World Made
By Hand

James Howard Kunstler
(Atlantic Monthly Press)
James Howard Kunstler has published nine books of fiction, but is best known for his works of social criticism focused on (but not limited to) American patterns of urban settlement. These books, The Geography of Nowhere (1993), Home From Nowhere (1996), and The City In Mind (2002), were brilliant, often corruscatingly funny deconstructions of the aesthetics, planning, and sociology of our automobile-centered suburbs and metropolitan centers. The themes were essentially those of the "New Urbanism" school of people like Andres Duany, and excerpts from the books became required readings in many departments of Urban Planning.

In The Long Emergency (2005), Kunstler went on to the more disturbing subject of Peak Oil and its ramifications. Since the industrial economy of the last 200 years was based on spending off the earth's one-time endowment of fossil fuel, there is bound to be big trouble once depletion of that endowment takes effect, a stage which is very near or has already begun. From this point of view, our Happy Motoring suburban consumer society is just the endpoint of a vast misallocation of resources which is on the verge of extinction anyway. Kunstler put it this way in his blog a year ago: "One thing the public doesn't get about the housing debacle is that it is not just the low point in a regular cycle --- it is the end of the suburban phase of US history. We won't be building anymore of it, and those employed in its development will have to find something else to do."

    Now, unfortunately the whole point of the housing bubble was not really to put X-million people in so many vinyl and chipboard boxes, but rather to ramp up a suburban sprawl-building industry as a replacement for America's dwindling manufacturing economy.

"This stratagem ran into the implacable force of Peak Oil, which not only puts the schnitz on America's whole Happy Motoring / Suburban nexus, but implies a pervasive trend for contraction in everything from the daily distances we can travel to the very core idea of regular economic growth per se --- at least in the way we have understood it through the age of industrial capital."

The Long Emergency of 2005 went into great detail about both the coming troubles (which seem to have arrived already) and the new economic life that would, with much difficulty, emerge. World Made By Hand is the same forecast in novel form. Character development and plot aren't the book's long suits, as in most speculative fiction. Nonetheless, I found it an absorbing read because of the way the new world is imagined in meticulous detail: austere, intensely local, low-energy and low-tech, based on farming, handicrafts, and human and animal labor.

The novel's setting is a fortunate part of the country, rural upstate New York north of Albany. Life in the 2020s has returned to an approximation of what it was in about 1800, and an abundance of trout has returned to the Hudson River.

The breakdown of law and government generates the plot elements of a wild western, with the good guys forced to confront lawless bands. In addition, Kunstler introduces a touch or two of magic realism, events that cannot be other than fantasy.

I found this jarring, out of alignment with the book's principle tone of down-to-earth practicality. Surely, Kunstler doesn't mean to tell us that there will be plain magic to help us through the Long Emergency, which otherwise demands, in his telling, endurance, courage, ingenuity, and human solidarity. In contrast to Kunstler's sharp, breezy polemical style, his writing here is low-key and lyrical.

The lyricism applies to nature, to the everyday world, and strikingly often to food. Every few pages, there are passages like these: "I made a pot of rose-hip tea, which was our chief source of vitamin C, and fried up three slices of Jane Ann's brown bread with plenty of butter in a cast iron skillet."

    Plenty was left and it was swimming in a cream-thickened sauce with new onions and peas along with some cornmeal dumplings flecked with thyme.

"He had a napkin tucked into his collar and seemed pleasantly preoccupied with the fried chicken, corn bread, pickled okra, and other delicacies that the sisters had packed for his supper."

So, our larders in the World Made By Hand will be like they are now after a visit to the local farmers' market, and the fishing will be better too. Maybe it won't be so bad, except for the fact that dentistry will be practiced without Novocaine.

--- Jon Gallant
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