Sunday, August 17, 2008

Review of The Dead & the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer

What is it about post-apocolyptic novels that is so devastatingly fascinating? Reading them is like picking at a scab – it’s painful but tantalizing. I listened to The Road by Cormac McCarthy on my CD Walkman while staggering around my neighborhood; if my stricken, tear-stained face attracted any stares, I didn’t notice.

The Dead & the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Harcourt, 2008) is a companion to her earlier Life as We Knew It (Harcourt, 2006). Same disaster (asteroid hits the moon out of alignment and worldwide cataclysmic disasters – floods, earthquakes, volcanoes – result), different location.

This time we experience the hell through the eyes of 17-year-old Alex, who lives in an apartment in New York City. He only has a couple of pages to be a normal guy with a job in a pizza parlor and a successful berth as a scholarship student in a prominent Catholic boys’ school before all hell breaks loose and suddenly he must keep his two younger sisters safe in a world gone mad. His parents are missing and presumed (at least by Alex) dead and his older brother is a Marine in California.

The resulting chaos will be familiar to those who have read this genre. Natural disasters wipe out millions, food becomes scarce, hunger, disease, and violence wipe out millions more – and then, of course, a permanent soot-layer from the volcanoes covers the sun and so no more plants can grow. Grim? At least Pfeffer doesn’t add cannibalism into the mix!

What both intrigues and horrifies me about this literature is that I’m quite certain I’d be one of those who would die quickly – if not in the first 24 hours, then in the next week or two. I simply possess no survival skills – can’t forage, have no medical knowledge, don’t know how to use weapons, can’t even start a decent fire in my fireplace. I’m doomed. The horrifying part? I’m a mom, and I wouldn’t be able to keep my kids alive.

That’s what made The Road cut so close to the bone – at heart, it’s about a dad trying to keep his kid not just alive, but also human. And in The Dead & the Gone, Alex’s terror at the seeming impossibility of keeping his sisters safe and alive is the most moving part of the book. What is happening outside Manhattan feels meaningless to him, because his entire life has narrowed to one devastated island. Unfortunately, this leads to a disconnected feeling of unreality rather than heightened intensity. And where happens to the thousands of people who live right in Alex's immediate neighborhood? He has dealings with almost none of them, even right after the disaster.

This didn’t tear my heart out the way Life as We Knew It did, perhaps only because I read that book first. However, this is an intense and gripping story of bravery and hard choices.

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