Salvation City, Sigrid Nunez’s contribution to what might be dubbed the “Apocalypse Now” literary series, is in an impressive one. Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Stephen King’s The Stand, Margaret Atwood’s companion volumes Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, Nunez plunks her story down in the near future, setting loose an influenza pandemic, then stepping back and watching her characters behave themselves.
Most, as in reality, behave quite badly. Others—notably, Pastor Wyatt and his flock of Christian believers, who inhabit the Indiana burg Salvation City, behave very well. And so Sigrid Nunez, who worked for Susan Sontag as a young writer, citing this most liberal and astringent of intellectuals as a critical influence on her own work, has written a sympathetic view of American Right Wing Christians.
Pastor Wyatt and his wife, the sweetly dimwitted Tracy, adopt protagonist Cole Vining after his liberal, intellectual, irreligious parents die from the flu. Cole, like so many protagonists of this kind of novel (even Atwood inaugurated her first male protagonist, albeit an adult, in Oryx and Crake) is an adolescent boy made mature beyond his years by events. A quiet loner, Cole is painfully aware of his parents’ marital woes—they are, in fact, on the verge of divorce—when his father falls ill with the flu that has effectively stopped society.
What remains is a Post-Katrina mentality, with a few good souls helping the ill as supplies run out and mayhem takes hold. The government is in retreat after the president herself falls ill and loses most of her memory, one of the illnesses’ side effects. Cole’s mother, Serena, is completely unprepared: cosseted, liberal, whiney, she is incapable even of gathering emergency supplies like food and water. Yet in an insane gesture, she insist on volunteering on a hospital ward, leaving Cole alone for hours at a time—schooling has long since ceased—finally falling ill herself.
From here Cole’s memory fails: he sickens, is hospitalized, then recovers, with a great deal of amnesia. He is placed in one of the many “homes” springing up around the country housing a suddenly enormous population of orphans. These homes are oft-described as “Dickensian”, a word Cole doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t care. In his dazed state, he does what every other child is doing: he masters the art of survival in a world gone mad.
His reserved manner and artistic talent save him. While other children band into murderous gangs or suffer at the hands of their older, stronger tormentors, he hides beneath a flight of steps, spending hours drawing. His artistic skills serve him well as ballast against what has happened and what is to come; it is part of the strong, untouchable core of strength that will eventually save him.
The glut of orphans, many flu sufferers who, like, Cole, have lost all memory of their former lives, including the names of their relatives, make ripe pickings for both the well-meaning and ill-intended adults who show up to “adopt” the children, “saving” them from their circumstances. Some are indeed ill-intended, creating a thriving, unrestricted market in child sex trafficking (reminiscent of Oryx’s experience in Oryx and Crake) while others, like Pastor Wyatt, or PW, as he asks Cole to call him, bring to mind the Haitian adoptions that took place after the January 2010 earthquake that resulted in Baptist missionaries airlifting children from Haiti, having skipped all legal adoption channels—an easy thing to do given the country’s complete collapse. Whether these adoptions were merciful acts or abductions masked in religious cant remains open to discussion.
Stunningly—frighteningly—Nunez began writing Salvation City in 2007, presaging both the Haitian disaster and the outbreak of F1N1 Influenza.
So it is that Cole Vining, whose fractured memory begins repairing itself, lands in the home of PW and Tracy. Unable to bear children, the couple is thrilled by Cole’s arrival, and proceed to do all in their power to make the boy happy. Cole, lonely, frightened, rather ignored by his self-involved biological parents, cannot help but respond positively to these kind, loving people.
He initially dislikes Tracy because of her impossible stupidity—her speech is childlike, her adoration of PW even worse—she calls him “WyWy”—but her endless patience and sweet nature eventually win him over. Yet Cole is confounded by Tracy and PW’s extreme brand of Christianity. He is young enough to become a believer, but has great difficulty with the idea of his biological parents, however flawed, consigned to an eternity in hell. Nor can he reconcile his burgeoning sexuality with the Christian tenets of repression.
Particularly taxing is Tracy’s niece, Starlyn, a confection of a creature a few years older than Cole. Starlyn is a “Rapture Child”, a child believers think is sent by God as a light in the world. Rapture Children are rumored to be gifted in numerous ways, not always proven, but more alarming is their universal trait of blond prettiness. Starlyn, at 15, is an exquisitely beautiful girl—“apocalyptic”, in Cole’s teenaged slang, but her gifts extend no further than her exterior. Nor is she a model of piety.
When you are expecting Jesus to arrive at any moment, your view of the future changes. Long term planning loses its urgency. Salvation City’s children are all homeschooled, somewhat idiosyncratically; biblical knowledge is paramount, but the rest—history, math, science—lacks import. After all, soon nobody will be needing any of those things. So Cole goes from helicopter-why-don’t-you-read-more parenting to Tracy, who finds homeschooling intellectually taxing.
Reading is not important in Salvation City. Nor is college. Pastor Wyatt is in agreement with Cole’s parents about the television being an idiot box, but he does encourage Cole’s artistic talents.
Pastor Wyatt is an admirable creation: a born again preacher the most flamingly liberal agnostic can understand, sympathize with, and even almost like (the ‘almost’ stemming from his hatred of homosexuals). PW is neither evangelical nor, to a surprising extent, judgmental. The women of Salvation City come to church in sundresses; the music may be Christian, but it’s rock music. Alcohol is not frowned upon, nor is having a good time with friends. This easy attitude makes PW a charismatic man, adored by his flock and good-naturedly tolerated by the few non-believers in town.
As the pandemic dies down, chaos continues to reign in the larger cities, but Jesus fails to show up. His failure to appear stir unrest in Salvation City. So does the gradual rebuilding of social infrastructure, which allows relatives to begin finding the children, cousins, nieces, and nephews presumed dead. These relatives, understandably, want their kin back. Without giving away the plot, Cole finds himself in the middle of such a battle, and is terribly torn between his new family and his biological one. Now 14, he recognizes some of PW’s logic as flawed thinking, yet his love for his adopted family forbids any easy decisions.
Nunez’s feat is an amazing one, an effort none of the other “apocalypse now” books even attempts: getting into the heads of the “bad guys” and proving them well-meaning humans. Nunez makes no excuses for some of PW’s lesser behaviors, but his flaws are of the universal variety. Nunez’s adamant refusal to revert to satire, fearmongering, or sentimentality lets the reader understand the denizens of Salvation City and their fervent belief in The Rapture. These are people who need assurance of salvation.
After all, being a nonbeliever theses days ain’t no Mudd Club, or CBGB’s. We don’t have time for that, now. Instead we wander the flaming, flooding, illness-wracked planet, bereft and utterly certain we are forsaken.