Early last year, I read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road. I have a weird affinity for apocalyptic stories, the reasons for which include the fact that I was terrified of a nuclear war after watching The Day After on television when I was 12. I spent months (years? It’s all so hazy) thinking about what I would do during post-apocalyptic days. Most likely my out-of-shape pre-teen and early teen corpse would have fed survivors in some fashion. I also found zombie movies at the same time, but that’s a different post.
Regardless, I like apocalyptic fiction. It can be bleak, but I also think there’s a glimmer of hope that makes the read worthwhile. In the same vein, I like stories set in places where a culture has moved on and a new culture moves in and discovers what was left before and tries to make sense of what they see.
I found The Road very powerful. There’s an economy of language that plays into the fact that everything in the world of the book needs to be done with economy in mind. You can’t just buy new shoes whenever you want, you can’t get take out when you don’t want to cook, and you can’t drive a car without anyone to refine oil. It also helps that I’m a father now, and reading a story of a father trying to protect his offspring really resonates with me in a way it didn’t a few years ago.
So I read the book, and I think, what would I do? If just me and my daughter survived, would I savvy enough for us to survive? Could I keep her safe? Could I keep her believing that things would get better? Would it be worth surviving at all?
One trope that I wrestle with in apocalyptic fiction is that there is no question that we try to survive. It seems plausible to me. Of course you’d try to survive. But would you really? And for how long would you try? What would keep you going? I know for me, like the unnamed protagonist in The Road, the feeling of the need to protect and nurture my child would motivate me. Thinking about that little face looking up to me with hope, looking up to me for answers, just looking up to me...that’s a powerful motivator. I’d want my daughter to believe in me and to know that I did everything I could.
What if it was a spouse? A spouse you were in the midst of divorce when everything went to heck and you ran off into the woods and hid for nine years? That’s the premise that begins Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse: A Novel by Victor Gischler. Mortimer Tate ran off into the woods and hid for nine years while an amazing combination of natural disasters, man-made stupidity, and otherwise craziness left the world all agog. And not in a good way.
Please note, if you want to read this book, there will be some minor spoilers coming up so you can skip down to the *** and start reading again.
But then three strangers happen past Mort in the woods. In the ensuing gun fight, Mort dispatches the three gentlemen. For the first time since he hid, he starts to wonder about what happened. He starts to wonder if his wife is alive. Mort decides that he has to know, and sets out to find his old house and see if his wife is still there.
Unfortunately for Mort, a lot of things have changed.
Most pertinent to the title of the book is that Joey Armageddon’s Sassy A-Go-Go strip clubs are apparently the only workplace/establishment that’s open in this new world. It’s a place where you can get a hot meal, a cold beer, and, well, Go-Go dancers. And since Mort has a ready stash of cases of booze and guns he quickly becomes a Platinum member.
Then Mort learns his wife is a star dancer for Joey Armageddon’s, and he sets out to find her. The novel is full of fish-out-of-water material as Mort tries to acclimate himself to this new world. Much of his thinking is still in the world he left nine years ago, while the rest of humanity has moved on. Gischler does a fantastic job of putting the reader in Mort’s head so that as you read, you suffer the same disconnected feeling that Mort does as you try to wrap your brain around what’s changed.
The book is non-stop action. Each situation that Mort gets himself into is zanier than the last. Or, as the jacket copy says: “Accompanied by his cowboy sidekick Buffalo Bill, the gorgeous stripper Sheila, and the mountain man Ted, Mortimer journeys to the lost city of Atlanta—and a showdown that might determine the fate of humanity.” If you want a fun read with lots of guns and sarcasm, this is a great choice.
*** So how do I make the connection between a Pulitzer Prize winner and a gonzo book about guns and broads set after the apocalypse?***
I see the two books as part of the same story. We don’t get to see Gischler’s world immediately after the cataclysms that destroy the planet, but I suspect it was something more akin to McCarthy’s: bleak, hardscrabble, and relentless. From the way that Gischler’s nine-years-later setting looks and how its people act, things had to be as they were in McCarthy’s book.
In the same vein, we don’t see what happens in McCarthy’s world years after the cataclysm that destroyed it. How would people rebuild? What shape would society take? Gischler gives a very plausible explanation of how Joey Armageddon’s Sassy A-Go-Go clubs came to be. Now, I’m not saying go-go clubs are the only post-apocalypse outcome for society, but I think people would be more apt to create something new rather than try to resurrect wholesale the way life (replete with the infrastructure of government, public works, etc.) was before.
It is typical in apocalyptic literature for the characters in the story to strive for something resembling routine. In Stephen King’s The Stand, people work hard to get things back to “normal.” In Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, the survivors create something new from the ashes that surround them, but the novel is set so far after the events that it’s unknown exactly how the characters got to where they are. In David Brin’s The Postman, it’s one man’s act of normalcy—delivering the mail—that gives people hope for the future. In both The Road and Go-Go Girls, the author has a central character who is trying to make things as “normal” as possible. It is clear that these characters would return to their previous lives if given a chance.
While the books appear very different on the surface, and there’s certainly two different writing styles going on, they’re both about the same thing. You can’t have an apocalyptic novel without it making some sort of commentary about our current state of being. Clearly McCarthy and Gischler think things could be better and perhaps everything should be razed to the ground and started over. In one sense it eliminates all the problems that exist and gives humanity a chance to start over and do things right. Unfortunately, it also gets rid of everything that was good and forces people to recreate it. And as these things go, the problem that the survivors face is that no one agrees on what needs to be done.
In addition to making commentary on the state of the world, both books are about perserverance and hope. Both authors are showing that they believe the human spirit wants to work and survive no matter what condition the world is in. Now, I’m not getting all soft here. I mean, who wants to read an apocalyptic novel where everyone’s given up? The point of these books is how people work to survive in difficult conditions. How people adapt to change. Most people don’t like change and won’t change unless forced to. An apocalypse would force a lot of people to change a lot of things, and the survivors would be those who adapted quickest.
Now, I assume you all know that The Road is being made into a movie? OK, if you didn’t know, now you do. Well, for everything I said about the book being about hope, it is pretty bleak. And in a lot of ways, there’s not much action. I’m intrigued to see how they take the novel and adapt it for the big screen. And at the same time, I can only hope that Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse also gets made into a movie. I think it would be more fun to watch.