Following the catastrophes of the twenty-first centurythe pandemics, the environmental disaster, the end of oil, the ensuing chaospeople are doing whatever they can to get by and pursuing a simpler and sometimes happier existence. In little Union Grove in upstate New York, the townspeople are preparing for Christmas. Without the consumerist shopping frenzy that dogged the holidays of the previous age, the season has become a time to focus on family and loved ones. It is a stormy Christmas Eve when Robert Earle’s son Daniel arrives back from his two years of sojourning throughout what is left of the United States. He collapses from exhaustion and illness, but as he recovers tells the story of the break-up of the nation into three uneasy independent regions and his journey into the dark heart of the New Foxfire Republic centered in Tennesee and led by the female evangelical despot, Loving Morrow. In the background, Union Grove has been shocked by the Christmas Eve double murder by a young mother, in the throes of illness, of her husband and infant son. Town magistrate Stephen Bullock is in a hanging mood.
A History of the Future is attention-grabbing and provocative, but also lyrical, tender, and comica vision of a future of America that is becoming more and more convincing and perhaps even desirable with each passing day.
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About the Author
James Howard Kunstler was born in New York City in 1948. He is the author of twelve novels, including World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron, and four nonfiction books, including The Long Emergency. He is a frequent lecturer at colleges and professional organizations across the country. He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.
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Two days before Christmas in the year that concerns us — a year yet to come in an America much beset by change — Brother Jobe, pastor, patriarch, and head honcho of the New Faith Covenant Brotherhood Church of Jesus, supervised the finishing touches on his pet project of the season: a tavern and place of fellowship on Main Street in the village of Union Grove, Washington County, New York.
Despite the hardship of recent years that had followed the bombs that destroyed Los Angeles and Washington, DC, and the attendant travails of a collapsed economy, and other serial calamities, this was a happy week for most of Union Grove's people. The growing season, which extended three weeks longer than in the previous decade, brought a bounteous harvest (apart from the troubling appearance of a previously unknown corn smut in a few farmers' fields). The town had gotten through the year without suffering a major epidemic like the ones that had burned through the region in past years and decimated the population, though there was plenty of routine illness for the weak and unlucky. A community laundry was close to opening in the repurposed Union-Wayland paper mill building beside the Battenkill River. It was the first new enterprise of size that the town had seen since the modern age drove itself into a ditch, a joint effort between the regular town folk and Brother Jobe's New Faith brethren. They had arrived in late spring seeking refuge from the disorders elsewhere in America, bought the vacant high school, moved their seventy-eight members into it, and done much to stimulate a revival of community spirits in Union Grove, for all their odd ways.
Being Christmas week, the townspeople did their best to make festivity visible without electric lights. Fir swags festooned the porches and wreaths hung on doors. Lighted candles on windowsills flickered defiance against the year's longest nights. Men and their children dragged balsam trees out of the woods and pine scent filled the crisp air all over town. Women pinned bright red sprays of winterberry onto their knitted hats as they went around trading and visiting. Horses wore holly sprigs on their cruppers as they clip-clopped along the streets. A bright sense of the holiday affected even the gloomier personalities around town, those who struggled in adjusting to the new ways of the new times. All that was missing was snow. The bare ground made everyone impatient for a new look. It had rained a few times the previous week, but when colder air finally swept through it felt as dry as the distant Canadian prairie it came from.
