Thursday, June 7, 2012

Valhalla: A review.

Newton Thornburg's Valhalla is an apocalypse-in-progress tale set after an economic downturn leads to a slow decent into anarchy and intra-racial conflict.  The story is centered around a small lake in Arkansas with retrospective look-backs at the slow (eleven month) collapse of St. Louis, Missouri.
Lacking cover art, I instead put up a photo of the real Valhalla (which I found here)

Newton Thornburg was going to be one of the great writers of the 1970s. but who's reputation simply faded over time. His Cutter and Bone (1976) is one of those deep impact novels that (apparently) haunts people.  Valhalla came a little later, and apparently, retrospectively, he came to have regrets that he ever wrote it.

Bob Cornell, Tangled Web Crimescene, Circa 1999

John Williams (op.cit) describes the book as "an apocalyptic novel of a near future in which America is gripped by race war." It was inspired, Thornburg indicates, by that period (mid sixties to early seventies - surely the most apocalyptic of recent American history) of not only anti-Vietnam protest, but when parts of the black civil rights movement took on a revolutionary edge with the arrival of the Black Panthers. "This was not some lifelong deeply held feeling," he says. "It was basically a thing of the times, you know. The cities were burning, Detroit, Washington, Watts in LA. And the kids were rioting on the campuses too, though that was not racial. That was all going on. Besides, I really don't know what would happen in American cities if we suddenly had a financial collapse, the Japanese demanding payment on all our Treasury bills, and so on."

Thornburg thinks it is his weakest book, feeling that his editor at Little, Brown let him down: "He should have warned me that I was straying away from the four main characters, and getting into a lot of trouble."
Why would he have regrets?  I think comments on it from a few years ago pretty much sum up the reaction from the literati. 
John Michael Greer, Archdruid Report,  14 November 2007
One classic example is the image of mindless, marauding hordes spilling out of the dying cities and ravaging everything in their path. This one has been a recurring cultural nightmare in the western world for a couple of centuries now, since the cities of the industrial world disconnected themselves socially from their agricultural hinterlands and began filling up with immigrant populations. Read such classic fictional treatments of the theme as Newton Thornburg’s Valhalla (1980) and it’s clear that on this side of the Atlantic, at least, it roots into the enduring emotional legacy of American racism, the terror of the dark Other on which the shadow of white America’s unacknowledged desires has long been projected.

The Kirkus review is even more scathing.

If you want to be considered a "great" novelist within the the accepted cannons, you cannot write books that get this type of reaction. 

The problem with the novel is that, much like the latter Bonfire of the Vanities, it head-on tangled with  various difficulties, and hypocrisies of current society, and most particularly the dysfunctional of urban city minority culture  of the day.  Some of these problems simply carry a lot of historical baggage with them, and make a lot of people very uncomfortable.  Bonfire gained a certain amount of acceptance,  Valhalla did not. It had two problems. 

  1. 1980 (versus 1987)  was much too close to the civil rights era to admit for society to admit that some parts of the civil rights movement and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society had not worked out as expected. 
  2. Thornburg did not have the status that  Tom Wolfe did to insulate him from the inevitable criticism.  A criticism that was made easier by the fact that whereas Tom Wolfe discussed contemporary society as it was, Thornburg was postulating a possible scenario.  Thornburg was channeling Glen Beck thirty years too soon.
  3. The book is too ambiguous in its presentation.   The novel's hero, Walter Stone's transformation is too subtle and too incomplete to garner him the sympathy that Wolfe's Sherman McCoy would get as a truly "innocent" wandering in the wilderness.  Unlike McCoy who is forced to acquire urban-legal survival skills by the force of experience, the former boy scout Stone starts the scenario relatively competent, and very much jaded.
  4. Thornburg is simply not up to Tom Wolfe's standards.  There is a frightening immersion in Wolfe's writing that is not present here.  It simply was not good enough to win people over to its "subversive" themes.

There are two threads running through the novel. 

First, the novel is a "life boat novel,"  In this type of novel you have a handful of disparate, previously unrelated survivors in a remote setting (the lifeboat) and they are trying to come up with a way to make it to safety.  Often they are deciding if they need to toss some people overboard (or if it gets Donner Party-like who to eat) to extend their limited supplies.  That is exactly what we have here, except that the "lifeboat" is a small grouping of vacation lodges at lake's edge in Southern Arkansas.  It is a little like Russell Hill 's slightly later The Edge of the Earth except that owner of the lodge does not work very hard to keep the location secret.  And unlike Hill's novel, and many survival-type novels, there are very few skills to go around.

The second main thread is the Mau Mau.  These are the (mostly) black urban gangs that have expanded out from the cities like a plague of locust.  In this case a plague of perverse, sadistic locust.

