The Savage by Frank Bill is an unnerving vision of a fractured America gone terribly wrong and a study of what happens when the last systems of morality and society collapse (available November 14, 2017).
Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister was published in 1947, three years after the allies defeated the axis of evil and two years prior to George Orwell’s more heralded 1984. Completing an essential 20th-century dystopian triumvirate is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which arrived in 1986 during the waning years of the Cold War. All three books at the time of publication were viewed as masterpieces set in the near future. I can remember discussing 1984 in that titular year and my mother’s cautionary remark that it could still happen “a few years from now.”
Unlike the setting of a dreaded near future found in this esteemed trio, Frank Bill’s The Savage feels like the desperate now. It’s not just 21st-century geopolitical fears as two world leaders seem hellbent on taking us down a real Fury Road, it’s also families throughout the American landscape being gutted by the opioid crisis, facing anxieties over losing health care, and befalling the horror of psychotic cretins shooting up music concerts and halls of worship.
Into this nightmare, The Savage doesn’t have the luxury of a slow start with the Picasso poetic likes of “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Yeah, goodbye to all that. Frank Bill delves right into it, storming the ravaged, scorched fields with these opening lines:
Clasping his eyelids tight, Van Dorn recalled the echo from the radio, speaking of the dollar losing its worth. Of a global downfall dominoing across the United States, of militias formed by the Disgruntled Americans, a group of fed-up military and police tired of the government milking the working class. They wanted change, so they’d taken out the grids, the world’s power switch, eliminating lights, sounds, and anything that warranted electricity, and what followed was the images of men being kneeled in front of women and children, homes besieged by flame, a pistol or rifle indenting a face enraged by fear, hurt, and anger. Trigger pulled. Brain, skull, and hair fertilizing the soil with departure. One man’s life taken by another without mercy.
Beyond the center just didn’t hold any longer, it’s full-on gravitational-collapse decimated. Our 21-year-old protagonist, Van Dorn, is living a solitary life, hand to mouth, killing deer for food, and most importantly, staying alive by steering clear of the roving militias—the savages—that have taken over the countryside through slaughter and rape. Early on, he narrowly escapes one such hive transporting caged children and women, one of whom he knows: Sheldon. She calls out for help, but he has to remain on the move. “Knowing that movement willed progression. Stagnation willed death.”
Bill then takes us back a few years to the time Van Dorn first met Sheldon. Dorn was fourteen, and we wouldn’t exactly call it happier times because civilization was already going off the rails. He was apprenticing with his father, Horace, stripping foreclosed houses of copper and other valuables easily sold on the market—again, strikingly akin to 2017. Horace knew the bad times could get worse, and he educated his son accordingly. He asks, “Tell me this, how else we supposed to earn our keep?” Horace viewed them as living “lives of salvage,” while Dorn considered them a little better than “human crustaceans” in a post-historical age.
In well-dropped flashbacks, we see the father’s lengthening shadow over his son and the Sheldon girl who he began to fall in love with. For dystopian stories to work full throttle, there has to be a balance of humanity, or it becomes weighed down under the bulk of its own gloom. The Savage finds the humanity with its “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” romance. We share a connection with Dorn and Sheldon, recognizing the classic young couple that endures, save for all hell erupting around them.
Glow of a halfmoon cast down upon the calm of water. Trees hung overhead. Lines baited, weighed down by sinkers with triple hooks and chicken livers. Fishing the current’s bottom till the zigzag came, Sheldon jerking the rod opposite the pull and tug of the fish. Her arms lean but strong as a boy’s until she fell in. Dorn dropped his pole. There was a panic at first. His struggle to help her. Hands holding her. Splash of water from limbs. “Stand up,” he’d told her. “Stand up.” And when she wouldn’t he grabbed her hips, pulled her upright. The river level stopping at her denim knees. Laughter reddened her face in the moonlight. Locks wet. Her shirt soaked. Braless. Van Dorn turned his eyes away from the shapes beneath, trying to be respectful. “Nothing to be ashamed of,” Sheldon told him. “I’m a girl. You’re a boy. There’s an attraction.”
I apologize, but I need to interrupt my review for a full disclosure: Frank Bill has been a friend of mine since I first published two of his short stories back-to-back in 2009—and a couple of others in between—in the BEAT to a PULP webzine and an anthology. Even then, it was obvious he had the potential to scale some incredible literary heights, but I wondered how his lean style in abrupt, choppy lines that worked so well in short stories would transfer to long form. Would it be too jarring to sate mass-market consumer digestion? From Donnybrook to The Savage, I see Bill has lost nothing of that to-the-point sparseness while summing up more flow. He has hit his stride without losing the grit where his foundation is moored.
In a grim, unforgiving world, Frank Bill maps out a harrowing, raw beauty, providing that much-needed sliver of hope in humankind in The Savage.
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David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.