The farm laborers who lived in the village had been given the whole week off, with most of the year's work completed. Many were out and about in town enjoying their rare hours of leisure, stopping to chat with friends, and visiting the other Main Street businesses that the New Faith people had set up, including now the barbershop, the smoke shop, and Brother Jobe's "haberdash," which sold new-made clothing to people who had all but run through the last ragged remains of their off-the-rack manufactured casuals from the old times. Russo's bakery had received a shipment of scarce wheat flour from Albany that Stephen Bullock's Hudson River trade boat brought back on its weekly run, and the bakery shop window was filled with Christmas cookies, confections, fruit jellies, panettones, gingerbread men, and a wondrous great bûche de noël, the buttercream frosted roll cake tricked out like a Yule log, baked just that afternoon, with meringue mushrooms and holly leaves of filbert paste — which was rumored to be destined for Bullock's own table. Einhorn's general merchandise store had laid in a stock of goods intended to please children: sleds, chess boards, lacrosse sticks, dolls (in costumes that looked suspiciously like the New Faith getups), puppets, a rocking horse, skittles and bowls, knock hockey, marble mazes, jigsaw puzzles, all things made by hand. There was nothing electronic on display and few of the town's children would have even remembered what computer games were like. Terry Einhorn kept a big pot of cider warming on the woodstove for customers. His chore boy Buddy Haseltine, who had the mind of a child, wore a floppy Santa Claus hat and a broad smile as he carried in an armload of stove billets from out back. He loved this time of year when the store was so busy.
Brother Jobe's new Union Tavern stood at the center of all this activity, in the generous corner storefront where Van Buren Street came to a T at Main. The space, in a fine three-story redbrick business block with marble steps, lintels, and string courses, had originally been built to house Alger's Drug Store in the year 1902. It was operated by Alger's grandson until 1981 when a Walgreens opened in the strip mall at the edge of town. The loss of the soda fountain alone was a blow to the life of the town. For decades after that, the shop front was given over to Luddie's Pizza, with a big internally lighted plastic sign that spanned the frontage and turquoise paneling above. It covered up the whole Main Street facade, including all the upper-story windows. The interior was a motley assemblage of vinyl, linoleum, stainless steel, and other clashing materials, which had all looked even worse under the harsh fluorescent lighting. In those days, Americans virtually lived on pizza and consumed it in settings that would make livestock feel queasy. As it happened, the entire Luddie family perished in the Mexican flu epidemic, and that was that. Meanwhile, the wheat flour scarcity, the lack of gas for the ovens, and changing work routines put an end to the century-long pizza craze. Like a score of other shop fronts along Main Street, Luddie's remained dark and vacant for years as the economy sank.
Brother Jobe's crew had taken off the turquoise paneling to reveal the old brick and the graceful arched upper windows. Then they set about gutting the first-floor interior, including the now useless stack of pizza ovens, and rearranged the kitchen in the back. The renovated middle room featured cherrywood wainscoting, a selection of castoff sofas and easy chairs arranged in sociable groups about a big woodstove, and a row of cozy booths along the other wall. Removing the greasy drop ceiling revealed magnificent old pressed tin twelve feet high. Up front, the New Faith crew had installed a twenty-foot-long cherrywood bar backed by an impressive array of mirrors above a row of kegs that contained the best ciders, beers, and ales produced around Washington County. The original transom that spelled outalger's drugs in ethereal green, sapphire blue, and opalescent yellow stained glass had been rescued from the basement and was back above the door, while a new handpainted wooden sign over the breadth of the frontage spelled out union tavern in ocher letters that looked like old gold on a black background, with a welcoming pineapple stenciled at each end to denote hospitality. Both outside and in the place were decorated for the holiday with pine garlands and holly.
Brother Jobe paced fretfully in the front barroom, stopped, and pointed up at the chalkboard menu behind the bar.
"What do you mean 'hot soup'?" he asked Brother Micah, the bartender and nominally manager of the new establishment, which would open its doors to the public for the first time in just a little while.
"Hot soup?" Brother Micah said. "Everybody knows what that is."
"All soup is hot," Brother Jobe said. "Why not just say soup?"
"Well, you say 'hot' to give folks the idea that it'll warm them up on a cold day, make 'em feel good inside," said Brother Micah, who had once worked in a Golden Polenta franchise restaurant back in the old times.
