North Carolina is a wasteland. In the countryside, extreme pollution threatens the social order. The cities are not much better: Raleigh clings to the edge of oblivion. In the shadows of towers, people sell dead babies in the streets. The rest of the country is even worse. Depleted resources have led to extreme depopulation. And the larger world is all but lost. Africa stands empty.
This is the grim scenario we confront in Haw (Harvard Square Editions, 181 pp.), the debut novel by local author Sean Jackson, who reads at So & So Books Aug. 29. Dystopian fiction has been all the rage in YA circles in recent years, from The Hunger Games to Divergent. This seems odd on the surface but makes perfect sense. What tween, emerging from a sheltered childhood, doesn't suddenly perceive the world as a dystopian nightmare of corruption, competition and unfairness?
Jackson reminds us that the apocalypse isn't just kid stuff. Its long literary tradition traces smoking wreckage from Brave New World to The Road, and it's in this line that Haw falls.
Rather than a post-apocalyptic world, Jackson draws a pre-apocalyptic one ready to topple once "the brute force of nature realizes how far gone it is." The book is set in an unspecified near-future, though a passing mention from one character that his great-great-grandfather was a poet at Black Mountain College suggests it's around 2060. Feral children with bandaged heads openly brandish firearms. Corpses pile in a flooded hut city around a blighted lake. Looting is commonplace. Potable water is scarce in "rivers and lakes grown darker and thicker with ruin."
The plot follows Lucas and Orel, father and son, as they try to survive in this hostile environment. Lucas is a water purification scientist fighting a losing battle, while Orel is a budding photojournalist who hopes to escape the South for the mythical haven of the North. We eventually learn that Orel is gay, which provides context for the bad public school experience that led to his homeschooling.
Lucas and Orel live in a mansion near Raleigh. It's one of many abandoned by The Hidden, who live high in climate-controlled towers, safe from the pollution, deprivation and violence among the semi-mutants living below. Jackson calls the lower class citoyens, exploiting the term's French Revolution-y whiff, and indeed, class warfare is in the air. "There are those who say the time is soon coming for the pendulum to swing back," Jackson writes. The book captures this atmosphere of vertiginous anticipation—a massive social force paused at the top of its arc before violently slicing back the other way.
The context builds slowly and in patchwork, so the whole picture doesn't come into view until well into the book. Gradually, we gather how things have come to this bleak pass. Electoral politics have broken down, leaving a shell democracy controlled by the increasingly indistinguishable totalitarian entities of corporations and the federal government. Following environmental catastrophes, the government has begun cutting off water and power service from rural areas to save the densely populated cities—excising gangrenous limbs to save the body, from one perspective; sacrificing the poor for the rich from another. Only the failing nuclear reactor (a thinly veiled Shearon Harris) polluting Jordan Lake and its tributaries keeps North Carolina valuable to the government. Whether or not it will blow is the question that hangs over the book until its climax.
In the second act, Lucas and Orel flee Raleigh for the countryside after a dead ballerina shows up at their home in an apparent warning (a somewhat obvious symbol for the death of beauty in this world, in a book that is usually more circumspect). They drive toward the Haw River, now reduced to a stream, and wind up in a salmon-raising camp in Bynum. "This is a locale, Lucas has heard, that may have untainted groundwater, as well as a safe community of peaceniks," Jackson writes. But someone seems to have followed him to this relatively idyllic haven. The mysterious intruder soon kills the dogs and poisons the water supply with lime.
Haw is a book of eruptive violence, coldly portrayed. It requires a certain tolerance for images of black blood welling from mouths and the like. The book has a few weaknesses. The plot can be elusive, portrayed through intimate vantages onto vast, incomprehensible squalor. Though spare and darkly lyrical, the writing is sometimes stiffly wrought, conspicuously lacking speech that feels natural or colloquial. Nostalgic conversations about the way things used to be, functional ones about the way they are and sentimental ones about the way they'll never be again can feel stagey. And it isn't always clear whether Jackson has sympathy or contempt for his leering, limping, spitting, puking, pissing citoyens, who mainly serve as background grotesquerie.
But Haw is vivid on environmental catastrophe; the world is more realistic than the characters. "When river water boils, it's certain that things are bad," Jackson writes. "It bleaches stone, scalds sediment and scorches lily pads and pickerelweed." He vividly imagines how everything from journalism to raising chickens works in this worst-case thought experiment.
In all, it amounts to a persuasive elegy for the human race under a rapacious system that already shows signs of necrosis beneath a gleaming, industrious façade. When Jackson writes about water contamination, he is writing about an only slightly worse version of our world. And when he writes things like "shrouding itself in bureaucracy and cynicism, the government continually fails to be responsible to its people," his fantastical tale verges on nonfiction.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Grave new world"