Saturday, November 8, 2008

World Made By Hand

World Made By Hand
© 2008, James Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press, NY
317 pages

I think this is the first book I've ever seen with its own trailer -- with the narration taken directly from the plot summary on the book's dust cover. A few weeks ago, James Howard Kunstler spoke at my university and I went to go see him. He spoke on "Life After Peak Oil". Our way of living in the west, as you know, is completely dependent on oil. We receive manufactured goods from overseas courtesy of oil-using transport ships: we receive our food from great farms in the midwest through oil-using transfer trucks, and that food is grown by a mere few through the use of oil-using mechanized tractors. In the United States, the overwhelming majority of people go to their jobs and schools and everything else using automobiles -- we live in vast fields of subdivisions far from urban centers. Kunstler is very critical of surbanization and has written a book about it -- one that I intend to find. World Made By Hand is a book written in America's post-oil future. He never gets a specific year, but I would estimate that this takes place in the 2020s.

Rather than repeating Kunstlers' various predictions, I'll simply write about the book -- because Kunstler makes his predictions come true in it. One of the blurbs on the back of the book says that "...since this brooding powerful, novel takes place in the future, you could call it science fiction. Except the end of the fossil fuel economy has preetty much done away with science -- and the advent of peako oil means it may not be entirely fictional much longer." World Made By Hand is the story of one small community in upstate New York, "Union Grove". It is near Albany, as the characters make their way there in return in a matter of a day or two. If you want a complete synopsis, you can just go to the trailer link above: it gives you the essence of the plot without spoiling the story.

In Union Grove, civilization after oil is decaying. Most of the people here still retain memories of the old days. Some, like the viewpoint character Robert Earle, don't particularly miss the old days. Earle was an executive of a software company in the old days, making regular flights across the United States and the world. Now he works as a carpenter and will as the plot goes on become the town's mayor. The people of Union Grove have been adjusting slowly to the loss of the old order. While we are never given specifics, we know war came to Earth as the oil wells ran dry. One particular war in the so-called "Holy Land" is referred to numerous times, but it is the only conflcit mentioned specifically. Nuclear bombs from terrorists destroy D.C. and Los Angeles. Without automobiles and electricity, the globe collapses -- people become aware of only local concerns. There is no more United States: there is only Union Grove and the surrounding county.

The people of Union Grove are lucky in that they escape the complete loss of law and order that takes over other areas. As the summer begins, the town of Union Grove sees its population increase substantially when a religious sect arrives. They call themselves the "New Faith". They wear simple, sober clothing and are described as a cult by the fearful Union Grover citizens. Their leader, "Brother Jobe", is amiable if a bit devoted. The New Faithers left their homes in Virginia and have traveled north. They describe the complete chaos that pervades most of those areas, and announce that they intend to build a "New Jerusalem". The Union Grovers react with skepticism, but acknowledge that even in Union Grove, things are falling apart. The town's electricity is nonexistant, and its water pressure is falling. Their system relied only on gravity, but now even it seems to be failing them.

At the book's beginning, Robert Earle, Shawn (a young farmboy), and his friend Reverend Loren head off to the town dump to forage for supplies. The dump is under the care of a New York redneck by the name of Wayne Karp. Karp controls the dump and rules over "Karptown" -- a community of trailers -- with an iron fist. The dump's supplies are sorted by the Karptown lot, though, so they have their uses. When one of Karp's men shoots the farmboy in cold blood, Earle begins to realize that things have fallen too much apart. Encouraged by Brother Jobe, he sets out to a psuedo-plantation run by a man named Bullock. Bullock is the town's judge, and Earle and Jobe aim to convince him that he should start doing his duty.

At Bullock's plantation, Jobe and Earle find a nicely-working community that has been rebuilt from nothing in the past twenty years. The townsfolk have most of the amenities of the old life, including electricity and hot dogs. Bullock relies on riverboat transporation to trade goods, and when one of his boats goes missing, he asks Earle and Jobe to help him recover it and his crew. They wil eventually do so, and Bullock agrees to help Union Grove bring order. Earle is elected the new town mayor, and the three of them work together to turn rebuild the Union Grove community. While the Union Grovers join a levee at Bullock's plantation/manor, thugs from Karpstown drift down to pilfer supplies from the town.

This presents the book's ending conflict: the forces of law must prove they can deal with the community's criminal element in a lawful and orderly way without resorting to violence. Earle is a student of history, and sees the need for his community to maintain some kind of civil decorum. The book ends on a hopeful note, as the community moves on and continues rebuilding. Its last lines: "And that is the end of the story of that particular summer when we had so much trouble and so much good fortune in the world we were making by hand."

Kunstler has been called "cantankerous", accused of both Luddism and nostalgic bullshit by varying people I've spoken to. I don't think the world presented in World Made By Hand is nostalgic, although it may be a bit romanticized and hopeful. I didn't mention the full range of activities that the petty criminal lord Wayne Karp indulged in, but Earle and the townspeople are remarkably civil in their treatment of him even though he probably deserved a round with a bullwhip. The world Kunstler creates is a gritty world -- one I would not want to live in. I do want to live in a "human-scale" community, and I already do -- Montevallo, where I can walk everywhere I really need to go, and where I could bike to places further than my walking range. I love living here, and would be content to remain here for all of my days -- although that probably will not happen, as I will have to move wherever there are jobs.

While the book's setting is harsh and unforgiving, there is a bit of romanticism about it, I suppose. Union Grove's citizens, by and large, are there for one another and work together for the common good. They learn to embrace the strangers to their town, and everyone works to rebuild the community into a world made by hand. At the same time, we see plenty of examples of people who have given up, or people who have started to prey on their fellow beings -- how much romanticism is there really?

The story was captivating: I was never bored. Kunstler constantly releases details about what happen to put them into this predicament throughout the book. Had I not attended his lecture, I might have been confused. Thought was put into the printing of the book itself. Its pages are not perfectly cut and lined: there's some technique some printers do to give the edge of the page an uneven, but natural-looking, line. The result is that the book's pages have actual texture and they feel substantial.

All in all, I enjoyed the read and reccommend it as an interesting story -- even though I'm a bit skeptical that this will happen. It seems to me to be a secular doomsday scenario, with society's "sin" of oil corrupting it and leading to its destruction -- giving people the opportunity to rebuild a new world, a "better" world.

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