PANRC: The Witch of Hebron I

First of all, let me start with what I like about Jim Kunstler's writing in _The Witch of Hebron_. The thing I enjoy most is that he navigates the shoals of post-apocalyptic fantasy extraordinarily well. He neither falls into the masturbatory apocalypticism of something like _The Road_ nor the "good vs. evil fantasy" so common in PA novels, in which our heroes stand for good, light and humanity against cartoon bad guys who respond to the crisis in cartoon ways (lots of these, think _Lucifer's Hammer_ or _Dies the Fire_.)

Kunstler's post-apocalypticism comes in shades of grey - his characters never know exactly what the right thing to do is, they aren't sure whether they are acting well or not, they do the best they can. They also don't immediately self-organize in perfect ways, come magically together under a heroic leader - there isn't one leader, nor one unified response. Instead, there are lots of responses, even within one small community. No one magically intuits everything that is going on (except, of course, for the weird queen bee woman who goes with the magical subplot of the religious community), knows everyone or has complete understanding.

In this, Kunstler's novel may be more realistic, and better imaginative fiction in its conception than anything I can think of that is comparable. As I wrote in my review of _The World Made By Hand_ the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction is one that tends to lure writers into writing badly and unimaginatively - I know that seems a strange claim, since by definition conceiving a future must be an imaginative project, but there's a strange unity in both high and low culture PA fiction - and that unity is that it isn't very good. The thing is that Jim Kunstler can write - he often produces extraordinarily fine prose. There are places in _TWOH_ in which the book is beautifully or imaginatively written, and again, as I wrote about The World Made By Hand, in the limited genre of the post-apocalyptic novel, Kunstler's prose and classic American coming-of-age novel qualities makes it a standout in its genre.

Unfortunately, that's not exactly stunning praise. In the World Made By Hand I took issue in part with Kunstler's gender politics - and there are issues there, which I'll write about in my second post on this subject. In response to Carolyn Baker's review of _The Witch of Hebron_, I wrote a quick piece at ye olde blogge, observing that in Kunstler's novels, the losses of women's social gains seem to be the opposite of what's actually happening now, where men are the overwhelming early victims of the economic crisis.

At a recent reading in Colorado, the moderator, Michael Brownlee, read an excerpt from my criticisms and a recent review by Carolyn Baker, to which, it was reported to me by several attendees, Kunstler reportedly responded to our criticisms with the following:

"Fuck those motherfuckers!" When he was finally at the podium he began with, "I'm going to address the woman thing right up front. I'm appalled that educated, intelligent women of the boomer generation are so incapable of imagining a world where a completely different economic status has evaporated the gains of women. You need to get over it."

At 38, I'm a bit crushed to find that Kunstler, who I've met several times at some length, apparently thinks I'm a baby boomer, when I'm young enough to be his daughter. I'm not sure which of us that reflects more poorly on. Given that I've spent at least as much time thinking and writing about the role of women in the post-peak future than he has I'm willing to make the case that the problem is not our failure to consider the subject. So I do want to talk about the gender issues in the book, particularly since Kunstler remains so defensive about his position on gender, but I'll save that and give it its own post, because there's a larger issue in _The Witch of Hebron_.

To me, the more critical point is that the book is unfortunately rather dull. Despite my distaste for some of _The World Made by Hand_ I rather enjoyed the it and Kunstler's world-building. I found the cowboy-novel journey to clean up Albany entertaining, and the twist of the female prophetess to be genuinely interesting. That's simply not true of _The Witch of Hebron_ - here everything is telegraphed in the first few chapters. The narrative unfolds in a way that is almost entirely predictable. On the rare occasions when what happens next isn't something that one could figure out with minimal thought, the precognitive characters (of which there are many) reveal it, to ensure that even the densest of readers doesn't actually have to read the next segment of the novel to anticipate it. The book isn't uniformly tedious - the beginning and end are rather good, but the journey in the middle seems endless, full of Odyssean stops, complete with Odyssean foreshadowing, without Odyssean interest.

Its central story may be the coming-of-age of Jasper Copeland, but it is really the unwinding of modernity, and despite the fact that Kunstler is often heavy-handed and belabors his point, this part of the novel is of genuine interest at times - just not enough to cover up the drag in the middle. His question is what kind of people we become once the trappings of modernity are gone, and his answer is probably right - good, bad, ugly, depressed, unhappy, newly imaginative, and less modern. I suspect that what Kunstler has done right in this novel is come closer than anyone else writing in this genre to what happens to people when their world unwinds. One of the most interesting scenes occurs in the town school, when the children and their teacher discuss Halloween, history and what looks frightening in a world that knows much more about scary things than we do. Their teacher, Jane Ann Holder asks the children about what Halloween is about:

"To honor dead people who can't be here among us anymore," said Ned Allison.

"Yes. To acknowledge them. Our memory of them, at least."

"I think that's where the idea of ghosts comes from," said Mary Moyer, twelve, a blossoming intellectual. "A mix of memory and imagination."

"Very good," Jane Ann said. "How many of you believe in ghosts?"

Several of the younger children raised their hands, a few tentatively, while checking around the room to see whether they had company in their belief.

"There's no such things as ghosts," said David Martin, fifteen, a cynic through and through.

"Maybe the boundary between memory and imagination isn't as firm as we like to think," Jane Ann said.

What is is and what ain't ain't," David Martin said.

"Isn't, not aint," Jane Ann said.

