In the last couple weeks, I tore through James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand and its sequel The Witch of Hebron. And I keep mulling them over. I am trying to decide if I like them or not.
The premise is that these novels (the two I read are the first half of a tetralogy) take place in a world after “peak oil.” They happen to locate the collapse in the 2010s, but the dates don’t matter as much as the vision Kunstler presents of the world after cheap energy. In that world, the increasing expense of oil caused a “war in the Holy Land” as well as two nuclear attacks by terrorists on US Soil, one in L.A. the other in Washington, D.C., and the eventual failure of the electric grid. But those events are distant rumors to the main characters, who are now stuck living a hyper-local life in a fictional small town located in the real place where the Battenkill River flows into the Hudson in upstate New York.
One fun aspect is that the main character of the novel is a carpenter. A former software executive who now makes his living using the handtools that once made up his hobby to update and repurpose his neighbors’ homes and barns (in fact most of the good upstanding farmers are former CEOs and various white-collar workers with the common laborers being drawn from the retail wage class; there are no farmers who were farmers in the book). He’s also a flyfisherman, jealously protecting his graphite carbon rod and presumably all the petroleum-derived fly lines and leaders and saving every last hook. But the trout have grown fat and stupid since the population plummeted after a flu epidemic worse than 1918-19 (winkingly, this time the Mexican instead of the Spanish flu) and they form a large part of the villager’s diet, whether caught on a fly or by any other method.
There are other bits of nostalgic projection that are delightful: a sort of bioregionalist’s wish fulfillment. The meals are lovingly described ala Hemingway or Brian Jacque’s Redwall books. Reading about all the cornbread can get old, and I pity the characters lack of coffee, but their other meals often sound delicious and rich. Food has become one of their main concerns, after all, and status is signaled by hams, smoked trout, sumac tea, or the less appealing “puddings” that sound like the catch-all casseroles (or hotdish) of the Midwest. Such meals often take place at large social gatherings Kunstler and his villagers call “levees,” full of dancing, socializing, and bonding. Characters often think back to the “old times” of automobiles and antibiotics, but many seem to believe that the world is better without oil. And of course, what environmentalist, especially of my own Wendell Berry stripe, hasn’t thought the same thing. Kunstler’s village, when things go smoothly, is a Berrian/Berean utopia of local food, yeoman farmers, and home industry craftspeople. Aligning with an agrarian view of American society that goes back to at least the 18th-century writings of Crevecoeur and Jefferson, the farmers who work hard and understand clean living are rewarded with the joys of the hearth. Which includes cannabis and lots of high-quality homemade hooch, by the way.
But of course, there are darker sides to this bioregional localized world. One is the predictable post-apocalyptic gangs of bandits, drawn from Medieval history or Madmax. These are the sort of prepper/frontier dream of the survival of the strong. And in many ways, the portrayal is convincing, if disturbing. Certainly, it would seem that with no functioning government, a certain number of semi-warlords would take over and run things by graft and extortion as they do in many parts of the world today. But there are also class and race overtones in the portrayal of these bandits that are troubling. The novel addresses this head-on at times, with characters shocked that problems they “thought belonged to the last century” resurface along racial and ethnic lines. But the novels are also startlingly white. There are no speaking characters who aren’t white–not even any Latina/os–and no real explanation is given for this, since currently upstate New York isn’t a racially homogenous place. And the bandits are also the “gearheads” and bikers and live in their own sort of tumbledown village in a former trailer park. Their evening entertainment includes renditions of Nirvana (instead of the old-time string music the fiddler/carpenter hero prefers) and live pornography shows. And this way of life is compared (rather favorably) to the Iroquois 250 years earlier. To me, this reads as Kunstler’s latent cultural conservatism seeking to justify itself by speculative causality that links prosperity to morality–and race.
Another problem is Kunstler’s view of gender. His protagonists are all male, and the women in the novels have fallen into gender norms from the 19th century “almost without comment” to the point that when a woman is widowed, she moves in with a new man within a week rather than trying to make it on her own. The women cook and clean and seduce men or get raped and are often have their bodies described in the specialized and obsolete vocabulary of strongly patriarchal society (we don’t call people “slatternly” or “blowsy”). Again, this smacks of naturalizing what are social institutions–even if it very well may be the most plausible reaction to this sort of crisis.
However, it seems to me that these gender and racial stereotypes are more insidious than insightful. They aren’t speculation about the possible, but fantasies of regression. This is driven home by the cultural moments that are valued, and I say that even when I obviously share Kunstler’s cultural tastes (I’m trying to learn many of the old-time string band songs his fiddling flyfishing woodworker plays). And even further is Kunstler’s fantasy of a regression in the American vernacular language to something from 1900. As if when the electricity shuts off we will all start speaking like Teddy Roosevelt and Edith Wharton (one of his favorite words is “foolscap” which I think we’d probably still call printer paper long after the laserjets stopped).
And finally, in what I presume is a nod to the tenuous nature of a rational science-based worldview as dominant, an element of magic drives the plot of the books and would likely turn some people off. At the very this least stretches the credibility of calling the books “convincing” in a nonfictional sense.
Kunstler’s books, on first glance, are critical of many things the environmental left dislikes–runaway capitalism, petroculture, habitat destruction, industrial agriculture. But in the imagined pathway to greatness after a collapse, they are practically Trumpian. With its vision of class, gender, and race, the books even have tinges of the “Heimatroman” long beloved by blood-and-soil fascists. So even as I romp along through the world of these novels, eager to hear how they get out of scrapes, create hand-hewn beauty, and distill brandy, it’s with more misgivings and a guiltier conscience than when I read Walden or Moby-Dick. Thoreau and Melville lived in a world existed, with all of its faults. Kunstler’s World Made By Hand doesn’t exist and probably won’t, but any reader shouldn’t let that cloud the fact that the novels’ faults are more our own than the future’s.