JULY 24, 2013
THE UNIVERSAL DEATH SENTENCE has perhaps never been rendered in more literal terms than in Ben H. Winters’s 2012 novel The Last Policeman. In that book — winner of the Edgar Award for best paperback original, and the first volume in a projected trilogy — Winters set a doomsday vision in motion: A giant asteroid hurtles toward earth. Its impact in just seven months is certain. With the destruction of all life on the planet virtually assured, civil society begins to break down. Shortages of everything from electricity to coffee cripple the world’s largest economies. Governments seize special powers to ensure order. Some people “go Bucket List” and disappear to chase long delayed dreams of adventure. Others lose themselves in religious ecstasy or seek the oblivion of sex and drugs. Many people, confronted by incontrovertible evidence that life is meaningless, simply kill themselves. Suspicious that one of these suicides might be a cover for murder, New Hampshire police detective Hank Palace doggedly pursues a killer long after everyone else has ceased to care. After all, what’s the point in catching a murderer if everybody’s going to die in seven months?
Winter’s new novel, Countdown City, takes place three months after The Last Policeman. As the asteroid makes its way ever closer, things have gotten worse. Commerce has given way to bartering. Mass immigrations are upsetting the global order as people flee the projected impact site in Asia, and armed militias attempt to seal the American shorelines. Student radicals have seized control of universities. Families and communities are falling apart as more and more people “go Bucket List.”
Meanwhile, Hank Palace is out of a job. With all local law enforcement disbanded so resources can be shuffled over to the military for peacekeeping efforts, there’s no call for a small town detective like Palace. When he’s contacted by a childhood friend whose husband has disappeared, Palace accepts the missing person case as much out of a need for meaningful distraction as any personal loyalty. He gets plenty of meaningful distraction. It’s not just that the man he’s chasing, Brett Cavatone, is a brilliant ex-cop who seems to have orchestrated the perfect escape from a life he longed to leave behind, it’s that Palace’s search forces him to negotiate a society that is crumbling in every direction.
At one point, the detective stops to observe, “There is an aspect of my character that tends to latch on to one difficult but potentially solvable problem, rather than grapple with the vast and unsolvable problem that would be all I could see, if I were to look up.” The vast and unsolvable problem to which he refers is, of course, the looming global catastrophe, but what he’s really talking about is death itself. As it does in all noir fiction — and Countdown City is more noir than whodunit — the specter of mortality haunts the characters. Unlike most novels, however, death is the text here rather than the subtext. Everywhere Palace goes he finds people grappling with the certainty of their imminent demise.
In one of the most evocative passages in the book, he enters a university library searching for a woman who used to know Brett Cavatone, but instead of finding her he stumbles across this strange scene:
I see a pale boy hunched over the desk in a carrel, sipping from a Styrofoam cup, surrounded by books, reading. His face is gaunt and his hair a greasy mass. On the ground beside him is a clotted leaking pile of discarded teabags, and beside that a bucket that I realize with horror is full of urine. There’s a tall stack of books on one side of him and a taller stack on the other: out pile, in pile. I stand for a second watching this guy, frozen in place but alive with small action: muttering to himself as he reads, almost humming like an electric motor, his hands twitching at the edges of the pages until, with a sudden flash of motion, he turns the page, flings it over like he can’t consume the words fast enough.
The image is haunting, I think, precisely because helpless bibliophiles instinctively understand the terrible beauty of this pale boy’s choice to spend his few remaining days consuming books, to be their last reader, to bear final witness to the thoughts of writers who are already long since dead.
American culture is profoundly obsessed with apocalypse right now, and it’s not difficult to locate some roots of that obsession. From the images of towers crumbling in 2001 to the global financial meltdown of 2008, we’ve become conditioned to news that is not simply bad but cataclysmic. Worse still, perhaps, is the fact that we’ve survived these disasters without the benefit of any apparent hindsight. Twelve years and trillions of dollars after 9/11, we’re more entangled in the Middle East than ever before. Five years after the financial debacle, we’re seeing a new artificial housing bubble built on the same practices that brought the whole damn world to the brink of ruin in 2008. Every faction on the cultural/political spectrum foresees disaster of one kind or another. The only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that the empire is falling.
Winters has seized on what seems to be the defining preoccupation of our day — fantasizing about the end of the world — and married it to a genre, noir, that is defined by its fatalism. The result makes for compelling reading. In Countdown City, Hank Palace notes, “This age of uncertain terrors is metastasizing, growing backward, destroying not just the future but the present, poisoning everything: relationships, investigations, society, making it impossible for anyone to know anything or do anything at all.” That line refers to the novel’s end-of-the-world scenario, but it has emotional resonance because of our real world anxieties.
If the noir novel turns out to be a surprisingly robust medium for this kind of anguish, perhaps it’s because the genre has always delivered hopelessness wrapped in pulpy style. Winters is a deft storyteller who moves his novel effortlessly from its intriguing setup to a thrilling, shattering conclusion. In Hank Palace, he has given us a true hero for our eschatological age, a good man trying to navigate a world in freefall, the last hero in a line that goes back to Spenser, Kinsey Millhone, Bud White, Easy Rawlins, Lew Archer, and Philip Marlowe. At some points, though, he sounds as much like Jean-Paul Sartre as any hardboiled hero, telling one Bucket Lister, “The asteroid is not making anyone do anything. It’s just a big piece of rock floating through space. Anything anyone does remains their own decision.”
Having reached the end of Countdown City, I can’t wait to get back to Palace’s collapsing world in the next, final, volume of the series. Winters ends this novel on a cliffhanger that I wouldn’t think of giving away, except to say that in some ways it represents the logical progress of the overarching narrative he began with The Last Policeman. It leaves us wondering, in more ways than one, how it will all end.