John Jantunen’s second novel is a post-apocalyptic western that some are comparing to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Blood Meridian. While the novel stands on its own, the parallels are certainly there: the grim “frontier” setting, the southern vernacular, the occasional King James English, the absence of quotation marks and so on. More broadly, it works within a framework that we have come to associate with post-apocalyptic fiction, one that cleans the slate of civilization and moral norms and creates a playground for grand ethical and existential questions. In A Desolate Splendor, the narrative shifts between a boy protagonist and his family to the experiences of slaves, ruthless ex-soldiers, wanderers, tribal warriors and vulnerable homesteaders—until these stories intertwine in a violent high-stakes finale.
These are primal and familial stories, Old Testament in character, alternating between scenes of brutality and tenderness, between a Lord of the Flies kind of chaos and intimate moments of human connection. Like McCarthy, Jantunen utilizes a bleak and barbaric setting to illuminate the beautiful minutia of human experience (hence the title). The image of a mother nursing her child, for instance, is all the more moving in a world where babies are frequently fed to snarling dogs. Jantunen’s prose is often precise in these moments, clean and clear with sincerity, exemplified when a sex-slave named Elsa finally escapes her captors: “Six years, she thought. And nine children. A bountiful harvest, in the leanest of times.”
Playing with this kind of brutality/tenderness binary has become increasingly popular in post-apocalyptic stories and their cousins, primitive “frontier” stories, which are seen everywhere from literary fiction like McCarthy’s work to blockbuster TV like Games of Thrones. Unflinching examinations of violence, incest, rape, infanticide and cannibalism are scattered throughout Jantunen’s novel. And while they are at times effective, they are more often heavy-handed and gratuitous, even bathetic—an old, perhaps tiring, criticism of many current post-apocalyptic and frontier stories. Note the following scene where two warriors, Ostes and Nisi, attack a sleeping camp:
The giant barely raised his arms to strike when there was a blade puncturing his gut and driving upwards, slicing a trench to his chin. With his free hand, Ostes reached into his gored manifold and clutched at the giant’s heart, playing him as a puppet and pushing him back into the tent.
His light shone over a writhing sea awash in blood and entrails. The ground was a cluttered wreck of arms and legs and bodies hacked into pieces, the trail of woe enlivened only by the spasmodic tremors of life in retreat of its foe—hands clutching at spilled guts and stemming geysers and one severed from its master and twitching on its back like an overturned turtle.
The gruesomeness of this scene is oddly cartoonish, inadvertently dissonant and off-kilter from the realism of the novel. Instead of letting the intensity of the violence speak for itself, Jantunen’s prose is equally florid and extreme. The unexpected musicality of “gored manifold” and “trail of woe… retreat of its foe” has a liveliness that is unaware of the solemnity of its content, similar to the manner in which the metaphorical language creates an unintentionally comic tone (it is hard to imagine an overturned turtle being anything but cute). The portrayal of uncensored violence requires fine-honed censorship, an awareness and emotional connection to the heft and ramifications of that violence. This is essential work: readers are quick to discern when they are being force-fed something, when the writer is trying to manipulate them with easy tricks. At its best, such prose is gut-wrenching without being heart-wrenching; at its worst, it simply appears adolescent.
But this hollowed and eager portrayal of violence and post-civilized depravity is indicative of the strengths of A Desolate Splendor, which is written with a confident kind of impetus and drama. It has an honesty of intention that might be compared to Stephen King (who is thanked in the Acknowledgements), and there are moments when Jantunen can make us shiver as something creeps in the shadows or cheer as a loyal dog saves a boy’s life. Take this moment involving a child and his deathly-ill mother: “When his father came into the room just after dark, they were lying in bed, his wife curled around his son’s back, holding him so tight that it looked like he’d have to break her arms to get them apart.”
The novel abounds with this raw type of physical emotion. One of Jantunen’s strengths as a writer is his understanding of the physical intimacy between family and lovers. Although the Game of Thrones style of violence may cause some readers to roll their eyes, Jantunen’s characters are real, their relationships are real, and we root for them regardless.
ECW | 256 pages | $18.95 | paper | ISBN# 9781770412040