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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Western Watersheds Project seeks a Tenth Circuit Staff Attorney to bring litigation in the interests of protecting and restoring western watersheds and wildlife, particularly focused...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    Position Title: Director of Development Status: Full-Time/Exempt Reports to: Executive Director Location: Remote (California preferred) About the Native American Land Conservancy As one of the...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....