When twenty-year-old Russ arrives in the northern California town of Freedom to visit his dad, he finds a town cut off from state and federal government. Thanks to the local mayor’s ideas of “decentralization,” Freedom enjoys minimal public services including medical care and law enforcement. Before Russ can get to know much about the town and its people – including an interesting young woman named Pendra – a massive tsunami strikes the West Coast, killing most of the town’s inhabitants and leaving Freedom helpless to combat the wave of human brutality that soon follows. A local gangster, Dickie Rockwell, has plans for Freedom and they include the town’s increasingly unhinged mayor and a lot of killing. Now, it’s up to Russ, his father, Pendra, and the other townsfolk to find the strength to survive and find real freedom.
On his website, John Shirley describes this book as a “thriller and political allegory,” but it’s so much more than that. In just a few hundred pages, this book manages to shock, frighten, and enrage, all while making the reader think. What struck me most about this book was Shirley’s powerful use of imagery, both during the tsunami and in the aftermath. He has this unique ability to observe people, places, and events and then distill them down to their purest, most basic forms.
Word of caution: packed with action, violence, and depravity in its purest form, this book is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Seriously, after I finished reading it, my first instinct was to go out and buy a whole bunch of guns. Then, I remembered how clumsy and absent-minded I am and decided against it. (But I still sleep with a switchblade under my pillow…just in case.)
Bottom line: A different kind of disaster novel. One well worth reading.
Favorite Line/Image (WARNING – disturbing imagery): “A little later: A gasping, semiconscious young woman trapped in her slime-swamped Audi, mud up to her neck. People digging her out. Finding that her belly was sheared open by a big shard of metal from the car door, mud crammed up inside her, she hadn’t lived long after they’d dug her out. Russ had made the mistake of letting her get a grip on his hand as she lay dying. Just couldn’t bring himself to break the grip. Had to watch her die.”
What I learned: Details matter. The line above isn’t really my favorite, but it’s one of the many images that kept repeating in my head long after I’d put the book down. I think what makes this book so compelling is Shirley’s exquisite attention to detail, even in the midst of huge events like the tsunami. He knows which details to include and which to leave out. This makes for a realistic experience without overwhelming the reader with information.