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  • TITLE: The Pesthouse
  • AUTHOR: Jim Crace
  • PUBLICATION YEAR: 2007
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On days such as this the sky is so thinly blue and hollowed out that death's great hand can at any time reach through to harvest anyone it wants. . . And he could smell it on the air, beyond the pine, that faintly eggy smell, the chemicals of hell, the madman's belch. Was this the smell of pestilence?

—p. 42

 

In author Crace's The Pesthouse, this shack of “turfs and boulders”(p.42) outside of Ferrytown is the quarantined quarters for the only person in the community to have contracted the Grand Contagion—or “flux” as it is called—a pandemic that's wiped out at least half the population of America and leveled the playing field back to more like the times of William Penn and Cotton Mather, but without muskets. Margaret is already viewed with a squinty eye because of her red hair, and her family apparently doesn't blink to damn their “pest” to the back of a mule for a ride up the hill.

At about the same time, brothers Jackson and Franklin Lopez abandon their aging mother and scratched-out, Midwest farm for the “Dreaming Highway”(p.95), a trek across “the prairies of rubble”(p.6) to the eastern seaboard where great ships are supposedly waiting to sail anxious Americans away to the rumored candylands of Europe or thereabouts. Around two weeks from their destination, they arrive in Ferrytown—which is a scam for bilking travelers, since there's a free bridge upstream—just in time for Nature to squeeze out a deadly raspberry with a landslide releasing toxic gas that kills all the town's inhabitants. The younger brother Franklin, however, has gimped a leg and stays behind while the older one continues to town and his bedtime demise. This makes Franklin and Margaret—he finds her and she finds him “sweetly timorous” while he heals her by holding her feet to “remove the flux with his enormous thumbs”(p.99)—the lone survivors of this ironic and convenient disaster which frees them from their subservient, familial roles to an almost Adam and Eve innocence in a pestilential landscape. The Outsiders, the Strange Ones have become the diffident heroes in this upside-down future world.

Margaret and Pigeon—that's her nickname for him—commence the quest of this yellow-bricked quagmire of a road trip adventure by Franklin sawing the ropes that hold the bridge and its felonious representation(1). They set about some surprisingly banal encounters with “the fools that a young fool meets”(2), the most important of which is a family of 4 including a swaddling toddler. After a raiding party of outlaws takes their supplies, worldly goods, and picks the men “out of their lives as easily as berries from a bush”(p.123), Margaret becomes the surrogate mother to Bella and renames her Jackie. Alone when she hits Tidewater and the disappointments of the ocean-going factory ships, Mags can only fall in with the Finger Baptists who run the landlubbed Blessed Ark. For sustenance, she must lipsync the vows and give up all "metal, the Devil's work. Metal is the cause of greed and war"(p.154). Predicatively, the outlaws show up, skewer some zealots, and run off with the metal scraps, probably with some hope of constructing a 3D printer to make some guns(3). But who also shows up is Franklin, none the worse for his slave sabbatical, and Margaret and Jackie are saved. On the way down the coast to some other seaport and other ocean liners, the misfitted but devoted threesome discover the epiphany of the novel: Their “dream was not the future but the past”(p.206). The journey ends where it started—in a made-over Pesthouse—and Pigeon, Mars, Jackie, and Swim (they got a horse along the way) achieve atonement and resurrection while waiting for the winter storms to lift “from the plains and prairies, from the hopes and promises, from the thicknesses and substances that used to be America”(p.255).

 

And then—imagine it—they could begin the journey west again. They could. They could imagine striking out to claim a piece of long-abandoned land and making home in some old place, some territory begging to be used. Going westward, they would go free.

—p.255

 

But it's not so much about returning to the past as it is accepting the present.(4) And things aren't really that bad, ya know? I mean, compared to other EOTW novels like, say, The Road or even McIntosh's Soft Apocalypse , where the Earth's dirt is cooked or covered in evasive bamboo. Here, all the elements are reasonably unpolluted, just waiting around for humans to mix them into a survival stew. Winter is surmounted within the Blessed Ark ; Margaret doesn't get raped; Franklin 's not killed or permanently crippled, just chain-ganged. Their most hazardous trial is crossing back over the river banked by Ferrytown (that's how Swim earns her name). No, these are not the tribulations of a wide-eyed, powerful narrative wrenching out the endurance of the human spirit against long odds. The love story—the only story—if not tepid is timid, but still manages a feelgood blush over the inhospitable landscape and the reader's heart. The action is not as pronounced because the calamities are not so grand. And the message is nowhere near prophetic, inspirational, or revolutionary; it is simply the worn placation of accepting your lot and enjoying your path, convinced it's of your choosing.

Nothing so apocalyptic in that, is there?

 

 

1) cutting all ties to the past, get it?

2) Jackson Browne, Daddy's Tune.

3) Sorry, boys, no electricity. Build a forge.

4) Postscript: Notice they don't talk about setting out for the Lopez homestead and Mom, but about dreams far more intangible. They want nothing to do with people of the past, their communities or their workarounds. There is no vision beyond their own glandular fixations. Heroic? Certainly not. Despicable? Hardly. As I mentioned earlier: Adam and Eve, but without the diseases of past civilizations. I say, Go Girls!

© copyright 01/15/2014 by Larry Crawford

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