Someday, when we have some distance from the latest iteration of the cultural/political/religious squabbling that helps make this country what it is, scholars looking for defining texts of life circa 2010 will have a lot to learn from Sigrid Nunez‘s sixth novel, Salvation City. Set in a near future where the country has just been walloped by a flu epidemic worse than 1918’s, the novel follows Cole, an adolescent boy who’s taken into an evangelical Christian community after losing his parents. There’s enough violent imagery to suggest the horrors of living in a time when a substantial proportion of the population has been quickly killed off, but it’s a story about the boy, not the world; the book has more in common with the homey coming-of-age novels of Tony Earley than Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road. Nunez recently told Bookslut that the genesis of the novel was Cole’s character, not the epidemic:
I didn’t start with the idea of an epidemic but with an idea for a character. In my other books, the main character has always been female, and I knew even before I started this book that I wanted the main character to be male, not for any other reason except that this was something I hadn’t done before. And once I had invented the character of young Cole, of course I had to invent a story for him, and a world for him to live in…. I didn’t set out to write a sci-fi book or a traditional dystopian novel. And it’s not a post-apocalyptic novel, either, because although the pandemic inflicts extreme damage on the world it does not destroy it.
But it’s not quite right to say that the novel is a coming-of-age story either, because Nunez is often more concerned with the dueling environments in which Cole has been raised than with Cole himself—the novel is as much a culture-versus-culture story as a boy-versus-nature tale. Cole’s biological parents were classic secular humanists who kept the Bible “on a shelf with other big books: reference books.” His post-flu surrogate parents, Pastor Wyatt and Tracy, are evangelical Christians, and much of the novel follows Cole’s thoughts as he weighs what he’s heard from both sides. “Cole remembers his parents saying that they could never fall in love with anyone who wasn’t smart; they couldn’t even be friends with people who weren’t smart,” she writes, shortly before Pastor Wyatt tells his congregation, “Remember, in this world the sharpest knife in the drawer could be Satan.” When a Salvation City doctor tells Cole that prayer is “still the best medicine,” he can’t help but remember his old pediatrician telling him that “laughter is the best medicine.”
Tossing and turning over all this one night, Cole feels, as Nunez puts it, “like a rotisserie chicken.” That vivid simile doesn’t just capture the restlessness he feels, and the slow-burning threat he’s under. It also evokes also what Nunez has to do with Cole in order to keep the novel functioning. He’s kept intellectually immobilized throughout much of the novel, forever an outsider from Salvation City’s cliques, and a little more dim than he really ought to be given all he’s seen. His transformative moment is witnessing a community “rapture child”—a supposedly anointed beacon of Christian love and hope—behaving in an ungodly manner, but it takes an unlikely number of pages for him to start thinking that the pieties he hears might be hollow.
Instead, Nunez fills those pages with more ping-ponging between the destablized secular world and blinkered Salvation City. Nunez avoids delivering a critique of either side, though she does play up stereotypes from both sides. Dad’s a condescending academic: “They don’t read, and they can’t write to save their lives…. And it’s not just what they don’t know, it’s what they don’t want to know.” When a rapture child sees Cole toting a rifle for the first time, she tells him, “Now you’re complete.”
Nunez writes with an effective simplicity that fits Cole’s mindset, and she adds enough detail about this post-flu world to make clear how off-kilter things are. (My favorite bit is Cole and Pastor Wyatt listening to a recent “super hit” on the radio by a bluegrass musician with the excellent name of Earl E. Early. The idea that a genre of music prone to God-struck and fatalistic lyrics has become hit fodder feels grimly appropriate.) But Nunez’s careful balancing act recalls the last line of Tom T. Hall‘s song “The Little Lady Preacher,” about a churchy woman who runs off with the neighborhood reprobate: “I’ve often sat and wondered who it was converted whom.” Nunez needn’t come down hard on either side, but splitting the world unnaturally into factions means the characters become a little unnatural as well. Cole ultimately comes to decision about the world he’ll live in, but his late-stage decisiveness feel more like a necessary device to tie the bow on the story than a natural result of his novel-long questioning. The open-mindedness of Salvation City is so open its main character slips through.