Despite the dryness of the prose here, there's something interesting going on - an adult is trying to persuade children to see the world in mystical terms, while children old enough to remember the old world resist. It is interesting that it isn't the children, growing up in this new world, that embrace augury and the supernatural, but the adults - the doctor, who claims he comes from a scientific world understanding, but asks another man to reanimate the dead, the minister who has abandoned belief in God but believes in the power of magical prostitutes to cure his impotence (Yes, I know we aren't talking about sex today, but it is hard to avoid, since the book begins with a weeping, odiferous hermit masturbating, floats through adult prostitution, the child sex trade and regular reminders that things like butter and mountains remind everyone immediately of breasts, and winding up with the news that future whores will accept payment in pork products.) This moment in the schoolhouse suggests that the shift to a supernatural worldview happens because the world the adults live in so emptied that they reach, desperately, for a new way of imagining it, and this seems to me a real insight, even if buried in a great deal of dross.

To me the most interesting part of _The Witch of Hebron_ which is, unfortunately, not quite interesting enough, is Kunstler's speculation about what might fill the gap of scientific realism in a world that no longer has the structural support for that worldview. In this world, Washington Irving isn't just a story - Headless Horsemen (or the like) and dark things seem emergingly possible, and human beings can do things that seem like magic - because magic is part and parcel of a world made by hand.

What did you think?


Note: For those of you who want to get reading ahead into our next selection (there will be one more post on this month's book), Kurt Cobb's _Prelude_ is on tap for January. February will conclude a three month exploration of Peak Oil Novels with Robert Charles Wilson's _Julian Comstock_ and March's book will move us into an older genre, the nuclear war novel with Pat Frank's _Alas Babylon_. Both of the latter have been out long enough that no one should have trouble getting ahold of them.

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I read World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron back to back. Knowing next to nothing about Kunstler, I read these books with great interest and an open mind. I really wanted to like the man and his writing, because heâs writing about peak oil. But Kunstlerâs fiction IS masturbatory. I have no respect for authors like Kunstler and Dan Brown who create protagonists that look a lot like their author photos then go on to tell you about how great they are in their little fantasy world. Clearly he has a problem with women, as he makes whores out of most of them. He also clearly has a problem with Southerners, who he thinks are all bible-thumping Nascar fans. And, as a native southern Virginian, I can tell you that no one talks like his Virginian characters. Putting peopleâs accents or dialect into writing is tricky, and should be avoided by mediocre writers who canât pull it off.

Since my library had it also, I went ahead and read The Long Emergency after returning the other two, and I know its outside the scope of this discussion, but I canât help commenting on it, because this is the book that really made me dislike the man. He clearly isnât writing to educate anyone so much as to show off his impressive vocabulary. In one single paragraph there were four words I had never seen before, and Iâm a pretty smart, well-read person. He is so biased towards his own region that he loses credibility in my book. He, and other rich people who live in small towns in the Northeast will be okay, but the rest of us are doomed! He critiques the climates of the rest of the country but says not one word about the cold in the northeast. I was hoping for an insightful discussion about how other countries might fare, especially Latin America, where I intend to settle, but all I got was a few pages of paranoid rants about Mexicans. Iâm so tired of people who know nothing about Mexico regurgitating some Fox News-type crap about how unstable Mexicoâs government is. If America with its drug war and its government-subsidized corn would leave Mexico alone, Mexico would be just fine. Kunstler describes Mexico as a third-world country, another tell to his ignorance and his sources of âinformationâ. And, after telling us for a couple hundred pages how screwed we are because our country is built for cars, no one knows how to grow food or make things by hand, etc., conditions in which Mexico and many other less-developed countries have advantages over the USA, he asserts that Mexicans will continue to flood into the USA even when things get very bad here. Which is the opposite of what is already happening. And by the way, Mr. Kunstler, if Americans were smart, they would be begging immigrant farmers to settle in their communities.

Putting the misogyny aside takes away a lot of what I'd have to say about this novel, but here goes. I agree with you on the moral ambiguity of the characters being the books strongest suit. Possibly the only strong suit. I realize the 19th century dialogue is an intentional stylistic device, but it made even the potentially interesting conversations silly and awkward. He resorted to magic to tie in subplots that were boring and unnecessary to begin with. As an example, the masturbating hermit who randomly goes off to hunt a random 'catamount' and kills it just in time to save the protagonist. It was like the author imagined having him blamed for the disappearance of the boy but then lost interest in that but still wanted to use the pages he'd written so he tacked on a pointless and boring subplot. Saying he was there because of his magical prescience is a cheat. Don't want to make this post overlong so going to stop there.

Here's the question that the book left me with;
After the economy collapses, the characters are left in a social environment that seems to be structured roughly the same as we might expect from a time 100 or more years ago. Why? And why is the technology in the book all cobbled together from that same time? I hear not one squeak of a windmill, don't see any solar cells, even as refuse, and not a single person is riding a bicycle. (Apologies if I missed something; I had to return my copy to the library).

I'm sorry you quoted him as you did above; before I read that, I would have said that Kunstler's a guy who wrote a book that's not particularly interesting or enjoyable, but after that I'm more inclined to say, "Fuck you, too." It does not take much in the way of imagination to come up with a world in which women have had the gains of the last 40 years taken away. I can find you one in a single plane trip.

By auntieintellectual (not verified) on 07 Dec 2010 #permalink

And I agree with Brandie that this book IS very masturbatory. Middle aged men have their pick of young women. The paper-thin, ill-described characters doing menial work are all ex-executives and/or owned car dealerships. Just because, to his credit, a very small handful of characters are given moral ambiguity and doubt and mixed motivations does not excuse every other character (including every woman) being either a simplistic caricature or motivated by their mystical, ineffable yet strangely uninteresting magic.

