The Short Version: Detective – well, formerly Detective – Hank Palace is doing the best he can trying to keep an eye on everyone he can as doomsday marches inexorably closer. When his old babysitter asks him to find her husband, he dives into the case – and takes us on a journey through an increasingly dangerous landscape as our time ticks away…
The Review: I read the first book on a Sunday and, by the time I woke up and started reading this one, my tone had changed. I was angry, now – angry at humanity for slipping like this. Does the end of the world mean that everything needs to go to hell in the meantime? Could we not be better, try harder to retain our shared humanity?
But, then, that’s optimistic at best – and Winters knows it. And this book, we see the tipping point. It’s somewhat unexpected, honestly: things have been humming along with some loose semblance of order and then in the span of a few pages, almost before you can register it, the wire snaps. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Again, Winters uses the setting of the book to address some major socio-philosophical issues – although they dovetail with the actual case a little more cleanly this time around. The police department having been effectively nationalized at the end of The Last Policeman and the location of the asteroid’s impact determined to’ve been halfway around the world, America has (at least within the tiny parameters of Palace’s purview) settled into a sort of routine. There were riots – bad ones, it seems – on July 4th but a heavy police presence, the Bucket Listers pretty much having gone a-bucketing, and people just attempting to make the most of the last days of civilization. It’s a strange sort of calm, almost. An easy false sense of security.
When Hank ends up involved in this case – a late-in-the-day Bucket List guy, it would seem – he does it almost out of instinct. That last gasp of the policeman inside of him fighting against the inertia of this calm before the absolute fucking shitstorm. It’s something for him to do because to give in to the calm is to accept death. His crazy sister is, of course, the perfect counterpart – they’re so similar and yet so different, one attempting to save the world while the other tries to just make a few lives easier in the time we have left. But both of them have people’s best interests in their hearts. And when Nico returns 2/3rds of the way through the novel, it raises the faintest specter of hope – a dangerous ghost to stir in the chest of a condemned man, for sure.
But again, I get ahead of myself. The most interesting sequence in the book comes when Hank heads to the “Free Republic” that has been established on the campus of UNH – on the trail, of course, of the missing husband – and it gives Winters a platform to address more directly the fallout of putting hypotheticals into practice in a terminal society. After all, who better to spout serious-minded statements about government than students? My favorite quote, one I wrote down immediately was this:
“Radical social theories when put into practice have a notoriously short half-life. They dissolve into anarchy. Or the people’s power, even when carefully delegated to provisional authorities, is seized by totalitarians and autocrats.”
This is a young girl (well, youngish – mid-20s probably) talking to Palace after he’s witnessed a strange and chilling tribunal of sorts. He spoke up, seeking due process for the accused, because that’s what he understands to be good and right and true. But Julia, the girl quoted here, goes on to explain that the accused was actually brought in under these trumped-up charges because she didn’t want to bring him in under his real charge: rape. Because she fears that they’d hang him – and, as she says, “once you start hanging people…”
It’s an absolutely chilling moment and one that forced me to pause in my reading. Our society is exactly that fragile, according to Winters. Even in the face of those who would do good, pragmatic good, there is this understanding that we must really just pick the less evil choice – we advocate for order and justice in all things even as we lie to protect that order, that justice. Or to protect some modestly acceptable form of it.
Again, the case concluded a little too speedily for me – there were interesting aspects, including the revelation of the first big red herring, but it was just all a little too broad. There were leaps that felt, even under the circumstances, just a little too strange. But then, it’s also clear that we definitely don’t know the bigger picture here. Nico does – or at least she knows some of it – but Hank is out of the loop and that, too, provides a pulse of fear under the storytelling. As Hank returns to town and that aforementioned wire snaps… my mouth went dry, my heart was pounding. Why did the cops get pulled off the streets? What, truly, will the last weeks of civilization look like? I know Hank’s headed back out there for the final book of the trilogy… and I’m not just scared for impact, I’m scared for what we’ll have turned into before it comes.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Watching Ben Winters pull apart society under the guise of a procedural remains entertaining and engaging – but, again, it’s not because of the procedural. It’s because he’s got a gift for really zeroing in on the fundamental building blocks of society and just how those might fracture, splinter, collapse, or otherwise change in the face of seismic catastrophe. He indulges the academic stuff even further here, under the guise of a community at a college – but it allows him to really open up these issues and turn everything that’s said into theory that sits underneath the entire rest of the novel. It’s sad, strange, and smart all at once.
(This review originally appeared at TNBBC – go check them out! http://thenextbestbookblog.blogspot.com/2014/05/drew-reviews-countdown-city.html)