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Re­view of The Sav­age by Frank Bill

RECOIL OFFGRID - - Contents - By Ryan Lee Price

Re­view of The Sav­age

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. It’s 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 notso-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-af­ter­dis­as­ter 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.

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