Sharon, I found the book compelling to read. I couldn't put it down. Nevertheless, I too found the plot predictable: boy wrongs one of the leaders of the town; boy disappears; leader goes out to find boy and bring him back to face judgment; while searching for boy, leader's life is put in danger; boy saves leader's life; boy and leader are reconciled.

I also agree that the characters' moral ambivalence is a strong point of the book. But I take issue with all the sex and violence. Spome of the sex, particularly that surrounding Loren Holder's impotence, is central to the story Kunstler is weaving and the characters he's creating, but some of it, to my mind, is gratuitous. I mean, come on, do we really have to stand there "watching" two separate characters masturbating on two separate occasions? And the scene with Jasper and the young prostitute in Glens Falls is a bit much, too. Regarding violence, the subplot surrounding the massacre of the raiders at the Stephen Bullock plantation strikes me likewise as gratuitous.

To me, the most intriguing thing about this novel, as well as its predecessor, are the characters of the "witch" and the members of the New Faith Brotherhood. Barbara Maglie is certainly no stereotyped witch with a black cat, cauldron, and broomstick and all. I wonder if she's really a witch at all, or just really knowledgeable about herbs and potions. Did she, for example, put some kind of hallucinogen into Jerry Copeland's and Robert Earle's drink that made them have those vivid dreams that night? And that potion she gave Loren Holder contained some very powerful poisons (monkshood, hellebore, and nightshade) along with, not surprisingly given the purpose for which he was there, some aphrodisiacs. I wasn't really quite sure what all the things in that draught were intended for!

The New Faith Brotherhood is a real puzzle to me. I really don't understand what Kunstler is trying to create through them. But just yesterday I read Lindsay Curran's discussion of Kunstler that appeared on the Energy Bulletin site. He said Kunstler had done investigative reporting of cults back in the 1970s. So he may have borrowed practices and ideas he observed in those studies as he developed his New Faith group and their practices. They certainly differ from normal Christians in a number of ways (of course, cults tend to be unorthodox). Christians are almost uniformly wary of, if not opposed to, occult activities, but the New Faithers seem to take that kind of theing in stride. The queen bee character, as you mentioned, is really, really strange. (I began wondering what they would do when she dies. Would they tell the rest of the membership and have a public funeral and burial, or would they keep her death a secret from the members and act like she was still alive?) What, I wonder, was Kunstler's inspiration for her? Finally, their casual use of violence and vigilante justice to take care of problems--as demonstrated in that clean-up of Albany in the first novel--strikes me as contrary to Christian teaching. I know, this is fiction. But I do find these spiritual and mystical aspects the most fascinating parts of the novel.

i too read WMBH and TWOH back to back. more than a few times i felt as though i was rereading the same book. with WMBH i had accepted the premise and was able to submerge in the story deep enough to take some enjoyment from it. until, that is, i was slapped in the face by the introduction of the precious mother. the addition of this character seemingly came out of nowhere and was difficult to reconcile. at that point my mission became to simply finish the book. when the magic continued into TWOH i found myself reading the book only at bedtime as an alternative to other sleep inducing agents. the addition of the sex and graphic violence in TWOH is disjointed and seems to be there only as a seasoning and not an integral part of the recipe. i can't shake the feeling that i have read these stories before under a different title by a different, more talented author. looking forward to re-reading ~alas babylon~. was just discussing it with the kids recently so perhaps copies for all

Don, I would agree with your assessment of the witch's powers being largely or entirely based on herbal knowledge except for the prevalence of characters in the story with explicitly magical powers. Mysticism can make a character more interesting or it can be used by a lazy author to tie up loose plot points. The character of the witch could have been interesting. Who is she? Why does she do what she does? Unfortunately by that point I was thinking she probably is a magical prostitute for the same reason a hermit goes to kill a catamount.

Kunstler's blog and books seem to have certain pervasive themes: 1) The economy will collapse and any technology based on fossil fuels at all will effectively cease; 2) Americans as we currently live are very poorly prepared for this collapse and therefore the collapse will be violent and nasty; 3) The collapse will bring out the worst in some of us and the post-collapse society will have power structures dominated by irrational groups of men, with government as we know it now non-existent; 4) People in general and lower-class/minority/uneducated Americans in particular are really, really, really assholes; only white educated New Englanders are quiet, strong, rational, and good.
This last theme grates on many people, and on me. I think I may be over-simplifying it some; but that's how it has struck me and many other people whose reactions I have read.
Kunstler is a very good writer, and is a very, very angry man. He has important things to say which we would all do well to pay attention to, and also has this anger which it behooves a reader to be aware of and to try to filter while reading, in order to determine what is really going on in Kunstler's psyche that causes him this pain. So, armchair psychology is required, but in my view Kunstler's writing is ultimately worth it.
I think his portrayal of female characters is skewed because, like all his characters, they are projections of his own emotional relationships with people in his own life. Every man in his books is an aspect of Kunstler, and every woman in his books is an aspect of important women in Kunstler's life. If this is a correct evaluation of how he creates characters, then by definition the female characters will be less than a person. So don't read these books to find out great psychological insights into how to be a woman in post-collapse America. Instead, read them to find out how a very, very intelligent man thinks that all relationships - economic, personal, governmental, social, sexual, internecine, familial - could, and probably will, play out, given the way things are now and the way they seem to be going.
There is one new theme in The Witch of Hebron not (it seems to me) present in any of Kunstler's other writings: 5) the theme of ESP in the form of precognition, which is linked with religious and magical rituals. I don't think any of his other writing has this theme, and it is interesting to me that a man who is so angry and defensive in public life (interviews, lectures, emails to me and to others) and so critical of irrationality should make himself so vulnerable as an author to include this theme. I don't know why he includes it, but to me it adds great depth to the writing and shows me that Kunstler's personality as readers perceive it has many mansions, and what we superficially conceive him to be is doubtless merely the tip of an iceberg. I look forward to his writing - every book, every weekly grumble at Clusterfuck Nation, every youtube interview. And I respect him immensely as a highly flawed individual who nevertheless has some ideas we should pay attention to.