Brother Jobe just stared wearily with a sour expression on his face. A wintry ache crept through his joints. Along with all his other duties and responsibilities, getting the tavern ready had worn him out. Back in the middle room, two New Faith sisters bustled about. One set out jars of the New Faith red hot chile sauce on the tables in the booths and another lighted candles in the tin wall sconces. Daylight was fading at four o'clock in the afternoon this time of year. A painted sign that hung beside the woodstove saidno card playing, marijuana, spitting on the premises.
"Ain't it self-evident that soup is hot?" Brother Jobe said.
"It's the psychology of the thing," Brother Micah said. "You see?"
"Hmph, psychology," Brother Jobe muttered. "I'll take a dram of whiskey."
"The Battenville light rye, the Eagle Bridge corn, or the Shushan what-have-you?"
"What-have-you? Did they stick a possum in the barrel or something?"
"It's not half bad."
"I'll try half a dram then. Sounds indifferent."
"It's different enough."
Brother Jobe scanned the other menu items on offer from the kitchen as he sipped the whiskey. Ham plate. Cheese plate. Hard sausage plate. Pulled pork plate. Variety plate. Chicken liver fry-up. Meatballs and gravy sauce. Corn dodger with pepper jelly. Tater tots ("our own!"). Cheese toast. Pickled eggs. Pickled peppers. Mixed pickles. Popcorn.
"What all is the darn soup, anyway?" Brother Jobe asked.
"Split pea with lard cracklings, I believe," Brother Micah said as he pounded a bung valve into a keg of Holyrood's special Christmas brew, pear scrumpy, a carbonated cider with a greater than average kick. A knock on the front window prompted both brothers to turn their heads. Peering through the glass was Robert Earle, carpenter by trade and, since last June, mayor of Union Grove. Brother Jobe waddled over to the door and let him in. Three other townsmen who had gathered out on the sidewalk made to follow Robert inside but Brother Jobe stopped them.
"Hey, let us in, too!" said Dennis Fontana, chicken house manager at Ned Larmon's big farm on Pumpkin Hill.
"Four-thirty, boys, like it says on that there sign in the window," Brother Jobe said.
"Aw, come on —"
He locked the door briskly behind Robert, who carried his fiddle case.
"You gonna grace us with some tunes here on our opening night?" Brother Jobe said. He pronounced it chunes.
"I'm on my way to Christmas practice," Robert said. By this he meant the music circle at Union Grove's First Congregational Church. They'd been rehearsing for months.
"I hear you all gonna put on a musicale Christmas Eve."
"That's right. Your bunch is welcome."
"We was thinking of putting on some carol singing ourself, mebbe Christmas Day, proper. You think some of your town folks might want to come over to our sanctuary for it? We got a heat system all rigged up. I aim to see we all mix more, your people and ours."
"Hang up a sign for it in the window here," Robert said. "Folks will see it. This place is all the talk of the town."
"Is that so?" Brother Jobe said, perking up visibly. Now there were five men and two women waiting outside for the place to open, one pressed right up against the window peering in. "You suppose they'll come regular, like?"
"Look at them out there. You're not insecure, are you?"
"Hmph," Brother Jobe said. "What do you think of the joint?"
"I like it. Your boys did a nice job."
"It ain't exactly a come-to-Jesus spot, but we're all for fellowship whatever style it comes in."
"How'd a guy like you ever learn the bar business?" Robert said.
"It ain't brain surgery. My daddy had a half-interest in a roadhouse in Gate City, Virginia. Ugly little burg full of hillbillies. I worked there one summer as the fry cook and learned just how the partner was robbing us. Daddy burned the place down and collected on the insurance. The partner happened to electrocute himself in his own hot tub a month later. Vengeance is the Lord's, I guess. Won't you have a taste of something on the house?"
"I came by to give you my invoice."
