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Salvage This World

This week, Don reviews Salvage This World by Michael Farris Smith.

For centuries, prophets of various kinds have been telling us we live in the end times. Sometimes they know the date and lead their flock to a hilltop and wait, only to walk back down again—so far. Secular novelists also like this theme quite a lot. “On the Beach” tells us the apocalypse will be an atomic cloud circling the earth. But that was 1957.

McCarthy’s “The Road” describes an earth so sterile nothing will grow, and recently Silas House in “Lark Ascending” paints a picture of what might happen if the wildfires of the Western U.S. and Canada join together and roar east, all the way. House is in harmony here with James Baldwin who, in, his title, quotes the Negro spiritual:

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!”

Michal Ferris Smith is an impressive Mississippi novelist with seven titles, and has already had two of his books made into films. He sees the end of the world coming, sure enough, and, it will be water, again. Ferris’ home territory is southwest Mississippi, the section above Louisiana. The rains have come. It is hurricane season year around. Agriculture is impossible; the fields are flooded. There are few services. Hospitals, schools, stores and of course malls are closed. Most people have left, searching for jobs and drier, higher ground.

One gas station now has a sign “NO GAS HERE: BEER AND LIQUOR ONLY.” Now THERE is a sign of end times. (Luckily, there are a few gas stations functioning, because these rural characters spend a lot of time ridin’ around, and do their best thinking behind the wheel on country roads.) Just how bad things are is illustrated beautifully by Wade, who scrapes together a living salvaging scrap, the best of which comes from defunct and abandoned HVAC units. There is no more control of heating, ventilation or air conditioning. Those days are gone.

Wade is the father of Jessie, grandfather of Jace and father-in-law of Holt, but conventional family ties are shot. These four, long-estranged, are all in flight from Elser, a tent revival prophet attracting huge crowds, whose message is, the end is near and it is YOUR fault. She howls and the congregation fills her baskets. Elser had the keys to “The Bottom” and Wade stole them. Much of “Salvage This World” is the brutal, ruthless efforts of Elser’s gang of thugs to find and retrieve these keys to the (presumably heavenly) kingdom at any cost in blood and cruelty.

Mississippians and Faulknerians know that the Big Bottom is the Tallahatchie River bottom, the last pristine wilderness, located in the Delta and the place of Major de Spain’s hunting camp in “The Bear.” In this novel, The Bottom itself seems to be an inverse paradise, a hellish place reminding me of the underwater lair of Grendel’s mother. No matter, to these fanatics it is real enough!

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.