I found *World Made by Hand* awful; why does the exhaustion of oil make everyone talk like a Mark Twain parody gone very wrong? I stopped reading his blog when....he was wrong. He was wrong about y2k; he was wrong about the economy collapsing, repeatedly, and his novel just stank. I especially don't like Virginia (my home) being confused with some fantasy of the Deep South a la 1960 or so.

This new novel sounds even worse.

Reading these comments, Sharon's review (all very interesting) and the authors comment ("Fuck those motherfuckers!") I'll be happy to pass on this book. Just as I have given up on his blog.

In the past month, I've picked up Witch... a couple of times, read thru a few pages, and then put it back on the bookshelf as poorly written and uninteresting. Boy, you folks are confirming in spades my quick judgement of the book. Glad to say I did not read it.

For all his loathing of late consumer culture, Jim Kunstler's 'Witch of Hebron' is a strip mall of a book. The characters are plausible enough, but thin and predictable, and the plot is Timmy & Lassie meets Road Warrior (with horses). I counted only two instances where the women appeared in context other than sex or mealtime (one of them quoted by Sharon in her review). I could go along with many of Kunstler's proposals for the future of post-collapse upstate New York, but it all seemed too tidy and homogenous. The Rich guy still had electricity because he'd built a hydroelectric generator, but no one had photovoltaics or bicycles. The 'Witch' was beautiful, resourceful, sexy and rich. The Jesus people all talked like hillbillies. Industry had uniformly collapsed back to cottage industry and there was no evidence of the considerable, if insufficient, remaining domestic coal, oil, and natural gas resources. The population impasse had also been neatly disposed of with various epidemics and nuclear wars, and all the millions of cars had been magically carried away and recycled into something or other. And all this supposedly happened within less than ten years. This is not realistic even on a cursory level, and I would like to read a book by someone with the skill to convey a more complex picture.

By Eric in Kansas (not verified) on 07 Dec 2010 #permalink

I usually read "Clusterfuck Nation" on Mondays but I haven't read any of Kunstler's novels and don't intend to, so perhaps I shouldn't even comment on this thread. Of course, the fact that I shouldn't comment doesn't mean that I won't.

I'd just like to stay that I think it's naive to think that women won't have a particularly tough time during the shitstorm years to come. This is not to say that some particular women won't wield a great deal of power or influence in their local spheres, especially women who happen to be the matrons of large extended families or clans. Most women, however, or women in general shall we say, I expect will have it very hard in the near future. So will men but some men will fall back on brutality as a survival mechanism and the brunt of this brutality, unfortunately, will fall on women. Or put it this way: The brutality of men on men will be lethal but that of men on women will be chronic & demeaning. The testimony of history and nature of the ape ensure this. If Kunstler said, "I'm appalled that educated, intelligent women of the boomer generation are so incapable of imagining a world where a completely different economic status has evaporated the gains of women," I'm afraid he's correct.

And another thing, Jim: While I'm not overly fond of Kunstler I believe that he should be given his due. I believe that it's incorrect to say, "He was wrong about y2k." To my mind what happened was that programmers heeded the warnings of voices like his, that raised concern about the looming problem, and fixed it before it materialized. Had these voices not been raised, he may well have been right about Y2K, after all. I feel that it's unfair to criticize those who warn others who then do something to avert disaster, for the disaster they warned of not occurring. They should be thanked, instead.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 07 Dec 2010 #permalink

After being criticized in his first book for reducing women characters to cooks and sex partners in the future world, I was appalled to see that Kuntsler didn't learn a thing. He created a more central woman character, and then showed her function to be sex and cooking just like the others--and even though older, she retained smooth skin, lovely hair and a voluptuous figure--just what you would expect in a witch! In reality, such a woman would be the healer and religious counselor, not the 12 year old surgeon and blowhard cult leader.

By Hummingbird (not verified) on 07 Dec 2010 #permalink

Oh, and by the way, Sharon, as someone who recently met you, let me reassure you that you do NOT look like a baby boomer :-)


About "I'm appalled that . . women of the boomer generation are so incapable of imagining a . . different economic status has evaporated the gains of women. You need to get over it."

I would guess that this is a vision of Kunstler's, about how he imagines he would establish himself in tomorrow's (changed) world. I also imagine that there are some significant portion of the world that will. I point to the "gains" that don't really help battered women and other victims of domestic violence that haven't seen much "gain" in the last half century. We still have, today, men and women putting themselves in just that kind of situation.

I don't believe, however, that it is laws and prison terms regarding domestic violence that keeps this problem from spreading today, and from becoming the norm in the future.

I think the need for competent people to work together in community for the community, the family, and the individual to survive will operate to value each person according to their abilities. I think Kunstler is subconsciously thinking that the depradations of the past in times of affluence will apply when the collapse of affluence - and energy - will not make such practices sustainable.

