I have to admit that I was intrigued when Chuck Wendig's Wanderers showed up in my mailbox a few days before my going on a hiking trip in New Hampshire. Having read Stephen King's The Stand just weeks before, I was curious to see if this modern day apocalyptic novel could truly be as good.

I didn't think it was possible, but that's not what made me reticent to bring the book on my roadtrip. You may recall that Marvel fired the author from Star Wars gigs for being too outspoken on social media. And even though the cover blurb enticed me, I was concerned that Wendig would use this work as a political soapbox and I had no interest in that. It's one thing to read vulgar and inflammatory tweets, but it is quite another to go through nearly 800 pages' worth of political vitriol.

Hence, I did something I very seldom do before making a decision and I perused online reviews of the novel. Sadly, as expected, it seemed that Chuck Wendig was going at it pretty bad with the socio-political commentary. And yet, most agreed that the story was also quite compelling. So against my better judgement, I decided to bring the book with me.

Was it a mistake? Well, yes and no. Wanderers is at times a captivating read. Nowhere near as good as The Stand, mind you. Wendig is not talented enough an author to achieve such a milestone, I'm afraid. But the tale and its back story are engrossing, even if the execution leaves something to be desired at times. No, what prevented this book from being great was the author's political bias. Wendig simply couldn't refrain himself and he imbued every single plotline with his passionate hatred for Republicans, Right-leaning voters, devout Christians, capitalists, white supremacists, yada yada yada. Imagine Terry Goodkind's narratives beating you on the head with a stick so his political views can sink in and Chuck Wendig is a hundred times worse. I kid you not. There is no middle ground in this novel. Pretty much everything is black or white, with no shades of gray.

If you can put aside your personal political views when they clash with Wendig's, it is still possible to enjoy Wanderers for the most part. Although there are cringe-worthy moments in basically every single chapter, if you can look beyond the author's socio-political spiel and his extremely negative portrayal of most Americans living south of the Mason-Dixon Line, there is still plenty of good stuff in there. Arguably, most right-leaning, or even center-leaning, people will likely have a hard time doing that. If you're one of those, perhaps it would be better to steer clear of this book. On the other hand, if you are the kind of reader who shares "The future that liberals want" memes on Facebook and Twitter on a daily basis, you'll eat everything up with a spoon and will probably come out experiencing various intellectual orgasms. Chuck Wendig is preaching to the choir here and goes all out in this anti-Trump, anti-Republicans, anti-Right, anti-etc book. Wanderers will likely be a very divisive novel, with the bulk of readers either loving it and raving about it, or hating it with a passion. And given the world we live in these days, this was probably to be expected.

Here's the blurb:

A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. In the tradition of The Stand and Station Eleven comes a gripping saga that weaves an epic tapestry of humanity into an astonishing tale of survival.

Shana wakes up one morning to discover her little sister in the grip of a strange malady. She appears to be sleepwalking. She cannot talk and cannot be woken up. And she is heading with inexorable determination to a destination that only she knows. But Shana and her sister are not alone. Soon they are joined by a flock of sleepwalkers from across America, on the same mysterious journey. And like Shana, there are other “shepherds” who follow the flock to protect their friends and family on the long dark road ahead.

For as the sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America, the real danger may not be the epidemic but the fear of it. With society collapsing all around them—and an ultraviolent militia threatening to exterminate them—the fate of the sleepwalkers depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart—or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

If there is one thing that Wendig does particularly well, it's explaining the science behind the pandemic and how they're trying to deal with it. Most authors would rely on massive info-dumps, but Wendig somehow managed to incorporate all the information in a rather fluid fashion that never bogs down the narrative. This is quite important because Wanderers is a huge work of fiction and there is a lot of scientific stuff involved. Kudos to Wendig for being able to convey all those details in a nearly seamless manner and in a way that is easily understood by neophytes. I never thought I'd learn so much about disease outbreaks and how they grow and how the CDC and the WHO are called upon to deal with them.

