Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
Publisher: Del Rey | Release Date: July 2, 2019 | Pages: 800
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Film critic Roger Ebert once said, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” The same is certainly true of books. Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, sure to be the man’s magnum opus, clocks in at 800 pages and took me roughly two weeks to get through (a longer-than-expected number of days for me, thanks to some very limited reading time while I was busy attending StokerCon 2019). Thankfully, it’s every bit as good as I had expected, better in a lot of ways even, and I never felt burdened by the large page count. Wanderers never felt too long simply because of how damn good it is the whole way through. And frankly, I wouldn’t have minded it being a little bit longer just so I could spend some more time in this world, particularly during the book’s denouement.
Wendig’s latest has been picking up some comparison’s to Stephen King’s The Stand, but it’s a very superficial, easy-to-make comparison. Yes, both are door-stoppers of a book, and there’s some thematic resemblances, mostly revolving around a mysterious illness and a cross-country trip for the handful of humanity’s survivors to wage a Good vs Evil war for soul of the future. For his part, Wendig is certainly aware of these short-hand comparisons and is sure to name-check King a few times along the way. To me, though, if we really must compare End of the World tomes, Wanderers feels more like a kissing cousin to Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, in terms of tonality and odd illness afflicting the sleepwalking wanderers.
Apocalyptic novels are almost always a product of the time period in which they were written, influenced by the particular tensions of the day. Swan Song and The Stand are both products of the Cold War, rife with American attitudes of Good vs Evil. Wanderers, too, is clearly a product of its day, an apocalyptic epic borne necessarily out of the Trump regime and all its itinerant nasty fallout, like the belligerent rise of white supremacist groups and their roots in Christian Evangelicalism, climate change denialism, and mankind getting bit in the ass for its anti-science idiocy, as well as technological concerns, such as the rise of artificial intelligence. The state of current affairs provides more than enough fodder to craft an apocalyptic narrative, and more than a few times in the Real World over the last few years, I’ve certainly felt like we’re on the brink. Presidential candidate Ed Creel is very much a Trump analogue, running against a Hillary Clinton-like incumbent named Hunt. Creel’s campaign slogans, like HUNT THE CUNT and CREED SAVES AMERICA are sadly representative of America’s current (and likely on-going) state of political affairs. Wanderers is a tour through the bedrock of modern-day America, with all its sexism, racism, xenophobia, religious zealotry, anti-vax whackadoo, and violent political divisions. Wendig takes all of these elements and weaves in a modern-day American novel about the collapse of society and the possible extinction of humanity. But there’s also hope, a hope for a better tomorrow borne out of the tribulations of the present, a hope for some kind of rebirth and, perhaps, a renaissance for the future generations of Americans, should they live long enough to survive this current crisis.
It’s heady stuff, to be sure, but Wanderers never feels bogged down by the Holy Shit Everything Is Terrible state of the world writ large all around us. The apocalyptic elements, in fact, are fairly late game-changers that the narrative surely and steadily builds toward, with the bulk of this book concerning itself mostly with the pre-apocalypse that is the Now. Wendig introduces us to a fairly large cast of characters as the sleepwalker crisis begins and unfolds, and then weaves in various side stories to expand on the mysteriousness of Wanderers premise, as well as explorations of what this sleepwalker sickness is (both why it is and what it is), and nature of the mysterious artificial intelligence, Black Swan.
Wanderers is a big book, both in terms of content, subjects, and characters. It’s as rich as it is long, and there’s a lot for readers to unpack. It’s one hell of a meaty read, and the narrative is constantly engaging and evolving, straddling the line between Biblical End Times and scientific examinations of the collapse of everything. It’s dark and serious, but there’s also plenty of room for romance, love, and humor in between all the various losses and tragedy. I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud more than a few times, despite the grimness surrounding much of these characters. One woman, for instance, describes her appreciation for a man by telling her friend, “I would mount him like a piece of taxidermy.” Another wants to “tap that ass like a whiskey barrel.” It’s the seriousness that lingers, though, like the fist pumping rousingness of a racist bastard getting told off by a powerful woman of color:
“I know you. I know your kind. You pretend like you have this…ethos, this patriotism or this nationalism. You love your white skin and pretend that it’s hard armor instead of thin, and weak, and pale—like the dime-store condom that split in half around your father’s dick when he gave it to the dumb, truck-stop janitor that was your mother. I got your number, Big Man. I know you. I know you’re weak and unwanted, so you take it out on everyone else.”
Wendig’s latest stands proudly beside The Stand and Swan Song, offering as many differences as there are passing similarities to those works, showcasing 21st Century concerns and points of view that are wholly its own. Wanderers is a necessary update to the canon of epic apocalyptic American spec-fic, examining the collapse of society and the mass extinction of humankind through the lens of USA 2019. This is a wholly modern-day end of the world, unshackled from the nuclear concerns of the Cold War and built off the spine of contemporary issues and problems close to home and rooted deeply in the soil of America. Some of these issues are necessarily ugly, the problems impossible to solve. But there’s enough beauty and hope sprinkled throughout that you can’t help but root for the good guys and gals to win, regardless of the odds stacked against them. At the end of the day, few things are as American as hope, and Wanderers gives us plenty to hold on to, even as it chills us with all its what if? horrors.