Robert handed Brother Jobe a folded sheet of paper. Robert had been working for two months outfitting the interior of a special chamber over in the former high school. The work had involved very exacting marquetry and a coffered ceiling. It was designed to be the winter quarters of the New Faith's clairvoyant epileptic spiritual guide Mary Beth Ivanhoe, also known among them as Precious Mother or the Queen Bee.
"We appreciate the fine job you done," Brother Jobe said. "I was just sampling this here whiskey, the Shushan what-have-you. It's got bark and bite both. Try a glass."
"Sure, thanks," Robert said.
The crowd was yet growing outside on the sidewalk. A few were clean-shaven New Faith members in broad-brimmed hats. Carol singing could be heard among them.
Brother Jobe called for two more whiskeys, then glanced down at the invoice.
"Shoo-wee," he said. It was for $350, payable in silver. "You kept track of your hours, I suppose."
"Yes I did."
"Sure you won't take paper money? It'll work out to more than a half million bucks if you do."
"People don't like paper dollars anymore."
"You'd feel rich, though."
Robert shifted his weight on the stool. "I'd only be fooling myself," he said.
"I'm just funnin' with you, old son. Come by my office at headquarters and you'll be paid in full in hard silver coin. Say, what if our choir put on a free concert on Main Street on Christmas Day? Right on the town hall steps or something. Think your townies would turn out for that?"
"Spread the word, then. We'll do it! Now lookit, I'm about to throw the doors open, first time ever. Won't you give us just one tune to kick her off?"
"Oh, all right."
By the time Brother Jobe let the public in there were twenty-three people waiting. Seven were women. Robert Earle played a medley of "Deck the Halls," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and "Jingle Bells," and by the time he stopped there was such a groan of protest from the now thirty-five people standing three deep at the bar that it was all he could do to get out of the place.CHAPTER 2
When dire events overtook American life and the economy collapsed and so many once normal arrangements dissolved with it, and everything changed in a matter of months, Andrew Pendergast's true romance with the world began. It manifested in a rebirth of his gratitude for being. The world tilted, but he had anticipated and prepared for it and the tilt affected him favorably, especially his internal demeanor, which was one of a cheerful engagement with reality. His work as a freelance editor of scientific books and journals evaporated, of course, as so many livelihoods did, but before long so did any need to make monthly mortgage and car payments to a bank that no longer functionally existed, nor to an electric company that no longer delivered service, or the phone company, or the Internet provider, or any other entity that had formerly claimed some obligation from him. With every far-flung corporate network down, from the state and federal governments with their tax collectors to the skein of rackets that had posed as health care, the vast parasitical armature of institutions and corporations lost its grip on those who had survived the difficult transition and the epidemics, and Andrew Pendergast, for one, blossomed.
Andrew had no family left. He had lost his only sibling, a sister he had idolized, in a waterskiing accident when she was sixteen and he was twelve. His parents never lived to see the global collapse. Andrew was a bachelor who lived alone. In the old times, he defined himself and the precinct of his daily life as gay, meaning homosexual. Now, with the old contexts dissolved, it was no longer possible to think that way. His personal map of the world had changed as much as the geography he was immersed in.
He had survived a decade of adventures in the New York City publishing world and its extracurricular social venues. He had felt himself an outsider even in that lively subculture. Then, seeing the disorders blossom in politics, banking, and oil, he very deliberately planned his escape from that life to a new one in the distant upper Hudson River valley, a region he had discovered on B & B weekends before everything fell apart. On one of those forays upstate, he had seen the house for sale on Cottage Street. The seller was "highly motivated" due to financial reverses, the realtor disclosed in a low whisper. This was the case for a lot of unfortunate people at the time. Andrew bought the house, moved up from the city, and worked his freelance editing jobs at a remove until the bomb in Washington, DC, tanked the nation's economy altogether and scattered the remnants of its government. By then, though, he had made a beachhead for himself in Union Grove.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A History of the Future"
Copyright © 2014 James Howard Kunstler.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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