POSTED: 10 MARCH 2008 - 8:30am HST

TGI #25: World Made by Hand

image above: The women of the New Faith religion enter Union Grove from the WMBH trailer

[Normally these columns are scheduled to appear every other Sunday in the Kauai Garden Island News.The final published version may vary from this text as TGI retains the right to correct and edit the material. The copyright to the published version is held by TGI owner Kauai Publishing. Some material in TGI columns may have appeared on already.]

by Juan Wilson on 16 March 2008 Revision 1.4 080311

A Book Review
“World Made By Hand” (WMBH) is a new novel by James Howard Kunstler (Atlantic Monthly Press, 336 pages, $24 at Borders). The story is a view into the near future where the kind of lives we live in America today are only dim memories. I recommend you read it. It may even change your circumstances in that future world.

Mr. Kunstler’s writing career began with newspaper reporting. For several years he was a staff writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. In 1975 he dropped out to become a full time author. He has written several novels and non-fiction works. His non-fiction work has focused on the dilemma created by building our living arrangements around the “convenience” of cars.  

Kunstler says he wrote "The Geography of Nowhere", because "I believe a lot of people share my feelings about the tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work."

In 2005 he published “The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change and other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century”. That book changed my life. It has prepared my mind for the big changes resulting from “Peak Oil”. Peak Oil is the halfway point in the consumption of all existing fossil fuel. It is important because it is the point at which the inevitable downward trend in available oil will begin to be felt.

In “The Long Emergency” Kunstler described where we are now regarding Peak Oil.

“Looked at closely, the peak will resemble a kind of bumpy plateau because the price and demand data would appear to wobble inconclusively for a while, perhaps several years... The global peak period will be a time of both confusion and denial... Eventually economic growth as conventionally understood in industrial societies will cease.”

Those clinging to a non-negotiable American life style find the “The Long Emergency” a nightmare. For those seeking an alternative to our auto-centric suicidal behavior, it offers a ray of hope.

In more than one way, “The Long Emergency” is the parent of “World Made by Hand”, which is a fictional narrative of what it will be like without cheap oil to grease our lives along. If reading non-fiction is too dry for you, this page turner will grab you and take you for a trip through the aftermath of SUV accessed suburbia.

image above: Robert Earle, the protagonist in James Kunstler's "World Made by Hand"

World made by Hand

The booktakes place a generation from now, when young adults have little or no memory of the good old days of refrigeration and big box stores. Some time before the book’s narrative begins, nuclear devices were smuggled into America cargo containers. One was detonated in Los Angeles, the other near Washington.

In a spasmodic reaction, a Middle East War embroils the world. In its aftermath the United States is denied access to imported oil. Much of familiar America unravels in the following decades. A lot gets wrecked in North America. Starving people have fled the cities. Race wars have occurred. New diseases have decimated a generation. We do not see these events. They are mostly over and not well understood by those survivors who try to pick up the pieces.

The locale of the book is Union Grove, a small backwater town that straddles a stream leading to the big river in the Hudson Valley. It is somewhere in New York above Albany. The state government services are non existent. The residents of Union Grove are not in communication with federal authorities, if there are any. The turmoil that gripped America for years has largely left Union Grove alone to fend for itself.

The book is written as a first person account of one hot summer in Union Grove. The narrator is Robert Earle, who once earned a living flying around the country organizing trade exhibitions for a software company. He is now middle aged and gets by as a carpenter.

Robert Earle says of his town, “The egalitarian pretenses of the high octane decades had dissolved and nobody even debated it anymore, including the women of our town. A plain majority of the townspeople were laborers now, whatever in life they had been before. Nobody called them peasants, but in effect that’s what they’d become. That’s just the way things were.”

Much of the energy spent by the residents of Union Grove is related to growing, hunting, preparing and preserving food. Kunstler writes with pleasure about the details of daily life. You can smell the cornbread and taste the fresh pan fried trout.

Entertainment is different than today. It’s not consumed, it’s produced. Playing a musical instrument or singing is a passion for many, and Robert has become a skilled fiddler.

Robert’s life is complicated when a young man from the town is killed and there is no legal or judicial system to deal with the tragedy. This sets into motion a series of exciting and dramatic incidences that lead the town out of its lethargy and depression.

The Four Gangs
Kunstler weaves the lives of four distinct groups into his tale about Union Grove.
The first group is the original residents still living in the town. Most of the young people are gone. The town folk go through their days with a sense of loss. Their community is held together loosely by efforts to feed and clothe themselves. Robert Earle becomes their leader.

Another group is made up of outcasts, rednecks and outlaws that live in a sprawling trailer camp outside of town near the old landfill. They lead by ex-trucker Wayne Karp. The denizens of Karptown make their living mining the landfill for anything intact, and stripping the nearby ghostly suburbs for anything useful - like nails.

A third group lives outside of town on a sprawling estate with moorage on the Hudson River. It is run as a feudal society by Stephen Bollock, the lord of the manor. It is the only place organized enough to generate any electric power and is able to conduct a little trade up and down the river. Most people on Bollock’s land are serfs.

A new group come to town as the novel opens. They are the New Faithers, a religious cult on an exodus from the south. They have seen a great deal of trouble on their journey fleeing Virginia. They settle in the abandoned high school just outside Union Grove, to the consternation of some.

The main dynamic of the novel is the differing approaches these groups use to deal with the situation in which they find themselves. The intertwining of their efforts lead to surprising and interesting results. A good deal of action is packed into the story.

image above: A still from the "trailer" on the website

Movie Review & Critique
There is evidence that Kunstler intended this book to be a movie, or better yet, a long run HBO series. The story is told cinematically, not through introspection. Dialog, action and visual description drive it. It also takes place over a short period of time with no long sojourns into the private past of its characters. The whole story can be told on the screen. It has the pace and climax associated with cinematic writing.

Interestingly, Kunstler’s website ( now leads to the ( website. That site plays the acoustic music you might imagine Robert Earle and his friends playing. There is a “Play Trailer” button that uses still frame dramatizations from the book for a promotion. Some real production went into that effort. For those interested in reading a sample chapter, that is also on the website.

Kunstler’s story falls into the broad category of post apocalyptic saga. One famous post nuclear war book-to-movie deal was “On the Beach” by Nevil Shute in 1957. That was little more than a sad eulogy for the human race. Twenty years later began the "Mad Max" film trilogy by George Miller, that combined to create a post-atomic-war and post-oil scenario. "Mad Max" was a non-stop action series of brutal violence.

Kunstler’s “World Made By Hand” is not like either, although it has a sadness and there is violence. His book reads more like a Western by Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour. Those two were both romantics telling their stories in the context of a wild land’s transition to modern civilization set in the past. Kunstler adventure is a mirror image world - a transition from modern civilization to a wild land set in the future. Let me be the first to coin the genre name “The Eastern”

The isolation of Union Grove is too great, almost like the set of a stage play where no where else on earth exists. Opportunities were missed to show more differences in the approach to living by the “four gangs”. It was surprising to me that Kunstler did not illustrate more self-righteousness and intolerance on the part of the New Faithers toward the Townies. More details of the oppression involved in being a serf on Bullock’s farm would have been welcome and dramatize why some, like Robert, stayed a Townie.

Lastly, Kunstler offers us an element of the supernatural that hits a sour note. It seems like an unnecessary device in so well told a tale.

This book deals with the central issues that will determine the quality of our lives and the lives of our children.  I highly recommend it as an exciting story of our future that concludes on an optimistic note about our lives to come.

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