Love in a post-apocalyptic world

Review of “California” by Edan Lepucki.

 

California
Edan Lepucki
400 pages,
hardcover: $26.
Little, Brown and Company: 2014.

When Cormac McCarthy sent an unnamed father and son out to wander a post-apocalyptic landscape in his 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road, he inadvertently created the template for one of contemporary fiction’s dominant themes. Among the spate of post-apocalyptic narratives that appeared in 2014 is California, the debut of Los Angeles-based writer Edan Lepucki.

Lepucki, along with other recent post-apocalyptic tour guides, echoes McCarthy on a few points: In the future, there will be no Internet, finding enough food will require constant effort, people will sift through relics of fallen civilizations for useful materials, and the roads will be beset by highwaymen. (In California, they’re called pirates.)

But while McCarthy keeps his characters in constant motion, Lepucki’s protagonists, Cal and Frida, a young married couple, are determined to find a safe place to settle down.

Through flashbacks, we learn that they fled the nightmarish Los Angeles of a few decades from now and drove into the wilderness until their car ran out of gas. Frida has a city dweller’s limited outdoor survival skills, but Cal has learned a few useful crafts like farming and carpentry. When winter closes in, they’re lucky enough to find an empty shack for shelter.

They’ve heard there are other people left in the world, some of them holed up in private enclaves rumored to enjoy electricity and other amenities, but Cal and Frida don’t encounter anyone until they meet the family who once occupied their shack, and August, a roving junk dealer who trades Frida some Vicodin for a bra, “made of fabric and wire, both valuable,” he says.

In plain, straightforward prose, Lepucki deftly notches up the tension when Frida discovers she’s pregnant and she and Cal set off into the woods hoping to find a settlement. Sometimes the characters’ motivations are murky and their beliefs confusingly mercurial, and the ending is a puzzler, but California is both diverting and thoughtful. It leaves you with the notion that maybe the post-apocalypse genre isn’t new-fangled after all, but rather a fresh reimagining of a classic Western theme: Every man for himself against nature.