Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949)

Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949)

George R. Stewart's 1949 novel Earth Abides opens with protagonist Isherwood Williams, a geography grad student doing field work for his thesis in the woods around the San Francisco Bay, getting bitten by a rattlesnake and refusing to panic. Keeping his focus, he stops to pick up an old hammer he found along the way. Recuperating in a nearby cabin, he finds the hammer "occupied an unduly large part of his consciousness":

It had been used by some miner in the old days when rock-drills were driven home in a low tunnel with a man swinging a hammer in one hand; four pounds was about the weight a man could handle in that way, and it was called a single-jack because it was managed one-handedly.

In a novel that otherwise has little use for the supernatural, this fever dream serves as a portent. Isherwood will hold onto that hammer longer than he suspects.

Making his way out of the wilderness post-recovery, Isherwood discovers that an eerie calm has fallen over a nearby farm. Then he finds the calm stretches everywhere he travels, since humanity has largely been wiped out by a fast-acting plague. With little more than a hammer and a car, Isherwood returns to his parents' home on San Lupo Drive in an unnamed but easily recognizable Berkeley (where Stewart was an English professor). Nobody's home. Difficult-to-faze, Isherwood sets out to find other survivors with little luck, discovering only a soon-to-die drunk, a couple made up of a sexually inviting woman and a threatening man, and a teenage girl who flees in terror. Leaving California, he sets off to explore the rest of America, and finds that it's mostly his. There are survivors here and there—an African-American family group in the South, a pair of New Yorkers who drink warm martinis for breakfast—but most everyone else has gone. The future, as blank as it looks, belongs to him. So he decides to go home. "There'll always be a San Lupo Drive!" he thinks, without yet realizing that with no one there to call it that, there's no such thing as San Lupo Drive or anyplace else.

Isherwood is an unlikely architect for a new tomorrow. He isn't exactly a misanthrope, but Stewart establishes early on that his protagonist doesn't have a lot of use for other people. Or dogs, even. But he overcomes his distrust of the latter when he takes on a canine partner named Princess. And in time, he brings a few stray people into his circle as well, beginning with a slightly older woman named Em, with whom he begins a relationship founded as much on genuine affection as, well, the absence of anyone else around.

Their relationship also transcends old prejudices:

"You're just a nice boy," [she said]. "You looked at my hands and said they were nice. You never even noticed the blue in the half-moons."

He felt the shock, and he knew that she felt the shock in him. Now everything came together in his mind—brunette complexion, dark liquid eyes, full lips, white teeth, rich voice, accepting temperament.

I had to read that passage a few times to confirm that it said what I thought it said, and I still wasn't entirely sure until I hit a later moment in which Em referred to the enslavement of her African ancestors. (Note that the cover of the 1962 edition keeps the miscegenation squarely on the page.)

Much of the rest of the novel concerns Ish and Em's almost accidental (and frequently unsuccessful) attempts to rebuild civilization. They find other survivors and eventually form a social group known as The Tribe, but most of the old ways don't transfer to the next generation, even though everyone lives off the scraps of civilization that came before. Prone to worry, Ish sees a future of ill-adapted humans who know only how to forage for cans.

I'm torn about discussing the rest of the novel, because I don't want to spoil the plot, especially since I really loved this book in a way I hadn't expected. My copy came with raves from The New Yorker and Carl Sandburg ("I thank brother Stewart for writing it"), but I wasn't expecting such an engrossing, and in the end extraordinarily moving novel. It's still in print, too, so anyone who wants to experience it with surprises intact should skip down to the bolded "End Spoilers" part. Ready? Okay.

Stewart writes in a style that's beautifully free of ornamentation, letting the mood build slowly from the details of Ish's day-to-day existence, and the way those details change as he moves from being a loner to a leader of humanity. But anyone expecting a reiteration of humanism and a slow return to the old ways will be disappointed. Stewart maintains a clear-eyed skepticism of humanity. Ish and Em and a few others live together happily in mutually beneficial anarchy, but in time, thanks to a threatening newcomer, they have to form a state body. Which goes hand-in-hand with the shedding of blood.

Even before that, Ish finds that the generation that knows only the echoes of what have come to be known as "the Old Times" has little use for math or literacy or even most music. (They do enjoy the sport of bull-dodging, however.) Ish makes no attempts to preserve religion, but he becomes, in the end, a kind of god. And that hammer seen in the opening pages becomes a symbol of his godhood, a symbolic repository for the mysteries of the civilization that was. He isn't, however, a much-feared god, as an elderly Ish discovers in the novel's closing chapters:

"Where shall we go, Ish?" one of them asked. Ish felt that this was a strange question for anyone to ask of him, who was only an old man and would scarcely know what to do as well as the young ones would. Then he remembered that they sometimes asked him which direction they should take for their hunting. When he did not answer, they pinched him. He did not like to be pinched, and so he thought hard now, as to which way they should go.

It's hard to fear a deity who can't pinch back, and if any of his tribesmen ever thought him immortal, they realize otherwise by the book's closing pages, when his death is imminent and his tribe is desperate for him to appoint a successor and yield up his hammer. He fades away knowing that humanity is, maybe for better and maybe for worse, rebuilding civilization among the weeds and the rust, most likely in a way that will bring on the same familiar cycles of war and competition. But he also comes to realize that world itself is bigger than anything they might build, and the novel finds that transcendence and skepticism don't necessarily exclude each other. He finds hope of the most fundamental and unsentimental kind in the words that make up the title.

END SPOILERS

Again, this is a terrific book. Stewart lets civilization crumble, and uses that scenario as means of discovering how much of what he consider human is in fact a product of our surroundings and centuries of custom. But it's no mere intellectual exercise, and Isherwood's progress from gifted (though not extraordinarily so), young man to leader to relic is believably realized and unexpectedly affecting. It's also unpredictable. Stewart's book is an early post-apocalyptic novel, and an influential one—Stephen King cites it as an influence on The Stand—but it isn't the birthplace of the genre's clichés. I kept expecting barbarian bikers to show up, or the plague to be revealed as the work of a shadowy conspiracy, but neither makes an appearance. When an outside threat does arrive, it's much more insidious, and it exacts a terrible toll that's as much psychic as physical. It's also removed from the unrelenting darkness of more modern post-apocalyptic visions, like Cormac McCarthy's The Road or Michael Haneke's Time Of The Wolf. There just aren't enough people left to make the earth hell for one another. Yet.

Much more time is spent exploring the change in the local flora, and the sudden rise and fall in the local rat population. But though Stewart writes with little flash, he's never boring. He chooses the few details he needs to get the point of a scene across, he uses them well, and he lets a distinct point of view—humane without being in awe of humanity, and skeptical without being cynical—emerge from the undergrowth. It's a long requiem that leaves no doubt that what's come before has been laid to rest. And he lets readers decide whether that's worth mourning.

* * * *

That might be enough heavy stuff for a while. How about we try a Cold War farce and barbarians for a couple of weeks?

Next:

The Mouse That Roared by Leonard Wibberley

Then:

Wolfshead by Robert E. Howard

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