An abundance of rich, potent images lurks within Lost Everything, the third novel by Brian Francis Slattery. One of its richest comes early in the book. The wryly named Sunny Jim—a husk of man on a quest to find his son Aaron in the ruins of post-apocalyptic Pennsylvania—makes camp in the shadow of Three Mile Island. The cooling towers of the long-abandoned nuclear plant, once symbolic of progress and its perils, are overgrown with vines and infested with birds. In a single, searing vision, Slattery distills Lost Everything’s hallucinatory backdrop: a once-prosperous land reduced to scavenging, anarchy, civil war, and late-19th-century technology—not because of a meltdown or other catastrophe, but due to the gradual, inexorable atrophy of America.
Slattery has walked this way before. His previous two novels, Spaceman Blues and Liberation, also traffic in a unique, magic-realist vision of post-apocalyptic Americana that similarly project economic and environmental collapse. But where those books strained at the seams with invention and dazzle, Lost Everything is muted and steeped in sepia. Like a daguerreotype of the faded future, the story follows Sunny Jim’s descent into the heart of darkness as he takes the Carthage—a hodgepodge, refugee-ridden riverboat that’s part barge, part Noah’s Ark—up the sluggish Susquehanna. As he does so, the backstories of other characters (like Jim’s traveling companion, the faith-damaged Reverend Bauxite, and their conflicted pursuer, Sergeant Foote, an officer in an army that no longer knows or cares why it fights) feed into the main narrative like tributaries.
The anachronism of Slattery’s setting—ragtag bands play banjo-led renditions of gospel standards and Billie Holiday songs; crashed airplanes have the gravity of pteranodon fossils—augments its dreamlike flow. But that ethereality is shot through with sheer violence. In clipped, vivid prose, Slattery populates his landscape with the stench of burned flesh, wartime amputees, and random bits of brain and bone. Rather than being tossed around in a gratuitous way, though, these glimpses aggregate into a portrait of horror. As the Carthage bears Sunny Jim through marauders and massacres and deeper into the teeth of The Big One—a perpetual, impassable, partially manmade storm eerily described as a “vertical ocean” that advances across the continent—all the bloodshed and cruelty takes on a lyrical, even lulling eloquence. The numbness is telling and chilling.
Yet Slattery never loses sight of his premise’s pulpy punch, nor his characters’ pulse and soul—particularly Jim and Bauxite, whose subtle webs of loves and motives ultimately dovetail in a hail of bullets over the swollen Susquehanna. That said, post-apocalyptic America is more than Lost Everything’s setting; in many ways, it’s also the book’s main character. Hero or villain, though, is a distinction Slattery sagely shies away from making. Like the vines and birds infesting Three Mile Island, the humans who cling to America—its land and ideals, its progress and its peril—must decide how to survive. First, though, they must decide whether they want to survive, and whether survival is worth the sacrifice of almost everything that makes life worth living. To Slattery’s credit, Lost Everything doesn’t offer sermons or solutions, just a poignant, poetic, devastating way of pondering the questions.