In my opinion, the characterization is the aspect that leaves the most to be desired. While Stephen King's magnum opus featured a stellar cast, the same cannot be said of Wanderers. While some protagonists are well-drawn and genuine, others are little more than caricatures. Shana, the teenage girl who is the closest thing to a main character, is probably the most discordant protagonist of the bunch. Although she looks and acts like your regular 17-year-old girl, she doesn't sound like one. Chuck Wendig is known to include a panoply of pop culture references in his novels and Wanderers is no different. Problem is, though Shana is a millennial, she talks like she's a child from the 80s or 90s. Hence, her inner monologues can be quite jarring and not in synch with the sort of 2019 teenager she is meant to be. Moreover, with all that teenage angst and dumbass adolescent stupidity, she often felt woefully inadequate to carry this story on her shoulders. A better balance between the POVs would have worked wonders for the characterization. Benji, the disgraced scientist who sabotaged his career at the CDC, is by far the most interesting character of the cast. It's mostly through him that we discover what's going on and what they can try to do about it. He is also the most deeply realized protagonist in the book. Being selected by a powerful AI to follow the flock and try to save mankind from extinction is a tall order, but he'll do whatever he can or die trying. Pete Corley, the rock star, is mostly the tale's comic relief. Though he is trying to deal with homosexuality, something he has kept hidden from his fans, his wife, and his kids for years, for the most part his exuberance and I-don't-give-a-shit-about-anything attitude is often a breath of fresh air in a story that can be decidedly dark and forbidding. Again, no matter how fun and at times necessary his plotline turned out to be, I doubt that a real-life David Lee Roth or Vince Neal would matter a great deal in such a dire situation. And then there's Matthew Bird, pastor of a small church, who gets sucked into something that grows bigger and more sinister than he ever thought possible. It's through this character that the author explores the theme of redemption and it's one of the most engaging storylines of the novel. The supporting cast is comprised of a number of interesting men and women, chief among them Marcy, Cassie, Arav, Sadie and, of course, Black Swan, the mysterious AI. I would have liked to see events unfold through their eyes a lot more, for I believe that their perspectives could occasionally have worked better than those of the main characters and that would have added more depth.

As mentioned above, what hurts Wanderers time and time again is that it often reads like an open letter to Donald Trump and Republicans inviting them to go fuck themselves. Of course, the release of the disease is due to the actions of a billionaire right-wing capitalist. Wendig's depiction of most Americans from the Southern states is often demeaning and a broad exaggeration that is a step away from caricature. As if absolutely everyone was a God-fearing, gun-wielding, neckbeard fucktard. And a White Supremacist to boot! True, there are lots of Americans that fit that description. But there are also millions of Americans from those same states that don't. To portray basically everyone living below the Mason-Dixon Line in such a way felt a little insulting, truth be told. Imagine the uproar if instead of White Supremacists/Republicans/devout Christians/capitalists the bad guys had been Muslims. Fundamentalists, yes, but Muslims nonetheless. Such a broad generalization would have spawned condemnation and movements to ban this book. Chuck Wendig would have been called upon to explain himself and there would have been hell to pay. But since the author is preaching to the liberal choir with this story, I doubt that there will be a lot of noise in that regard. It just feels weird that Wendig appears to believe that hicks from the South could be that nation's most nefarious threat. Pretty much all the bad guys are white Christian Southerners supporting a Trump-like candidate from the coming US election. As a matter of course, the good guys are made up of gay and straight people of colors of different ethnic and religious backgrounds for the most part.

There is no way to sugarcoat this. The pace, especially in the middle portion of the novel, can be atrocious. Following a great start, a good chunk of Wanderers simply follows the flock of sleepwalkers across the country and not much takes place. It can be absolutely boring for fifty pages or so and then something happens and gets you interested again. With such an uneven rhythm, the book is occasionally off-putting. I mean, at times it's brilliant and a veritable page-turner. But as hard to put down as those sections can be, there are several portions that are slogs to go through. In the end, it felt as though we spend way too much time in some protagonists' head, especially Shana, which bogs down the narrative and serves little or no purpose. You could probably excise a good hundred pages from this novel without missing anything important and improving the pace by doing do.

Because ultimately, it's the endgame that readers are interested in. The showdown between the forces of "good" and the forces of "evil" to determine if humanity can survive extinction. Unfortunately, Chuck Wendig spent too much time paving the way for a grand finale that never truly comes. The final battle and then the long epilogue offer resolution, yet little in the way of satisfaction. Nor will the out-of-left-field ending please most readers, methinks.

It's a bit sad, because Wanderers had all the ingredients necessary for a great book. Alas, Wendig sabotaged the plot by climbing on his political soap box and spitting vitriol every chance he got. And in the end, though there are some great and emotional moments, though there are some clever ideas and ingenuous concepts, Wanderers is a more or less forgettable novel. Some critics called it a career-defining work, but here's to hoping that Chuck Wendig can do much better than that. Indeed, this just a saveur du jour anti-Trump and his ilk manifesto on par with the worst Terry Goodkind crap. Just at the other end of the political spectrum.

The final verdict: 6/10

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3 commentaires:

Anonymous said...

I expected no less from Wendig.:(

Unknown said...

Pat, please enough with targeting Muslims. We do seem to be the subject of your political ire more than other groups. Muslims have been the bad guys in more than enough movies/books/shows that haven't received any flak and are still popular and widely available. We don't always have to be your Boogeyman. If you have any questions or concerns about Islam, I'm happy to help in any way. -Khaled

Anonymous said...

How is this targeting Muslims? He just used fundamentalist Muslims as an example of a group that, if used as the antagonist of this books, would have brought Wendig great backlash. The "Fundamentalist" describer would be ignored and the anger would come that they are attacking ALL Muslims. But, but using White Southerners, everyone is praising him.