite.com

Copyright 2007 Aaron Hughes

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Links to other Cormac McCarthy reviews, articles, and websites:
The Cormac McCarthy Home Pages: Official Web site of the Cormac McCarthy Society
Cormac McCarthy - Wikipedia
After the Apocalypse - The New York Review of Books - The Road

Links to other James Van Pelt reviews, articles, and websites:
James Van Pelt's Home Page: Writer
James Van Pelt - Wikipedia

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

This page was last updated - 16 June 2013