Lost Everything by Brian Francis Slattery (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2012. 304 pp)
Brian Francis Slattery was born and raised in upstate New York. He is an editor for the U.S. Institute of Peace and the New Haven Review. He is the author of Spaceman Blues and Liberation, and is also a musician. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
No One Should Be Mother Teresa
I vaguely remember a provocative paper assigned in ethics during my undergraduate years. Since I forget specifics, it’s probably not the best analogy, but I find it particularly fits with Brian Francis Slattery’s Lost Everything.
The author of this paper argued that nobody should aim to act like Mother Teresa. First off, the baseline for her code of ethics is too high for most of humanity to reach. Additionally, people can’t relate to the Mother Teresa-types of this world. In their perfect altruism, they alienate everyone else. Could you find yourself able to use sarcasm in front of her? It would seem as if you couldn’t be yourself for fear of judgment or feelings of insufficiency.
Ethically then, the author argues for a more nuanced approach which allows people to remain in relationship with others. To be human, essentially. To me, this idea sits at the core of Lost Everything.
Traversing a Post-Apocalyptic Landscape
Told through an anonymous narrator in a documentary style, Lost Everything follows its principal characters, Sunny Jim and Reverend Bauxite, as they meander up the bloated Susquehanna River in the reconstructed steam engine, Carthage. Living in a dreary post-apocalyptic version of the United States, the duo hopes to reunite with Sunny Jim’s son, Aaron, before the war catches up with them. Aaron is staying with Jim’s sister, taking refuge in the old family house away from the warfront.
Meanwhile, on what’s left of the former Interstate 81, the army marches toward this house, hoping to capture the targeted Sunny Jim dead or alive—but in all honesty, and most likely, dead.
A Nation Collapsed
While Brian Francis Slattery superbly crafts a touching and suspenseful narrative, this novel shines during its frightening descriptions of the United States in post-collapse.
Trouble starts with the climate. With harsh storms comes economic hardship and soon, a once prosperous nation dives into a depraved civil war.
“It was about territory. It was about food and water: who had it, who did not. The old fights, the ones we had fought since we got here, the ones our ancestors brought with them when they came here, all those bitter old things becoming new again. It was about how much we had done to the planet, and the way the planet, at last, had turned its great eye to us in anger. You have done enough. The war was about everything, it was everything, and the question of where it came from was meaningless. There was only the question of how to live through it” (33).
Signifying this shift to full-scale warfare, the symbols of success in the past now senesce toward full decay.
“Passed City Island, the flooded marina. The stadium overgrown with trees and split by shells. The baseball field now a cratered forest. Depressions filled with water from the rain, the river pushing out of the ground, flooding the roots of monumental maples. The whole place, the whole city, going under, for too much at last had been asked for it” (13).
A stadium, the representation of leisure and recreation, is now part of the wild. Slattery also illustrates this point when Sunny Him and Reverend Bauxite take shelter on a run-down Three Mile Island.
What Are We Fighting For?
Additionally, in this near-future state, the war has ravaged the nation and the lines between enemy and friend have blurred irreversibly. Towns have been slaughtered or, worse, moldering toward starvation. People continue to fight but for a purpose quickly fading.
“They both fought for family killed, land lost, farms razed and houses burned to ash. For animals butchered in the road. For cities brought to ruin. They were one step away from each other, the soldiers and the guerrillas, one side fighting to keep the small things they had left, the other fighting because they had already lost them” (107).
A Fragile Faith
While the setting and context shine in Lost Everything, I also felt drawn to Sunny Jim’s sidekick and best friend, Reverend Bauxite. Much like Mel Gibson’s character in Signs, Reverend Bauxite encounters an existential crisis of faith. With so much destruction, suffering, and death, Reverend Bauxite no longer carries certainty around his faith as if he comprehends the mysteries of the world.
“But there had been too much death, too many people blown to pieces in the street. Too many people he loved were gone for him to believe that faith demanded he abide it” (129).
In fact, Slattery makes connections between faith and suffering throughout the novel. Thematically dominant, the idea of atonement for the sins of humanity emerges often. Humanity, for too long, consumed without question like a ravenous pig in the slop. Humanity, for too long, discarded goods uncritically, like a spoiled child at Christmas.
“Perhaps questions of faith and questions of what we had done to the planet had always been converging. Both had their deniers, people who claimed no responsibility. Things just happen, they said. But among the faithful—those who had seen enough evidence to believe that things happened for a reason, and the we were part of it—there was a sense of having sinned, and of there being a reckoning for those sins” (128).
Under the burden of such sin, isn’t collapse deserved?
It Is Better to Be Human
Given such horror depicted in Lost Everything, I believe Reverend Bauxite exemplifies the strongest character in the novel. While many of faith lean toward the cliché in times of crisis, Reverend Bauxite settles for realism. Consider this example where the Reverend encounters another gruesome scene of death and destruction:
“Reverend Bauxite tried to be holy, decided it was better to be human. God damn it, he thought. God damn it. Then he was saying it out loud, louder and louder, until the crest of his anger passed, though he knew another was coming” (159).
Much like that author I read in college and the premise about Mother Teresa, if only we could all decide to be a little less holy and a little more human. Lost Everything conjures a concept of post-collapsed America. All good things must end and that includes prosperity of the United States of America. Brian Francis Slattery depicts this era in striking horror. May we all try to be more like Reverend Bauxite, assessing scenarios for what they are, and reacting as humans, because someday—hopefully many years in the future—the United States will face the unthinkable and collapse.
If you like the post-apocalyptic genre, Lost Everything is a must read. Evocative and tragic, Brain Francis Slattery has created a world with which we all should become acquainted.
Verdict: 5 out of 5