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“A long time ago, I came to the understanding that all men are friends by convenience and enemies by choice,” (Avon, 1967; p. 77) says Pirrie, the Hunter/Warrior figure in this EOTW novel, where an Asian virus has blackened the countryside of England faster than Roundup on a dandelion. An upper lip doesn't even get the chance to stiffen before the PM orders nukes for all the major cities, in the hopes of weeding the population to a few million manageable mouths to feed. That never happens, but it quickly floods the countryside with city-bred greenhorns, quite edgy from starvation, enthralled with the adventures of raping and pillaging, and readily barbaric with armament and attitude.

The author is quick to toss away the white handkerchief of Compassion and Decency, glibly referring to London as “that warren of swarming humanity” (Ibid, p. 106), leaving its legacy to the “pathetic scrawls of those few who . . . would survive” (Ibid, p. 124). The novel's Everyman, John Custance, reluctantly becomes the leader—and future feudal lord—of this small group of family and friends as they leave London hours ahead of the hungry wave to make their way for the sanctuary of his brother David's farm in the country. This journey comprises almost all of the 190 pages. Along the way he learns the major lesson of survival, most succinctly put by Pirrie: “ 'The final say is here.' He tapped his rifle” (Ibid, p. 128).

Pirrie runs a neighborhood gun shop and joins up when John and Rog er try to buy guns from him. He is older, indistinct, an d d iminutive in stature. His influence quickly becomes pervasive and scary to his fellow travelers. However, for the author, he is undoubtedly the mouthpiece for a no-quarter philosophy based on the age-old tome of survival of the fittest. But he is a swarmy purveyor of that attitude. After murdering 2 young Reservists holding a road block, he says coolly, “they were such a good lie,” (Ibid, p. 67). When faced with a troublesome farmer, he executes him sniper-style (p. 108). He is quick with moral justification saying things like “the guilty do not have the right to die as quickly as the innocent” (Ibid, p. 88). He even goes on to murder his own wife for unfaithfulness in front of John and the others (p.128), then takes the child of the farmer he killed for his new bride. The tension of this repulsiveness balanced against his usefulness is the main strength of the novel.

1956 is much closer to the ghosts of WWII, so the quick proclivity to violence as a problem solver is probably more understandable. However, even though the women joke about their role as chattel, the I-Like-Ike era's assumptions cannot be as easily dismissed. The female characters are either children, submissives, or tarts. It is man's job to protect them, not listen to them. That the novel lacks any feministic empathy is a mote when seen through contemporary eyes, but it still hinders its impact by omission. And, the almost totalitarian lack of sympathy for humanity's fate seems, well, creepy. All in all, No Blade of Grass lies somewhere between the chatty melodrama of Alas, Babylon and the mind-numbing bleakness of On The Beach. Anotherwords, it's right at home with the body count of today's popular entertainments.

 

06/21/2005