World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler (2008, read in 2020)
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This book is the first of several novels fictionalizing a world as envisioned in The Long Emergency, a non-fiction account of the coming end of cheap oil and its many repercussions for a world nearly exclusively predicated on it. In this novel, the nearly complete unavailability of fossil fuels was engendered not by a natural lack of easy resources, but by nuclear attacks on Washington and Los Angeles (vaguely hinted at, with no clear enemy blamed) and a kind of super-flu that wiped out a lot of people and put an end to any semblance of shared, national-level infrastructure.
The story is of Robert Ehrlich, who lives in Union Grove, New York (fictional, but within a couple days’ march of Albany). He’s a form sales executive turned carpenter who lost his wife and daughter to the flu and his son Daniel to wanderlust many years ago. The town of Union Grove has a decent water supply, but very sporadic electricity—it’s nearly nonexistent and therefore completely unreliable, more of a curiosity of a time long past. They grow some food, cook with wood, etc. Though they still live in the houses of a more modern past, they make very little use of any of the more advanced accoutrements.
To the north of the town is an encampment of former bikers and ne’er-do-wells who’ve monopolized the business of reclamation and re-selling of goods stripped from abandoned—and some, not-quite-yet-abandoned—houses and businesses. The place is called Karptown and is run by a miscreant straight out of the Mad Max movies named Wayne Karp.
Also near the town is a fully self-sufficient plantation run by Stephen Bullock, who is basically a lord of many serfs, but pretty benevolent. This organization is not too far-fetched and is quite likely to be one of the types of cultures that survives—as long as the ruler stays benevolent, the group stays relatively small and manageable and the community is successful without any debilitating tragedies that would throw it out of equilibrium.
The final group is a bunch of highly capable religious travelers akin to the Amish, but nomadic and far less averse to technology, headed by Brother Jobe. He settles on the area, having traveled up from Pennsylvania, where things are “much worse”. He doesn’t want to take things up, per se, but he does think that the local townsfolk have been somewhat shiftless and directionless, leaving them open to the predations of Wayne Karp, among others.
Within this structure, the basic plot points are as follows:
- One of Wayne’s band kills a promising local young man from town while Robert doesn’t exactly look on, but is utterly helpless to do anything after the fact.
- Jobe thinks Karp’s band should be punished.
- Jobe and Robert visit Bullock—also the local magistrate—and ask if he’ll help bring Karp and his crew to heel.
- Bullock is more interested in finding out what happened to four of his men and a trading vessel that he sent down Albany way.
- They agree to help, but only if he sends supplies (lengths of pipe) to help them repair the town’s water supply. They do this and water-service is restored, restoring also a bit of self-confidence and faith in the townspeople.
- The young man’s wife and child move in to Robert’s house to “keep house”. There is really no other choice, though several townspeople purse their lips in disapproval that stems from a way of life that no longer applies.
- Robert and several of Jobe’s acolytes head down to Albany to investigate.
- They discover that Albany is all buy lawless and in the hands of an even greater miscreant than Wayne Karp. Robert learns of the brutal efficiency of Jobe’s men—who, while they’ve mostly found Jesus, are also almost all former military.
- They return with the four men and having eliminated the threat to river trade by shooting nearly the entire gang who’d coopted it for themselves.
- Bullock celebrates their return with a giant party that empties out the town.
- Karp’s men come down to rob the town and also to see if they can find some “action” from any ladies who didn’t attend the party (Robert’s new roommate being one of them).
- On the same day, Jobe and his men set up a barbershop that isn’t quite voluntary and shave a bunch of beards from unwilling customers.
- Robert and the pastor (Loren) arrest Jobe, who comes along relatively quietly and lets himself be put in jail.
- Robert and Loren head up to Karptown to arrest Karp. Things go predictably—he says “no”—and Robert gets covered in buckets of shit, but only after Loren’s asshole is torn open by brutal paddling. They make their way back to town, with the help of some of Jobe’s men.
- Jobe’s men go up to Karptown to collect Karp and return with him, placing him in a cell next to Jobe’s. Minor, one of the men who’d proven so essential on the trip to Albany was unfortunately killed in the raid.
- Jobe is praying feverishly.
- The next morning, Jobe is no longer in his cell, but the door is still chained shut. Karp’s cell is also still locked, but he’d dead, with a bullet-wound through his eye that exactly matches the one Minor had suffered the night before.
- Robert learns that Minor was Jobe’s son.
- Robert finds Jobe on the grounds he and his people had settled on: the old High School that he’d purchased and which his people were fixing up to house their “queen bee”, a bizarrely and grotesquely fat woman who seems to have the gift of preternatural sight…but that seems to be a plot line that will be pursued more fully in subsequent novels.
