The Corps of Discovery, after the apocalypse

Review of Benjamin Percy's “The Dead Lands.”

 

“Every story might seem unique and particular but is actually recurring, in conversation with others,” observes a man in Oregon-born writer Benjamin Percy’s third novel. “We’re all characters caught in a cycle of ruin and renewal.”

What if a global flu pandemic resulted in nuclear war? The Dead Lands begins 150 years after such a catastrophe occurred, at a time when the people living inside a walled enclave known as the Sanctuary, formerly the site of St. Louis, have finally begun to wonder whether anyone else exists in the land that used to be America.

When a strange young woman named Gawea appears on horseback at the Sanctuary’s gates, speaking of a lush green land across the country in Oregon, where a kind of civilization has managed not just to survive but, apparently, thrive, the Sanctuary’s loathsome dictator orders her execution. But others, including a bold woman named Mina Clark, a security agent for the Sanctuary, and an antisocial man named Lewis Meriwether, who runs a museum of the past, decide to save Gawea and set out Westward across the American wasteland.

Percy, who made his name as an award-winning writer of literary fiction, has recently incorporated more elements of science fiction, fantasy and horror into his writing. (His last novel, Red Moon, concerned werewolves.) The Dead Lands features some of Percy’s finest work to date, a tale that doesn’t skimp on rich characters, language and setting, complete with a suspenseful, anything-might-happen plot. Percy’s prose has grown more subtle and beautiful, full of evocative descriptions. Describing Gawea, for example, he writes: “The girl appears so thin, like a piece of wood somebody whittled and gave up on.”

Percy has always set his fiction in the West, and here he plays with the notion of what heading Westward means to the American spirit, even when the landscape is no longer recognizable. “They are the same,” Percy writes about two characters seeking to upend the standard order in this post-apocalyptic world, “both refusing to acknowledge that they live in a place where fantasies must be discarded.” Even readers who lean toward realism ought to welcome Percy’s turn toward fantasy. The Dead Lands shows what can happen when a talented, disciplined writer gives his imagination free rein.

The Dead Lands
Benjamin Percy
403 pages,
hardcover: $26.
Grand Central Publishing, 2015.