01/04/2010. Contributed by Tomas L. Martin
pub: Bantam Spectra. 392 page enlarged paperback. Price: $12.00 (US), $15.00 (CAN) ISBN: 978-0-553-38502-1.
check out website: www.bantamdell.com
This slim debut novel from American author James Braziel caught my eye when it entered the review queue, because the premise seemed to neatly carry on the zeitgeist brought to life so well in Cormac McCarthy's modern classic, 'The Road'. Like that book, 'Birmingham, 35 Miles' is a sad story set after an unspecified ecological apocalypse has wreaked havoc on America.
Whereas McCarthy's book hinted at a volcanic eruption as its root cause, the destruction in James Braziel's first novel seems more closely linked to climate change and the breakdown of the ozone layer. The American south has begun a desolate desert wasteland, visited upon by fierce storms and UV light so strong that daytime is deadly to those who step outside into it.
Those stuck in this hell are prevented from leaving by a vast government cordon cutting them off from the 'Saved World' further North. Some managed to escape using visas and other methods to escape but the remaining unlucky few live short lives mining the clay in terrible conditions, moving between abandoned towns in salvaged trailers.
The book focuses on Mathew Harrison, the son of a clay miner who, despite his father's best attempts at education, seems doomed to the same existence. Mathew's wife, Jennifer, longs to move North to live with her mother in Chicago and throughout the book we see his loyalty torn between remaining with his father or fleeing the wasteland with his wife.
This is a tangled book, with multiple timelines and flashbacks interweaving frequently in a morass of introspection by the main character. Mathew is difficult to like or empathise with, as he frequently avoids making any choices at all when confronted by either side of his choice. There is very little dynamic action by any of the characters and when it does occur, it is frequently split up by the fragmented structure of the narrative, lessening its impact.
The language used throughout is often beautiful and always impressive. This is firmly in the literary camp of post-apocalyptic fiction and the book is filled with clever imagery, narrative tricks and other tools. I've never been the biggest fan of these techniques, as I feel it often papers over the cracks in the other parts of the book and this is definitely true here. There's some craft to admire, but the heart of the story feels hollow.
I found it very hard to like this book despite wanting to because of its premise. The main character is extremely passive and unlikeable and his reasons for refusing to accept a better life elsewhere seem unrealistic and chosen purely to amplify the dark and desolate setting. I felt this was trying to be a depressing read, leading to all the characters being depressed and ultimately dull.
It's very obvious to see the parallels between this and 'The Road', whether Braziel intended the similarities or not. Despite a similar premise, this doesn't come anywhere near to McCarthy's efforts because it seems to miss the point of why 'The Road' was so powerful. We identified with the man and his son because they were struggling desperately to escape the darkness and ruin their world had become. They strove to overcome it, even if that attempt was doomed, and we willed them on even if we suspected how it would end.
'Birmingham, 35 Miles' has none of the passion and drive that 'The Road' has. Its characters seem to lack all purpose, and their passivity makes the setting less interesting, even though arguably the world-building in this book is more interesting than the set-up in McCarthy's book. It's beautiful in parts, but the disjointed narrative structure and poor characterisation make this no more than a disappointing curiosity.
Tomas L. Martin
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