It was the boom town, the discoveries of richly abundant resources and trade meccas that made prostitution a profitable occupation, rather than a niche, survival tactic. In the absence of abundant affluence, I question that prostitution, let alone child prostitution, will be a viable form of entertainment, or of surviving. . . Um, I don't mean that any woman of sense will grab a likely guy, and put him to work, even if she has to mate/marry the bloke. That wasn't what I meant at all. Unless she can train him to be really good with the garden and changing diapers.

Having just finished the last of the Dies the Fire books, World Made by Hand, and just read Alas Babylon last winter (second read), I disagree that Kunstler's story is better. The same, maybe worse, in my opinion. At least Dies the Fire _started_ with a 'magical' Event to get things rolling, but did not really use magic in the story line. What is the point of the magical stuff in WMBH? Just to wrap up the story? I have read enough SF&F to have a dim view of someone pulling a Deus Ex in the last 10 pages just to finish things. Set the warp drive to 14! Now we get there in time/the Bad Guy is zapped/the world is saved!! Suuure. It would have been a much better story without adding mumbo-jumbo.

And women in fiction, yeah, that is a whole separate topic.

I could rant more, but the brain is melted this afternoon. Good points Brad. Why would I trade my next meal to get laid? Or even next week's meal? Only if I am very certain I can spare it! After a few hard winters, I bet most people would have that opinion.

By ChrisBear (not verified) on 07 Dec 2010 #permalink

Jason, I defer to your reasoning. Yes, Barbara Maglie is rather one-dimensional as presented here. It was her indulgence in what Tolkien calls herb-lore that fascinated me. In the kind of world that Kunstler imagines here, that kind of knowledge will be very important.

But maybe Maglie is merely a magical prostitute. Or, to go one step further, maybe she's really a succubus. In either case, it's possible that she really did seduce Dr. Copeland and Robert Earle that night and didn't just plant something in their tea to induce vivid dreams. We aren't told where she is from, what family connections she might have or might have lost in the flu epidemic, or why she's living and growing her herbs in the rural hinterland of Union Grove. Whatever the case may be, Kunstler COULD develop her into an interesting character if he wants to do so.

A question came to me as I was typing this: Why does the title of the book refer to Barbara Maglie instead of Jasper Copeland, given that Jasper, not Barbara, is the central character in the novel?

Bizde en iyi yerlere gelmek icin bir caba icindeyiz tabiki bunun zorlugunu yasamaktayiz ama bir yola ciktik ve bunu basarmaya çalismaktayiz bakalim nasıl olucak istedigimize ulasabilcekmiyiz inanin boyle cok zor oluyor ama mecburuz napalim evet hayirlisi .
Herkesin birbirine yardim etmesi gerek aslinda kendilerini dusunmemeli herkes dostlarinida dusunmelidirler bence tabi bu benim fikrim tabiki


Just reacting to Kunstler's "I'm appalled that educated, intelligent women of the boomer generation are so incapable of imagining a world where a completely different economic status has evaporated the gains of women."

It is he who is incapable of imagining such a world. He simply declares it. He does not tell us how it came to be. He does not develop the logic of it. And that is why the reader is left with the impression that it is that way in the books simply because Kunstler likes it that way.

I think that he is a shallow, blah fiction writer though he is definitely an amusing ranter in non-fiction contexts.

Well, since I've only read half the book, I only skimmed a few of the comments, so as to try to avoid spoilers.
I enjoy Kunstler's writing a lot. This certainly doesn't mean I don't think it has flaws, or that I agree with everything he says. I actually find it much more interesting to read a writer I don't completely agree with than one I do.
I guess some people like him and some don't. What surprises me is the intensity of the dislike. What also surprises me is the fact that he's so damn touchy about any criticism. But in both cases I just shrug and think, well, whatever.
Some of the criticism is along the lines of "he's not very nice." But would you say the same of Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, H. L. Menken, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, R. Crumb, Bill Mahrer ... or, say, William F. Buckley? A writer has no obligation to be nice. Do you really not enjoy a writer who can skewer their opponents? If a writer finds something odious or stupid, why shouldn't they say so in the strongest possible terms? If Kunstler finds aspects of southern culture disgusting, why shouldn't he feel free to rant on the topic? Ridicule can have a positive outcome. After the Scopes trial, Menken et al subjected the Bible-thumpers to withering mockery -- and in response, they slunk off into the woodwork, and pretty much withdrew from national politics and debates for decades. Which was a good thing.
The comment that he "just likes to show off his big vocabulary" left me puzzled. While the "he's not very nice" criticism refers to something real (he's not always), this one doesn't seem to. I don't recall a particularly big or exotic vocabulary in Long Emergency.
The gender stuff bothered me, too. Why would (all) women timidly withdraw to such a constrained role? It doesn't seem credible. There are a lot of other things -- details -- in the World Made by Hand world that don't seem credible to me. The lack of cats and dogs (any culture that grows grain keeps cats; any culture that hunts or has security issues would find dogs useful; feral dogs and cats would be common -- feral dog packs would be a great danger, in fact). The relative scarcity of firearms. The apparent lack of any kind of printing or publishing. And yet, the ubiquity of glass window panes (made where? by who?) -- and, it seems, functioning plumbing systems.
But it was the magic that bothered me the most, when I read World Made by Hand. (Kunstler apparently dismissed a questioner who raised this issue, accusing them of a "lack of imagination." Whatever.)I thought it was going to be a realistic novel, with realistic ideas about how the world might turn out to be. So when it turned out that some people had magic powers, I was disappointed and frustrated. It may well be true that if modern industrial society collapses, people will develop/revive magical belief systems. But just because belief in magic re-appears, that doesn't mean actual magic will become real. It won't. In the middle ages when everybody, I guess, believed in various magical things,nonetheless those things weren't real in actual objective fact. I found this really annoying.
But in reading Witch of Hebron, that doesn't bother me any more, and neither does the gender thing (much), or the dogs, cats, windowpanes, etc. That's because I knew going in that it's a fantasy world where magic exists, people have inexplicably started talking in a quasi-19th-century dialect (and even swapped 20th century names for food items, using the antique phrases instead), and women have adopted a sort of mythical "stay in the home" role, and people who subsist mainly on corn don't have cats, and they are capable of making windowpanes but not newspapers. It's not meant to be credible, I guess. It is what it is, a quirky hypothetical scenario.
But within this world, I'm enjoying the stories Kunstler tells -- because I enjoy his prose, and he can draw characters that the reader cares about. You start wondering what will happen to them and hoping they are okay. Their emotions and their fallibility (as Sharon mentioned) are engaging. There is some psychological realism there, even though the wold itself is not a realistic extrapolation or speculation, in my view. At least many details are off. People are not going to acquire magic powers, women are not going to slink back into the "barefoot in the kitchen" roles (at least not all women, and not without some struggle and contention and it being an issue!), cats and dogs will be around, windowpanes may not be.
Still, they are fun stories in my opinion! And even the things you don't like about Kunstler -- his errors, flaws, annoying habits, or blindspots -- get you thinking, and arguing with him in your head, and figuring out how your own opinions differ. I think that's good!

