Jim Crace opens his ninth novel, The Pesthouse, in a place not unlike what Greil Marcus once called "the old, weird America," a nation of folk traditions and superstitions, of bindle stiffs and highwaymen. This is the land of Boxcar Bertha, the country Mark Twain captured in the river odyssey of Huck and Jim. It's a mythic territory, dark and apocalyptic, one that seems forever lost to us beneath the slick culture we now occupy. For Crace, however, the old, weird America is not just where we've been but where we're going. It's our history and our destiny all in one.
The Pesthouse takes place at some point in the future, a future that's uncharted because its residents have no way of reckoning with the past. Industrial America remains only in the smallest pieces: a clutch of coins, "pennies and dimes and quarters," found in the pebbled silt of a riverbank, "a square of patterned, faded cloth too finely woven to have been the work of human hands." Now, America is no longer dream but nightmare, a zone of dislocation in which the only sensible option is escape. Each year, emigrants by the thousands head east from the interior to the port of Tidewater, in what used to be Virginia, looking for passage on tall ships bound for Europe, where a better life might be found. Along the way, they travel the broken trails of former highways, passing vast fields of "junkle"—mechanical parts and shattered buildings, "colossal devastated wheels and iron machines, too large for human hands." The junkle is just the most overt symbol of the collapse of history, the disconnect between the present and the past. "It was fascinating," Crace writes, "if disturbing, to stand now among the bludgeoned stones and rusting cadavers, trying to imagine what America had been all those grandpas ago."
To get at the experience of this new, weird America, Crace gives us Franklin and Margaret, known to each other as Pigeon and Mags. He is a pilgrim, bound for the coast; she, thirty-one years old, unmarried, and ill with flux, a plaguelike sickness that has led to her isolation in a "Pesthouse" up the hill from her home in the bustling village of Ferrytown. When another kind of pestilence—a toxic cloud of "suffocating vapors"—wipes out the community, the two are cast together, a not-quite couple with no choice but to trek east. What makes these characters compelling is that we both do and don't recognize them equally. Their travails are the universal human ones (longing, loss, the need for love and connection in a world of frightening uncertainty), while their manners, their ways of interacting, appear quaint, if not archaic. Even on the road, with all its dangers, Margaret frets about her reputation, about traveling with a man who's not her husband. Franklin laments his failings as a hunter and protector, his inability to be inviolate. "‘Be calm and silent. Be undismayed,'" he recalls his brother saying, as if articulating a code of ethics. "But Franklin could not be calm and silent. . . . And certainly he was never undismayed." Still, as their relationship develops, Franklin and Margaret have no choice but to rethink their assumptions, not just about the world but about their very selves. "Regret would not reveal a route ahead," Franklin reflects, "and fighting for his manly dignity would not help. Dignity does not provide a supper. . . . If he wanted to survive himself and also take good care of Margaret, like a neighbor, like a suitor, he would have to toughen up and sharpen up."
Franklin's observation gets to the heart of the situation, for, at its core, The Pesthouse is a love story, albeit one played out in a landscape of calamity. Indeed, in its own way, it is a tender book, quiet and interior, an exploration of the heart more than of the world. None of this is entirely unexpected, for Crace is, as he has always been, a humanist; he recast Jesus as a mortal in Quarantine (1998) and began Being Dead (2000) with the deaths of his protagonists, the most human fate of all. Yet if what sets those books apart is their toughness—the idea that, for all its abiding consolations, mere humanity will not always be enough—The Pesthouse lacks a similar sense of consequence. The most direct way to put it is that there is not enough at stake here. Even after disaster strikes, as it does at Ferrytown, it is remedied far too quickly; other events wash over the characters eliciting minimal emotional entanglement. To be fair, Crace seems to be suggesting that in a world gone elemental, there is no time for sentiment; either you adapt or you don't survive. It's a similar idea to the one that motivates Cormac McCarthy's recent novel The Road, which also unfolds within an apocalyptic landscape and is driven by the relationship between two people, a father and son, as they try to survive. Unlike that tale, however, there's a flat, uninflected aspect to Crace's story. When, late in The Pesthouse Franklin and Margaret find themselves on the run from a ruthless slave trader named Captain Chief, they have reason to fear for their love, for their property, for their very existence. In the end, though, the threat simply dissipates, like "an encounter rescued far too suddenly from their dreams."
For Crace, I think, this is part of the point—that love will sustain us, even in a barbarous country, to the extent that we can be sustained. That's why, for all its cataclysmic trappings, The Pesthouse is not really a dystopian novel. There is, rather, something oddly optimistic about the book, an almost cheerful aura of possibility, as if the fall of America were insubstantial, a momentary disruption or even, in its own way, a return. It's a compelling notion: the old, weird America reasserting itself in the times after the end times, the awful purging bringing us closer to ourselves. I only wish The Pesthouse had evoked this vision more completely, to encompass the uncertainty at the center of the world.
David L. Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith (Viking, 2004).