The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy
Review by Eric Schlich
Benjamin Percy knows how to write a compelling monster novel. In Red Moon (2013), he uses lycanthropy (werewolves) to explore terrorism, racial profiling, and contagion politics. In his latest, The Dead Lands, Percy re-imagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in a post-apocalyptic America that has been destroyed by super-flu and nuclear war. After a rider named Gawea (as in Sacagawea) brings news of life on the West Coast, Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark depart the Sanctuary (a fortified St. Louis) and brave the eponymous dead lands in hopes of reaching the Oregon settlement. On the journey, they encounter monsters galore. Giant bats, spiders, and bears (oh my!).
With the massive viewership of shows like The Walking Dead, it’s not surprising to anyone that End Times fiction is incredibly popular right now. Perhaps the literary branch of this trend began in 2006 with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. At its best, novels of the apocalypse offer a glimpse of humanity drawing its bottom line. What do we fight for—hold onto—after the end? Here I’m thinking of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and its troop of Shakespearean actors, how art lives on, stoking the coals of her characters’ hearts, long after civilization’s collapse.
But Percy’s novel is less for philosophizing than it is for simply entertaining the socks off its reader. And it does so rather brilliantly with many suspenseful action sequences. Percy’s fiction walks the tightrope between literary and genre and The Dead Lands takes that hybridity to a new level. Among these pages you will find mutants, magic, and mystics. How does one define such a novel? A sci-fi, frontier adventure story? A post-apocalyptic allegory? A historically-inspired, fantasy quest narrative? Such resistance to easy categorization is one of the most exciting things about the territory Percy is exploring here. Put X-men, The Lord of the Rings, and The Leatherstocking Tales into a blender and you might concoct something that bears a resemblance to this book.
The names might be historically familiar, but the characters of The Dead Lands are truly Percy’s own. Lewis is a coke-head museum curator with a mechanical owl and a magical ability that repeatedly escaped my grasp (one of the novel’s few let-downs). Clark is a hardened female ranger and an alcoholic with a temper. While the concepts of Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, and rugged individualism translate well here, the racial dynamics of the original Lewis and Clark expedition are entirely absent. Two important historical personas—the Shoshone guide, Sacagawea, and William Clark’s slave, York—have been white-washed. Gawea figures as a mystic with eerie all-black eyes. York is transformed into Clark’s brother, a street-performer, the explorers’ jester, and the reader’s comic relief. Perhaps it is unfair of me to bring up race when it is clearly not an issue Percy is concerned with here, but it feels like a missed opportunity. Especially considering how deftly he employed lycanism as a metaphor for terrorist profiling in Red Moon.
There are other political gestures in The Dead Lands—towards environmental awareness and wealth inequality in particular—but these are secondary to its plot, which is really a good old-fashioned thrill ride. The characters do, at times, come off a bit flat; this is particularly the case with the novel’s villains. Take Aran Burr, the malevolent, white-haired messiah who haunts Lewis’s dreams. Or Thomas Lancer, Sanctuary’s evil mayor, who bathes in vats of hoarded water while his community dies of thirst. If the book is approached with the expectation of psychological nuance, the reader is likely to be disappointed. But there is more than enough plot, alternating between civilian unrest in Sanctuary and the perils of the trail, to make up for it. The conclusion of the novel is certainly exciting—if not quite satisfactory. Lewis and Clark migrate from one dictator to the next, showcasing Percy’s reliance on blanket totalitarianism in his plot engine, a trope which leaves the reader feeling a little cheated in the end game—typical of a quest narrative in which it’s the journey, not the destination, that really matters.
Eric Schlich is a PhD candidate in fiction at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. He is the current Production Editor and Assistant Nonfiction Editor for The Southeast Review. He earned his MFA in fiction at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, Schlich completed a BA in English and Spanish at the University of Kentucky. He is a recipient of the Kingsbury Fellowship at FSU.