- They talk and Jobe is super-mysterious and also just kind of disappears, leading Robert to wonder what sort of supernatural stuff is going on. The “eye for an eye” stuff gives him quite a bit of pause, especially in his fraught condition, having hardly slept, drunk too much whiskey and still being desperately worried about his friend Loren, who’d undergone surgery the night before.
- The book ends several months later, with Robert in charge of the town and Loren having recovered more or less fully. Karp’s gang is subdued while Jobe’s crew is doing well on their own, as are Bullock’s people.
On a side note, I was quite surprised to learn that Kunstler doesn’t know how to use past tenses correctly. He very, very often uses “did” when he definitely meant to use “had done”, which I’d taken to be a more modern affectation of young authors whose education had gone missing. I’d never noticed his online work to suffer from the same affliction, so I’m somewhat mystified as to the reason behind it.
Some authors use the incorrect form in dialogue, in order to impart an authenticity to the speech patterns of their characters. The patois of upstate New York—near Albany, where the book takes place—most definitely fails to distinguish between verb forms in nearly any way, placing all of the legwork required to determine when and if something happened squarely on the listener.
Confusion abounds, but what can you do when no-one can be bothered? Perhaps this curtailed version of English is what we’ve got to work with from here on out. Perhaps Kunstler’s subtle point is that the World Made By Hand won’t have time for such niceties. The theme of the book is a world that has been simplified by nuclear attacks and influenza epidemics from our high-tech quasi-nightmare to a much more bucolic and brutal lifestyle. Perhaps the language followed suit.
After reading one of their interactions, I wrote the following imagining of how Robert could have responded to Jobe:
“So you want me to help you fight a fight that’s not mine, but lies in another land, outside my jurisdiction, a jurisdiction that’s defined by the limits of my meager power. You do understand that the world has shrunk? That our reach is no longer so long? Or do you simply choose to impose your simplistic morality from a bygone day—a morality that was arguably never really applicable then either—and do what? Take what’s mine because I refuse to help you in your quest? So you’ll take my refusal to help you prosecute one moral crusade as an invitation to judge me, take what I have and give yourself over to the same morality that you attacked me for failing to help you prosecute?”↩
“It was too bad because it might have lit up our whole town. Anyway, the little dam there had been breeched, and rebuilding that would have been more than our community could manage. I don’t know if anybody would even have known how to do it. It was chilling to reflect on how well the world used to work and how much we’d lost.”
“A few people took to smoking opium, but those with an extremely apathetic attitude toward survival tended not to last long in the new disposition of things.”
“Children like my Daniel and Genna had sat in those very box buildings under buzzing fluorescent lights listening to their science teachers prattle about the wonders of space travel and gene splicing and how we were all going to live to be a hundred and twenty five years old in “smart” computer-controlled houses where all we had to do was speak to bump up the heat or turn on the giant home theater screens in a life of perpetual leisure and comfort. It made me sick to think about it. Not because there’s something necessarily wrong with leisure or comfort, but because that’s where our aspirations ended. And in the face of what had actually happened to us, it seemed obscenely stupid.”
“Few dogs were around anymore. Some had been eaten during the hunger that followed the flu in the spring of that year. People didn’t talk about it, it was so demoralizing. And now, with no manufactured pet food, you had to have a productive household to be able to feed one […]”
“All the trustees were men, no women and no plain laborers. As the world changed, we reverted to social divisions that we’d thought were obsolete. The egalitarian pretenses of the high-octane decades had dissolved and nobody even debated it anymore, including the women of our town. A plain majority of the townspeople were laborers now, whatever in life they had been before. Nobody called them peasants, but in effect that’s what they’d become. That’s just the way things were.”
A little blunt and eager, but probable. Would be interesting to know what he thinks the women feel about this. It’s an easy attitude to have when you’re on the council.
“I mean, as a practical matter, there is no government,” I said.
“Oh. I see what you’re driving at. Well, again, frankly, that’s a fair appraisal of things. I guess you could say we’re keeping the chairs warm, under the theory that this . . . this whatever it is . . . this rough patch we’re going through . . . that it eventually comes to an end.”
“What do you think the chances of that are?”
Furman leaned closer to me, over the top of his typewriter. “Again, to be really candid, it doesn’t look so good. You asked about the government. The people who worked here? Well, there’s an answer to your question. Most of them stopped coming to work when they stopped getting paid.
“Who all is this wing nut across the way?”
“I guess you’d say he’s another preacher man.”
“What’s he in for?”
“Cutting off beards without permission.”
“Who the hell you got to get permission from around here to cut off a got-damn beard?”
“The owner of the beard,” I said.
“Well, ain’t that some shit,” he said.