Lost Everything by Brian Francis Slattery
Reviewed by Chris Kammerud
05 September 2012
"I think everything is always ending and beginning again," she said. "It's just that we know about it this time." (p. 218)
Brian Francis Slattery has, it seems, a predilection for apocalypse and revelation. In each of his books, there looms the possibility, or the actuality, of an end to everything—an ending, generally, which allows Slattery and his characters a chance to wonder at what was, is, and might yet be. In his two previous novels, Spaceman Blues (2007) and Liberation (2008), he explored, respectively, the prospect of a world destroyed by aliens and an America transformed by the collapse of the dollar. In Lost Everything, his third novel, Slattery presents us again with an image of a post-apocalyptic America, this one ravaged by the effects of climate change.
In a nod to Huckleberry Finn, Slattery follows two men, Reverend Bauxite and Sunny Jim, as they travel along a river, the Susquehanna, and wind their way through a Pennsylvania and New York torn asunder by drought, flood, and war. Each man has lost his own everything. The Reverend, his church and maybe his faith. Sunny Jim, his wife and maybe his son. They've joined together with a mission to reach Binghamton, a town at river's end, where Sunny Jim might be reunited with his hopefully still alive sister and son. To their south, a war born of scarcity rushes to overtake them. To their north and west, a storm straight out of Revelations and resembling nothing so much as The Nothing from The Neverending Story rolls across mountains and forests and straight towards Sunny Jim's family.
Their journey upriver takes place on a ramshackle steamship named the Carthage, a ship built with scraps of iron and wood pulled from the wreckage of towns and ships passed along the way. Its two smokestacks come from two different factories. The paddle wheel from a mill in Pennsylvania. The body is built of different colored planks, some dozen or so still bearing monikers from a past life, the names of long-dead schooners, yachts, or pubs—"enough to piece together a history, a history always returning." People jump on board for different reasons. A group of musicians are headed for a new start in Towanda. Children hitch a ride because there's nothing left for them at home. Dinner theater occurs in the evening. Sometimes there are fights. Always there’s music.
In the way Slattery writes, too, there is music. A musician himself, Slattery's sentences often build and unravel in the way of a jazz solo, weaving their way between order and chaos, transcendence and disillusion. Lost Everything is told from the point of view of someone who has collected the stories of the Reverend and Jim, of the storm and the war. She or he exists in some possible future, writing everything down, hoping to share with someone, a lost love, perhaps, or some random reader, all that was lost and still lingers. As they say:
I have been to so many funerals now. We bury them in the gray soil, stand over the mounds, lean on our shovels. Say the same words again and again. But there are pregnancies too, children coming. A woman like a great egg. Another just conceived. They help us dig, then turn and spit into the earth. They will not say it, but they cannot keep it all in either. For their coming children are their hopes embodied, their faith made into flesh, that all that is ending is beginning again. For the world will not be fallen to their children. It will only be the world, new as they are. And perhaps if we tell them enough, if we say the right thing, they will see a way out, and know what to do. (p. 175)
Lost Everything most assuredly belongs to that genre of fallen worlds and roving bands, of civilizations already lost and a person, or people, trying to figure out what could possibly come next. Think of McCarthy's The Road (2006), the much talked about trend of Young Adult dystopias, or any number of Margaret Atwood's novels, such as The Year of the Flood (2009). Slattery's previous writing has been compared to Pynchon, Ellison, and Dali, but, here, in Lost Everything, Slattery writes in a tone somewhere between McCarthy's sparse elegy and Atwood's lyrical satire. There's something of Faulkner, in fact, in the way Slattery densely packs his paragraphs, and the landscape of his small patch of country, with so much time and pain and hope and beauty. Faulkner, too, wrote of lost worlds, about the ruin of a past that maybe never even existed, of a South that had been noble in its simplicity, somehow simultaneously ignorant and aware of its sins against humanity. Slattery often seems to be saying the same of us, of our twinned knowledge and denial of climate change. He writes in Lost Everything with a haunted, nigh Biblical double vision, one that sees in the ruins of what came before both our beauty and our sins against the Earth. In Binghamton, a man fishes "from his bedroom on Seminary Avenue," women row among submerged houses, their "canoes full of ripening fruit." Downtown, memories still live of "shooting sprees" and "mob bosses," of "cannoli and bread," of "ragged reggae [next to] a throbbing throng that shouted for more." And always, the sounds we didn’t let ourselves hear, of "the water talking about it all, the words moving around us, running up through our bones, until the city was in us, the city and all that had come before, even though it was almost gone. Almost" (pp. 58-9).
Another point of separation between Slattery's novel and much of the fallen world genre springs from the way that the narrator collects and tacks onto the main narrative story after story, character after character. In much the way the variously colored and slapped together Carthage is a rollicking, morose, and sometimes joyful construction built from the scrap and loss of others, so does Lost Everything build a ramshackle narrative of various hues, built from the countless loves and pains gathered from an ever-expanding sprawl of characters. Slattery wanders through whole narrative arcs for the Captain of the Carthage, for children glimpsed on the shore, for four soldiers that chase our heroes down the river for the part that the Reverend and Jim had played in, among other things, the destruction of a bridge some miles to the south. At times, as a reader, it's easy to become unmoored as the story shifts focus, as new and old characters swim in and out of the narrative. But, for the most part, Slattery keeps us focused on the thrust of Jim to find his family and his home, as well as his ache over the wife he lost when that southern bridge blew. Her presence, in some ways, holds the novel together, her memory swimming alongside the Carthage, haunting Jim with the truth of who he thought he was, and of what he's lost. What he still can't face about either.
As to why these sorts of stories, of societal breakdown and apocalypse, have become popular in recent years, Atwood has said they often "come when people have suddenly realized that things may not necessarily go along the same set of assumptions that they have been going on for the last little while." She points out, in fact, that our current realizations of the present and growing consequences of climate change are most likely watering this current crop of apocalyptic narrative. I would add that, as a race, humans seem to take a particular pleasure in the ends of things—in sunsets, parting smiles, and galaxies colliding. We’re drawn inexorably towards dissolution. Slattery, for his part, cannot shake either the truth of our failed assumptions of climate change, or the beauty of the final curtain. The relief of letting go, at last, of everything already lost. It’s the only way to move on. Which is as much a conflict for Jim, to let go of his wife and live for his son, despite having lost everything, as it is for humanity as a whole, as we try to let go of who we thought we were, move past what’s already been lost, and listen to what the wind and waters are trying to tell us of the worlds that may yet be.