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The Premise: Very rarely are novels reviewed in RECOIL OFFGRID, as this column is mostly reserved for books that delve into the how’s and what’s of surviving a variety of catastrophic situations. Post-apocalyptic fiction still offers teachable moments about survival and human nature during desperate times, though, so enter Frank Bill’s newest book, The Savage, a dark, dreary, gut punch of a novel that’ll leave readers wanting to hug their children, and be thankful for a house, job, and food on the table.
The story focuses on Van Dorn through the eyes of an omniscient point of view, allowing the reader to see, hear, and feel just enough of what’s going on to remain solidly in the dark until a spotlight is splashed in your eyes at just the right moment. We jump back and forth through a multiyear period, alternating between when he was a young teen full of petulance and disdain to a 20-something man, alone and fully engulfed in the desperate world his father warned him about.
Chock full of violence, both past and present, we see a hostile world through Van Dorn’s eyes, one of death, bloodshed, slavery, and ultimate despair.
The 411: In a word, The Savage is grim and will likely make people uneasy. Its choppy, staccato prose rat-tat-tats off of the page in fits and jerks with long stretches of vagueness pointed by sudden explosions of text, all of it purposefully jarring your ability to remain comfortable. Mixed with that is horrific imagery, presented in slow motion. When a man is shot point blank, “blood spewed like a blown head gasket,” and he meets survivors of this economic holocaust that have survived solely on “the meat of man, woman, and child.”
With elements of other popular dystopian novels at its base, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, — The Savage presents a not-so-distant future we want to remain fiction, but the book reads like it’s happening tomorrow. There’s no clever turns of phrase as with 1984 (“the clock strikes thirteen”) or languid, stretching prose that settles you into a well-paced and linear timeline like The Road. Bill holds neither punch nor gouge from the get-go and doesn’t let up until you close the book at the end.
Of course, for the reader to not completely lose every bit of hope of humanity in Van Dorn against “the savages,” which are nothing more than packs of murderous kidnappers to deal in skin and slavery — the plot curves into the realm of a romance between young Van Dorn and a girl he knows called Sheldon (whom we meet early on, while we’re still wondering if Van Dorn is someone worth rooting for).
The Verdict: In order for a book to earn a space on these pages, it usually must present itself as a tool for a life-after-disaster scenario. Though this is a novel, there are some gems of knowledge that can be gleaned from it. Bill succinctly describes the proper method of gutting a deer, for example, and his fight scenes show a writer who has researched methods, actions, and reactions.
They can/jar provisions, build fires, properly care for weapons, and Bill describes the harrowing instincts these bleak survivors experience in an unforgiving wasteland, one that nearly lacks all scruples and morals of any kind. However, the minor characters themselves are rather two-dimensional stereotypes (the burly white supremacist and the scholarly Asian, for example), and the book contains more than its share of astronomical coincidences that the reader’s suspension of disbelief will need to put in some overtime.
Bill’s style of writing is, at times, difficult to read without stumbling. His reliance on gratuitous violence nearly hampers his ability to shape characters that the reader can associate with and adequately root for, and it doesn’t give the story a chance to build suspenseful situations that pay off in later chapters. The theme of “immediate satisfaction” shows throughout the book and Bill’s overused motifs of blood-spattered vengeance, righteousness, and justice appear obvious and tired to veteran dystopian novel readers.
That said, it’s a riveting book set in the same universe (with some of the same types of characters) as Bill’s previous novel, Donnybrook. The loss of manufacturing jobs, the devaluing of the dollar, the destruction of the national power grid, a full-blown drug epidemic, the desolation of towns and communities, and the domination of roving, warring bands of cannibals are all thing that feel too real, too close to home, and seeming coming to a town near you sooner than we’d all like.
Novel & Author
by Frank Bill
FSG Originals Publishing, New York