Despite a writing career that ran from 1960 into the 2000s, Neal Barrett was not the most prolific writer. A large chunk of his bibliography is forgotten as well, consisting of some short stories in Galaxy and Amazing, Tom Swift and Hardy Boys novels under aliases, some comic book work, and over a dozen pulpy paperbacks. But every writer has at least one truly great books in them, and Barrett managed to have two: Through Darkest America and its sequel Dawn’s Uncertain Light, a pair of bleak apocalypses that cemented Barrett’s reputation with SF writers and critics. Barrett never quite matched those novels’ critical success, with his science fiction giving way to movie novelizations and crime novels in the 1990s. Ten years after his last novel, Barrett passed away in 2014 at the age of 84.
Howie Ryder’s childhood is one of pastoral tranquility, growing up in rural Tennessee under the loving gaze of his parents. But his small town isn’t isolated from larger events, and eventually Howie’s family feels the aftershocks of a great civil war out west, with harsh taxes collected by harsher government troops. The Loyalist soldiers fighting for the government need meat, but Howie’s rancher father is reluctant to give up any head of Stock. Stock may look human, but they lack intelligence and souls, and as the only form of meat in a world with little remaining animal life Stock fetch a high price per head. With Stock already in short supply before the war effort, Howie’s father refuses to give Stock away as war taxes.
His father’s stubbornness causes the war to come crashing home for Howie thanks to a brutal government reprisal; Howie finds himself alone in the world and, after seeking revenge on the troops’ commander, he goes on the run from government soldiers. As he makes his way westward, Howie falls in with Pardo, a cunning bandit who preys on both sides of the conflict running guns and rustling Stock. It’s in this post-apocalytpic wilderness that Howie comes of age, growing up under the tattered shadow of a warring United States on his trek through darkest America.
Through Darkest America is a sharp contrast to Barrett’s other works, most of which were traditional space adventures published by Ace or DAW. In fact Barrett’s approach to “science fiction” with this novel is much more of a soft touch. Aside from snippets of setting/backstory in the first 15% and last 15% of the book, it reads much more like a coming-of-age novel set in the American Civil War-era old west, and could have easily been converted to historical fiction. (It reminds me of Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, the bulk of which also consisted of coming-of-age pastoral pioneer adventures bookended with a science fiction apocalypse, though Barrett’s novel feels more mature and complete.) Instead, Barrett stuck with science fiction, injecting SF and horror elements into the Western setting. Told through Barrett’s folksy but dynamic prose, the feeling of authenticity lends to its power, and the book is an uneasy blend of familiar history inside a dark future.
And this is a very dark timeline, one of the nastiest crapsack worlds in a decade chock full of bleak futures and miserable apocalypses (Riddley Walker, Handmaid’s Tale, Swan Song, Clay’s Ark, etc etc). When I say it reads like a western, I mean more like a gritty HBO miniseries and less like a John Wayne movie. Aside from the bloody battles, gruesome torture scenes, and a teenage Howie’s first sexual experiences with a camp follower, there’s also Stock: genetically retarded humans used for meat in a world where animals have gone extinct. I had a sinking feeling when I realized that heads of “Stock” referred to human cattle and not cows; it goes a long way towards setting the tone regardless of how this world’s inhabitants justified eating these dumb, soulless beasts.
Some pretty terrible things happen to Howie in the novel, and they shape him into a man who does a few terrible things himself. Still, you feel for Howie on every step of his journey, as he’s thrust into situations he doesn’t want to be in and in which he has no easy way out. Howie’s tale the sad descent of a boy left bereft of a moral compass, thrust out from his pastoral childhood and forced to grow up in a lawless world. And as Howie discovers some of this world’s dark and twisted secrets, he’ll come a long way from the innocent boy we’re introduced to. Barrett does a masterful job introducing us to young Howie and his pastoral childhood, an accessible innocence which washes away as Barrett starts to address more complex concepts. I’m sure a Vegan would find the consumption of Stock and its ethical justifications not too far a stretch from reality…
Through Darkest America is a beautiful and compelling read, but not for the queasy or faint of heart; this is very much darkest America, a grim future that becomes more troubling until its final revelation. This world is so detailed and convincing, it makes the cannibalism and brutal civil war even more affecting. And despite its darkness, it’s a poetic novel… and a unique one in the way it blends a feeling of familiar history with unsettling science fiction. It was a draining read that took me several months to get through, but I am going to track down its sequel, if only to see if Through Darkest America’s open-ended ending gets some continuation and closure. After falling out of print for almost twenty years, it’s good to see that ebook versions came out in 2016, though tracking down a hard copy is still a frustrating (but worthwhile) exercise.
Title: Through Darkest America
Editor: Neal Barrett Jr.
Publisher: Congdon & Weed / Crossroad Press
Release Date: 1987 / 2016
What I Read: ebook
MSRP: oop pb / $3.99 ebook
Price I Paid: $3.99
ISBN/ASIN: 0865531846 / B01BMQOUGA