The Dead Lands
By Benjamin Percy
Grand Central Publishing, 2015
416 pages, $20.48
Reviewed by Jon Lampe
The first thing anyone will tell you about Benjamin Percy’s The Dead Lands is that it’s a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The Dead Lands opens in a post-apocalyptic world. The Sanctuary (located in downtown St. Louis, MO) sits on a frontier, of sorts. A super-flu overtook most of humanity 150 years earlier and a nuclear war finished the rest, transforming the world into something frightening and uncharted. The citizens managed to cobble together a wall in the midst of things, shooting anyone who approached and surviving in their hermitage with only the most nascent semblance of government.
The citizens toil like pioneers beneath an excruciating sun. Although it’s hard to imagine summers in St. Louis getting much hotter, the aftermath of the nuclear war has shredded the ozone. Water is the most valuable resource. The soil cracks, the wells dry, and melanomas sprout on the citizenry like acne. The only grace of their animalistic existence is given by the belief that they’re all that remains of humanity.
That is, until a young messenger arrived at the gates. Gawea, a woman with eyes black as pitch and devoid of irises or whites, carries a letter that goes unnoticed in her apprehension. She tells them of another band of survivors in a clime where rain is frequent and rivers flow free. The new mayor, Thomas, knows water is the only currency for power sentences Gawea to death, one step of many in the Sanctuary’s slow slide from mock democracy to totalitarianism.
Meanwhile, the local museum curator, Lewis Meriweather, discovers the aforementioned letter. Surprisingly, it’s addressed to him from an Aran Burr, calling him to an outpost in Oregon. Wilhelmina Clark, an alcoholic wall sentry, believes the sentencing and dwindling water supplies portend a poor future of the Sanctuary, and she convinces Lewis, a childhood friend, to venture beyond the wall with her and a small fellowship, including a doctor, guard, and jester among others. They make a jailbreak from the Sanctuary and head northwest, following the same route as their namesakes. Three guess will get you who Sacagawea’s simulacrum is.
So begins the expedition. Lewis and the fellowship move into the new world, encountering a warren of mutated spiders, man-sized bats, and bloodthirsty bears. Wisely, Percy takes the travelers through an array of climates, building dimension and dynamism that’s sometimes lacking from post-apocalyptic tales. As they move deeper into the radiated wilderness, so Lewis begins to explore his own internal world where lies a capacity for magic he can’t understand. When lives are in danger and the threat of death is imminent, Lewis has bouts of supernatural ability (a seeming stand-in for the retrospective frontiersman’s triumph of spirit over insurmountable circumstance).
It’s this tête-à-tête between character and circumstance that Percy portrays so well. While there are certainly villains within the pages of The Dead Lands, the wickedest villain of all is circumstance (or consequence), and Percy treats his characters with a compassionate brutality, sometimes allowing circumstance to conquer characters within a scene and sometimes allowing character to conquer circumstance.
The world-building isn’t lopsided or flat. Oftentimes, when I found myself questioning the history, logistics, or physics of the world, Percy answered in the proceeding chapter. Even the magic, which initially starts off a little haphazardly, becomes explained. This is long after Lewis has become proficient at spellbinding, and I felt a little in the dark during the interim.
While cribbing some from the Lewis and Clark Expedition, The Dead Lands reaches for what’s popular now, and with an epigraph from Neil Gaiman, “All stories are in conversation with other stories,” he does it seemingly tongue in cheek. There’s the magic, tower, and fellowship of The Lord of the Rings. There are the radiation-born superpowers of comic book lore. There’s the Hero’s Journey structure of most blockbuster movies. Even his characters point to it: “The her o comes from humble or disadvantaged circumstances. He suffers a loss or injury that presses him into a fight or quest…he gets help from. From a friend. They push their way through a dark time. They triumph.”
The Dead Lands functions as a horror, thriller, and adventure tale, and it succeeds in being horrifying, thrilling, and adventurous. Instead, its strength is in the pastiche. The horror of the apocalyptic wasteland complements the adventure’s journey because we never know what malformed creature is going to pop up next, and the escalation in thriller-esque reveals help to redefine the destinations of the adventure.
Some might argue that the novel doesn’t do much to elevate its genres. They might point to Percy’s accolades, his Plimpton, Pushcart, and Whiting Writer’s Award, and explain that they expected a reinvention of genre. But increasingly, maverick authors are hopping the line that divides literary from genre. Justin Cronin is the first that comes to mind. Not only are there some similarities with his novel The Passage (with a post-apocalyptic/vampire premise), but also the authors seem to be on similar journeys. For example, Cronin isn’t without his own accolades. Mary and O’Neil (published nine years before The Passage) won the PEN Award.
This is all in the service of saying that a novel from a literary author can make an excellent addition to genre without having to subvert our every expectation.
Just because The Dead Lands comes from a literary author doesn’t mean it has to turn our every expectation inside out to be successful. Percy’s literary background brings a refined linguistic sensibility, deep characters, and complicated exploration of economic disparity, governance, and survival. It does all of this while still entertaining with chase scenes, shotgun blasts, and elemental magic. That’s the success of The Dead Lands. It’s pastiche.