I read WMBH and TWOH back to back as well and was not favorably impressed by either the writing or the stories. Of the two I preferred WMBH. And even though I mostly liked Jasper Copeland's character, the supernatural elements of TWOH turned me off - magic is a nice way to handle things you can't handle any other way. One thing I have been trying to figure out though is if Kunstler was trying to make some oppositional thing between the characters of Barbara Maglie and the queen bee. If so, it failed with me. I'm from Georgia so agree with my fellow southerners here who object to the shallow characterization of the southerners in the books. When I was talking about TWOH with my husband, he reminded me of this quote from Flannery O'Connor: "Whenever Iâm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one." Maybe this applies to "Southern readers", too, because several of THOH characters fall into this category.

Mike, regarding the vocabulary comment, I wish I hadn't already returned TLE to the library. I wouldn't have noticed the unnecessarily obscure vocabulary if it weren't totally obnoxious, and I wish I could quote you some of it. And you're right about the value of disagreeing with an author, because defending one's positions helps clarify them. If Kunstler were viciously attacking intellectual opponents, or mainstream American culture, I would be fine with that. But, to be blunt, Kunstler is a bigoted, sexist jerk, and that's not the same as "not being nice". Do you think people who publicly rant about blacks or Jews being the downfall of America should be given a pass because they're entitled to their own opinions? If not, why are Mexicans and Southerners fair game?

Mike, That was a well-stated defense. I agree that the criticism of an overly large or exotic vocabulary is not a legitimate one, either in the case of Kunstler or even in general terms to any author. If I have to consult a dictionary to read something then, hey, I've learned a few new words. I also agree you have to give license to an author to create his own world within his book, so I try to avoid complaining about the many silly incongruities in his vision of the future: within eight years of collapse people suddenly reverting to 19th century dialect, the implausible hit and miss of preserved technology, and the magic being the three most obvious. So I'll give him a pass on those things if they don't detract too much from the story and the characters. Where we disagree though is your assertion "he can draw characters that the reader really cares about". I find his characters to be cartoonish. Although characters like Brother Jobe or the witch are at first enigmatic, unfortunately the little that is eventually revealed makes their characters shallower instead of adding depth. Ding dang dad and his ding dang dealership! Other characters like Stephen Bullock, the virile uberman ninja John Galtish never even hint at having any depth. Likewise all the women. The story itself, as Sharon pointed out, is extremely predictable and everything is telegraphed ahead in nine mile high bold. So with a simplistic story and paper-thin characters, all we are left with is the intriguing setting... and now all those poorly thought out incongruities become more glaring and objectionable.

I'd like to add my agreement to Eric and dveej above, and then to add this: I think one of the reasons this book tends to appeal is that it's so very familiar. I don't mean that it's just another American coming-of-age novel (though it's undoubtedly this) or that it falls into any number of other genres such as the picaresque novel and a parody of the Grail Quest. What's really familiar is this:

It's the same society we live in *now*. It's reflecting *exactly* the same cultural values--though they tend to hide behind the comforting fiction that we're all, really, at the root, nice people just trying to get along in a strange new world.

I'm going to sort of lump the two books together and talk about the "world" they create, just for the sake of ease here, because in that way I can make some points about the dangerous replications of prejudice and social structure that I find fascinating in a writer as vocally against many of them as Kunstler is. So here goes:

1. Corporations rule. How this could possibly be, in the world described, is incredible. But what seems to be happening here is that corporations are being set up with very little resistance from the town they surround. Whether you look at the Bullock plantation, the New Faithers, or the former-Karp gang, the pattern is the same: the accumulation of resources and expansion of influence (in some cases the actual resetting of a proto-capitalist economy, both in the case of the New Faith mercantile and the "General") with power and wealth accruing both to the organizations as a whole, and to specific individuals who run them.