The novel notes that the name Mau Mau comes from a famous New York City gang that is reputed to mutilate its victims as a right of passage for its perspective members.  What is ironically funny is that in the pre-internet days of  the early 1980s apparently the author was not in a position to know that the Mau Mau, in spite of the link to the colonial rebellion in Kenya, were not a black urban gang, but Puerto Rican.  The sanitized version of these Puerto Rican gangs would have been represented by the Sharks in musical West Side Story

So while the first thread plays out as a play on lifeboat survival between the mostly incompetent,  fallen b-list elites of society, the doom that is the Mau Mau is coming ever closer.  Because this is the pacifistic post- Vietnam era, most of the survivors want to reason and bargain with the Mau Mau.   With more moral ambiguity than first meets the ideas, they have various plans for seizing Valhalla, or distracting the Mau Mau with its wealth and riches while they make their escape.  The middle class bedrock of American society does not come out looking particularly noble either. 

Did I say there was two threads.  Well actually there is a third.  That would be Valhalla.

Valhalla sits relatively unapproachable on a high bluff across from the survivors.  It looms 300' above the lakes shores.  It has lights that burn at night, music that is pipe out over a stereo system, and if the wind blows the right way you can hear the sprong of the diving board as someone splashes into the heated pool.  Valhalla, as the book notes, is the Nordic myth's Hall of the Dead.  It is a home for those slain in battle.  The owner of this plush survivalist compound is the otherwise unnamed "Junkman", who with obvious symbolism made his great wealth off the leftover scraps of greater society.  Valhalla, throughout the novel is representative of the heaven on earth that was life in  pre-crashed society.  It is both a huge attraction, and a huge danger.  An obvious target.  But one not easily taken.

Did I like the novel?  Yes I did.  Thornburg obviously thought through the day-to-day realities of the situation.  He brings into the novels a lot of themes left untouched by many authors.  He is the first author I am aware of who introduces the concept of "bugging out" in a non-nuclear setting. 

He also brings in the peculiarities of real life.  Because this is the tale end of the 1970s culture, many of the actors in our play are rather frisky.  Stone, otherwise a passive observer type, is completely captured by the unearthly beauty of ,  a young lady - a young lady with a jaded history, and who had been following around as a girlfriend groupie of a professional tennis pro.   There is also the tennis pro, who is completely self-centred, potentially dangerous figure.  People who are used to privilege are very slow to give it up: competence or lack thereof being no barrier to desire.

The book notes that many of the rural farmers have banded together into small defensible enclaves, and have an obvious shoot first and ask questions later philosophy.  It is noted that the Mau Mau are greatly outnumbered, but that our "society" - really now a collection of unconnected individuals- has no ability to band together to defend itself little less make anything positive happen.   Most of the individuals, no longer with a life of easy access to food and comfort, are extremely lacking in moral compass.
For our descriptive (versus  qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 7 being high.

Realism, by our way of defining it,  is very high.  It deals with issues of supply and eventual starvation.  It does a very thorough job of looking at the various problems and psychology involved in  small unit leadership, when your unit is simply a small rabble which is mostly unaware that it is a unit, and that there is a mission on hand.  There are loafers, dreamers, the religious, and the practical all working at cross purposes.  A group of this nature, when it even has the option, will rarely pick the right leaders.  Although, I noted earlier that it did not have the immediacy of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, I cannot hold it to that standard, or the number 7 would be an almost unused number in my scale.  So I will say that it is a seven.

Readability is a little tougher.  There is some symbolism, but it is generally fairly well explained.  There is a little bit of 1970s style psychobabble, and it is more of a character study than an action packed page turner.  The use of language is generally excellent: real editors still existed in the 1980s.  Since I did like the book (which means for me it was easy to read), I will be cautious and put it at an above average 5.


PioneerPreppy said...

Where did you get this book? Is it still in print?

Stephen said...

Interesting, but think I'll pass. Fine review.

russell1200 said...

Sorry, I posted the link.

I cannot remember if I used Amazon or Abebooks, but I certainly bought it used as it is no longer in print. Many of these books I am reveiwing are no longer in print, although somw of them have been re-released as e-books. Only rarely are the out of print books particularly expensive.

Anonymous said...

I recently picked this book up for $4 shipped, maybe Amazon.

I rate the books I read with the "GK Keepability" ratio. If I didn't like it, I'll sell it or give it away.

This book I'm going to keep. I have issues with the book but that's from the story's characters acting stoopid. Actually that might be the reason all the nowadays novels have sniper cum eagle scout as heroes.

The book also has an element of despair that is lacking in today's EOTWAWKI novels.

Might be the sign of the times.


russell1200 said...

PP: O.K. now I finally connected the link: my other computer was not agreeing with me.

S: Can't read them all, not even me.

GK: Yes, it does seem like the expertise level has gone up over time. I don't think the perception that you had trained in the special forces to be competent at any field craft had taken hold yet.

In this case, the "regular folks" are intentionally flawed. Some of todays books almost seem to have a moralistic happiness to them.