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Review: World Made by Hand by James Kunstler

World Made by Hand: A Novel
By James Howard Kunstler
317 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press – Mar 2008. $24.00.

Robert Earle, the main character in James Howard Kunstler’s new novel World Made by Hand, exemplifies the hard life that people of his time are forced to live.

Robert’s wife died of encephalitis; his daughter, of the Mexican flu outbreak that all but wiped out the town’s younger generation. His son left home to see the world, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

Robert finds solace in his job as the town carpenter, trout fishing in the nearby creek, playing fiddle during year-round rehearsals for the annual Christmas carol service and attending Sunday church (a lively affair with preaching and hymns). He dreams of one day owning his own horse.

Based on what I’ve described so far, you may have concluded that this is going to be a review of a novel set in the Old West or primitive Colonial New England. It isn’t. James Howard Kunstler’s new book is set in the town of Union Grove, New York—in the future.

World Made by Hand comes at a time when the subjects of high gasoline prices and soaring heating and electricity bills—as well as the looming energy shortages that are driving those high prices—are slowly starting to enter the realm of public discourse. The novel presents a view of what the world might look like not so many years from now, when the cheap flow of fossil fuels that keeps modern life running has dried up once and for all.

There isn’t the space in this review to get into a discussion about the peak oil argument—how the inevitable depletion of the earth’s hydrocarbon reserves could potentially thrust us into a new Dark Age. Besides, Kunstler has already persuasively made that case, in the form of his nonfiction bestseller from 2005, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century—which was the inspiration for this new book.

When we first get acquainted with the community of Union Grove, it has the eerie feel of a ghost town. It is filled with abandoned houses, paved roads reverting to dirt and the ruins of strip malls now overgrown with shrubbery. The malls were long ago scavenged for their raw materials during a period in history known as the Great Collection.

Farming, religion, barter and trade shape people’s lives in ways not seen since the frontier days. And there are hints that the temperature, weather and seasons may be approaching levels unprecedented in human history altogether.

Robert Earle is our guide through this strange new world. The story, which unfolds over one eventful summer sometime within our lifetimes (we never learn the exact year), is told in the first person from his point of view. Robert used to be a marketing executive at a software company (back in the days when there were marketing executives and software companies), and he has since fallen back on his building skills to become the town’s top carpenter, always in demand.

Kunstler has succeeded in making Robert a relatable, sympathetic character. He is capable, resourceful, inquisitive, cheerful, personable and wise—and he becomes a hero over the course of the story. He’s always there to console others, in spite of the tragedy that he has himself suffered. He is the glue that holds his community, as well as the story of the novel, together.

Then there’s Robert’s close friend the Reverend Loren Holder, the minister at First Congregational. Like Robert, Loren is something of a public figure, wearing many hats around the community of Union Grove. His wife, Jane Ann, is in charge of the church-affiliated academy where all the town’s children go to school.

The two most prominent people in the community are Stephen Bullock, a wealthy, enterprising plantation owner with a legion of serf-like laborers; and kingpin Wayne Karp, owner of the town’s general supply and a man with a shady past, who eventually becomes the novel’s central villain.

Karp’s general supply is the leading industry in Union Grove. Just about everyone in town has some use for the pipes, nails, screws, containers and other practical wares that his gang of ruffians is continually excavating, with shovels and pry bars, from the town’s long-defunct landfill.

Soon enters Brother Jobe, a new potentate in town and leader of a fellowship called the New Faith Brotherhood Church of Jesus. Brother Jobe and his contingent of 73 followers, who originally hail from Dixieland, have fled to Union Grove from the “cowboys and Indians”-style racial fighting that has engulfed their latest home of Pennsylvania.

In the tranquil community of Union Grove, the somewhat pushy and smug, but earnest, Brother Jobe sees the perfect place to set up a church devoted to his vision of “a world made by hand…one stone at a time, one board at a time, one hope at a time, one soul at a time.”

I’m not going to give away the book’s thoroughly engaging plot, but I do want to focus on one particularly interesting subplot. It involves a journey that Robert and several of Brother Jobe’s men take to Albany, in order to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a trade ship belonging to Bullock.

The trip to Albany is a brilliant device that Kunstler uses to give us a sweeping panorama of life outside of Union Grove. Now that phones, reliable mail delivery and TV news are things of the past—and all that one hears on the radio, during the few sporadic days when the electricity kicks on, are evangelists ranting from the Book of Revelation—traveling to another part of the country is the only way to get news about what’s going on there.

The 40-mile trip, which in today’s terms translates into less than an hour’s drive on the interstate highway system, takes the characters nearly a week roundtrip on horseback. Along the way, they pass through desolate slums that used to be thriving towns and suburbs and talk with a worldly-wise man who tells of racial strife in Philadelphia; a washed-up New York City; inundated Everglades; and a new U.S. president named Harvey Albright, who apparently now lives in Minneapolis.

But the fictional future realized in this novel is hardly some one-note vision of doom and gloom. Kunstler balances the bad with descriptions of idyllic natural settings and boisterous small-town festivities; a sense of empathy and compassion toward one’s fellows; a touching romance; and more than a little droll, wacky humor.

What I found particularly funny was a scene in which some old-timer waxes nostalgic about life during the good old days: “You should have been around in the 1960s, boy. Hooo-weee. Gas was twenty-five cents and the roads were smooth as a baby’s behind.”

And while the novel’s setting may take place in the future, its subject is timeless. Societal collapses have beset scores of past civilizations, from the Anasazi to the Maya. What makes our modern age of silicon so immune from this elemental process? Nothing, Kunstler insists.

Frank Kaminski is an ardent peak oiler who participates regularly in Seattle Peak Oil Awareness. He can be reached at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com.

Editorial Notes: Posted with permission of author.

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