2. Geopolitics and American right to dominance are re-affirmed. This is an even more sinister reflection of current reality. Here, I'll go to WMBH for an example. Wayne Karp is seen to be a disruptive force. If you look at Karptown, you can actually see that this disruption is built into certain kinds of assumptions about how the "other" lives. That is, people who are of a lower socio-economic class than the middle-class white townies are assumed to sort of "naturally" be more primitive. There's a nauseating inherent racism in aligning their system of society with that of the Iroqois nation, which is actually done openly in WMBH. Be this as it may, the allegorical setup here seems to be that the "true American" town is able to deal quite happily with the New Faithers who blend in (more or less) and with the Bullock people (who are, after all, civilized), but cannot cope with a "primitive" (read "poor") culture on the borders. The assumption built into the novel is that they are dangerous and unpredictable, and therefore must be disempowered. The is particularly true when the culture manages to send (in Derick Jensen's terms) violence *up* the power hierarchy, which is what happens when Robert Earle and Loren Holder are brutalized. What's especially interesting here is that as both constable and minister, Loren is symbolic of the junction of church and state, which is enshrined, after all, on American money . . . at any rate, the answer not only from the town but also from the town's allies is either a condemnatory script (Bullock) or an alliance to remove the person in power (town and New Faith) . . . which allows easier access to the resources being (interestingly) *mined* from an otherwise desolate spot. In the end, I was a bit suprised Wayne Karp wasn't named "Saddam" or "Osama" and made Arabic. In a fascinating nod to realism, no word is ever said about improving the living conditions of those who live at the dump, and are denuding the surrounding area just to survive while they serve the town's needs . . . but back to the Witch of Hebron, because this brings me to . . .

2. The poor and homeless are always suspect, generally violent, and ought to be eradicated. I have to say, this was the most revolting parallel to the present day this novel presented. The homeless are renamed "pickers," and are presented as senseless, violent, and irredeemable. We are, I suppose, expected to side with Bullock simply because of the sexual violence of the attack on the Bullock plantation. But honestly and truly, could we not be a bit kinder, even in fiction, to those most vulnerable in our society? Is there really a need to assuage our own fears of the "other" by brutalizing them in print, as well as in whatever we call "real life"?

3. Speaking of brutal, a minor nod to gender. Only a minor one, since I'm sure this will be taken up by others . . . but apart from the sex-bunny-sandwich-maker role women are relegated to, and dodging the temptation to indulge in Lacanian Psychoanalysis (because it would be so darned easy it almost wouldn't be fun), I have to say that the role of the *most* developed and strongest female character, Barbara Maglie, seems to be (once again) to re-inscribe the dominant culture of current North America. That is, the role of the "good whore" is to make men more potent,and reassert the primacy of the phallus (sorry, couldn't help myself. The nonsense with Loren Holder was just too obvious and crass to avoid psychoanalyzing). In addition, that a woman as strong and independent as she is supposed to be has to be saved from a sexual attack by a pre-teen boy with a firearm (ahem. phallus again . . .) is simply ludicrous. Which brings me to . . .

4. Men. Again. My point here is that this novel is so completely familiar because it mirrors current culture so exactly. All that's changed seems to be the level of technology. All else has been reinscribed, and it's business as usual. Because guess who's doing the business? Men. Middle aged men, for the most part, who become the most powerful organizational forces (if they're sexually able and satisfied) or pathetic (if they lose the power of the phallus. I'm sorry, it's so obvious it's impossible not to talk about this in symbolic psychoanalytical terms!.

I think the book--and Kunstler's other PA novel, WMBH, will sell reasonably well because they *don't* challenge us. They reassure us that if the lights go out and the cars stop running, life will go on exactly as it does now, only MORE, and possibly on a smaller scale. Our society will become an exaggeration of itself.

I think this is also one of the reasons that feminist eco-topias, or feminist PA novels, tend to be less read and less well known. The changing of the social structure is, almost be definition, so complete, that there's no familiarity, and we don't know how to place ourselves in the narrative as a result.

Just my two cents.

Very interesting and thoughtful analysis, ALA. I think I can agree with much of it. One small correction, though: "a woman as strong and independent as she is supposed to be has to be saved from a sexual attack by a pre-teen boy with a firearm (ahem. phallus again . . .)"

The boy didn't have the gun; Billy Bones had it. Jasper knew that Bones didn't have ammunition for it, so he recognized the emptiness of Bones' threat to shoot him. Jasper defended Barbara with a hunting knife, not a firearm.

I quite liked the Witch herself. With her swishy skirts and her herb garden, she reminded me of several actual people. It's not THAT realistic, though. The State of Washington would make her get a counseling license, a naturopathy license and a Class I controlled substances permit.

I liked the The Witch of Hebron for what it is, a rollicking B-movie gory lurid Western. With supernatural elements, crimminy, doesn't that tell the reader not to get too wrapped up in the question of "Is this for real?"

My review is here:…

Ok, back with a full tummy and a shorter workday.
WMBH was a nice read. His writing style was very nice and I was pulled along by the story. It was afterwards that I started to have doubts. And yes, as others have pointed out, why magic? As in real magic? It takes away from the story.

And ALA, wow! That was quite an assessment. Personally, not every tree, stick, or long object is a phallus to me. But I get your point. I think Niven was pretty straightforward in Lucifer's Hammer about an Event meaning women have to 'get thee to the kitchen'. Dies the Fire took a different approach, perhaps more pragmatic, perhaps not. What titles count as 'feminist PA novels'? I would be interested in reading some.

By ChrisBear (not verified) on 08 Dec 2010 #permalink

Hamster, I enjoyed your review. I'm thinking maybe I am overstating my problems with this book. It's not like it is the worst thing I have ever read, I really didn't feel all that strongly about it one way or another when I was reading it. Since then I've read three books that actually were very well done and the juxtaposition in my mind may be coloring TWOH into something worse than it actually is.

