Lay down your pens, fiction authors. It’s finished.
I’m extremely picky when it comes to first person psychology in fiction. Finally I’ve read a book that does it right: Davis Aurini’s “As I Walk These Broken Roads.”
This is the first book I’ve read where you can see the different races in action: Melons, Thals, half Thals, and Cro Mags. He did this intuitively, before exposure to my face reading theories.
The best part of the book is the alienation. It’s not the gay-ass, watered down, gamma-blathering estrogenic lugubrious navel-gazing alienation of Jim Butcher. Or the filthy manipulative version of the same that Orson Scott Card writes. It’s pure, hardcore, straight up, honest, masculine, abstracted, dissociated, Thal alienation.
The book has two Thals, both alienated, yet quite different. The author managed to avoid the trap of writing himself in every character; even the two main ones are well differentiated. Yet they manage to sync instinctively, as Thals do; united by common alienation.
The author has both deep sockets and some of the hugest eyes I’ve seen, which I think accounts for much of his psychological insight. The back of his head is half melon, half Thal, an unusual configuration I’ve only seen once before.
The result is a book that has enough drive to keep me interested, but enough conceptual elaboration to keep me ruminating long afterwards.
The true test of a book is the aftertaste. Aurini’s book is deceptively simple. On the surface it’s a simple apocalyptic tale with bursts of sharp action punctuated by long lulls full of psychology, philosophy and relationships. The deep conceptual waters are only hinted at, left for the reader to plumb.
For example, the final confrontation – Aurini never explains why it occurs. As much as I enjoyed the action sequence, afterwards it niggled at me. Was it a clumsily forced plot device to bring the book to a close?
A few moments of thought, and I realized how wrong I was to doubt. Wentworth made a serious error. First of all, he was in a major civilizational hub. Secondly, he foolishly and unnecessarily escalated a bar confrontation with a drunk, revealing himself. Thirdly, he was using his real name.
It made sense that his old organization would pick up the scent and hunt him down for an ambush when he wisely left town.
The whole book is like that. Sound a skeptical point, and you’ll discover hidden layers. That’s what a Thal wants when he reads – something he can chew on afterwards, and gain sustenance from.
Every tribe or society in the book makes sense. The Mennite / Sodomite dichotomy is fascinating and strangely plausible in a post apocalyptic society, when you account for excommunication. The insular towns are well drawn. The Indian colony is a cogent commentary on immigration. The mixed up strategic blundering of the Regiment shows that the author understands that software, not hardware, runs the world, ala the War Nerd.
You don’t see the true genius of the book in the beginning. It starts slowly and the dialogue is clumsy in places. Be patient. This is a book that you read quickly and think about afterwards.
But what makes this book the great Neanderthal novel? It’s not just the author’s skill and insight, but the luck of choosing the right setting. The post-apocalyptic landscape and the selection of drifters as protagonists is a metaphor for the Thal life experience. We are in a post-apocalyptic environment – post Thal genocide. It’s a biological apocalypse that will eventually go nuclear. The two drifters pass through a series of insular communities to which they can never belong. Wentworth says that his whole life feels like a series of clean breaks. That line sticks for any Neanderthal.
I love the way the book ends. There’s no too-neat “let’s wrap everything up and give a moral” to ruin the book’s realism. But there is nevertheless a powerful moment, and a closing of the circle. It’s not the world or even the protagonists’ problems that get resolved, but instead a psychological trauma that is healed – the deepest one that a Thal has: alienation from tribe, and absence of brotherhood.
This book will teach you what it means to be a Neanderthal, and a man. Read it now.