Kunstler's a decent writer, but to understand him you have to understand his Jewishness. His contempt for the South, his rah-rah-go-team boostering of the Iraq War in his The Long Emergency, all the little digs and jabs about fried pork products, NASCAR, etc. It only makes sense that in his future-world, prostitutes would accept pay in pork products.

How would all this play, if it were written by an author who had a problem with those of African descent, and had constant jabs about rhythmic music, meat'n'greens, the NBA, and the jabs were constant, saying that in the future, prostitutes would be paid in, say, high-alcohol low-quality "malt liquor" or "cheap 'bling'" etc? It wouldn't play for a minute, and if I were of African descent I'd sure not give the guy a nickel.

Hence, while I've read his books, and found the interweaving of happenings and lives in Hebron to be quite interesting, with the incomplete knowledge or understanding of each others' travels and actions adding interesting tension, I've taken care to not pay for Kunstler's output. I've borrowed his books from others, and frankly I'm kinda ashamed to have read the things.

Jim's gonna have to get over his problem with us. And maybe therein lies the true horror: That in the Future, one will have to share the world with Gentiles.

Kunstler's a decent writer, but to understand him you have to understand his Jewishness.

The thing that disgusted me about Kunstler was the utter glee he seemed to take in Israel's disproportionate pounding of the civilian population of Gaza two years ago. Of course I do not condone Hamas firing rockets into Israel and feel that Israel is justified in taking steps to put a stop to it, but their response in this case was out of all proportion to the provocation. Reading Kunstler's rant at the time, I got the impression that he would have been thrilled had a small tactical nuke been employed against the Palestinians, instead of "merely" white phosphorus munitions. Maybe it's true that people always turn into the thing they hate most.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 08 Dec 2010 #permalink

One of the reasons I belong to three books clubs â thanks for bringing this one back, Sharon â is that book clubs push me out of my comfort zone into reading books I would never read otherwise. I certainly wouldnât have read The Witch of Hebron, because I found A World Made by Hand neither informative, thought-provoking, entertaining, nor beautifully written (the four reasons for which I read books). I donât begrudge the time I spent reading The Witch of Hebron (although I firmly believe that life is too short to read bad books) because I enjoy a good book discussion, and this discussion has been that â many good points made. But I am regretful that I spent money on the book, thereby voting for James Kunstler with my dollars. I could have gotten everything that I got from the book from his blog, ad nauseum, week after week. Yes, we know: the world is going to hell in a handbasket, suburban America is leading the way, and people are stupid. At least Stirling is fun and McCarthy a wonderful wordsmith. Kunstler did teach me the world âpolymathâ though. After he used it twice to describe the town librarian, I looked it up. I have to wonder, though: are postapocalyptic librarians paid in pork, like the prostitutes and doctors?

Wow, Lex, do explain to us how Kunstler's Jewishness explains all of this. Jews are racist, anti-southern, hate pork products (I'm pretty damned sure that Jim Kunstler ate a lot of pork in his life - he's Jewish, but not at all observant), support the Iraq war. Got any other stupid, anti-semitic stereotypes to share with us. Want to explain how my Jewishness explains everything I do? Jews must all be gardening, leftist, anti-oil war, anti-Hamas bombing farmers, right?

Sheesh. Could you at least save that shit for another blog?


Sounds to me like Jim really just needs to accept that what he really wants to be writing is historical / fantasy fiction. There's no shame in it.

I'll add this to my "don't bother" list...


I've got to say, Sharon, that I think you're being unfair to lex. James Kunstler happens to be a man. You've promised an entire blog post pertaining to gender issues in his fiction, in which I'm sure his own gender will play a factor. He also happens to be Jewish. Why isn't it likewise legitimate to explore how his Jewish self-identification pertains to whatever biases he may or may not have towards other groups, be they Gentiles in general, conservative tattooed southern American fried pork rind eating NASCAR fans, or Palestinians? You may not agree with lex's assessment of Kunstler's bias or motives - I don't happen to agree with them too much myself - but this is no reason to dismiss or ridicule his opinions. It's a reason to calmly refute them, rather. I don't see where lex was being overtly, or even unconsciously anti-Semitic. Then again, I'm not overly sensitive about the issue. The only anti-Semite I can identify here is Kunstler himself. He's blatantly bigoted against the Semitic speaking Palestinians.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 09 Dec 2010 #permalink

DD, I don't think Kunstler's sex issues stem from him being a man - I know many men who don't have these. If I said "Jim Kunstler writes dumb-ass women because he's a man and he doesn't understand women" I'd be a sexist pig. Just like Lex's "Jim Kunstler thinks what he does because he's a Jew" is antisemitic - in fact, it is the definition of sexist or antisemitic to assume that one's positions stem entirely from one's identity.

I think Jim Kunstler doesn't write good women characters, and doesn't understand why women care about that, but I don't generally speculate about why that is. Attributing personal motivations isn't my primary hobby - I work from the assumption that anyone, man or woman, can understand women enough to write them well (or men, for that matter) and that the problem is that he doesn't.

So no, you've got it pretty wrong here.


So no, you've got it pretty wrong here.

Okay, Sharon. I defer to you on this.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 09 Dec 2010 #permalink

Yikes, I wasn't aware that Kunstler supported both the Iraq & Gaza invasions - the two obviously wrongest wars in the last decade at least. I'm glad I got his book from the library.

By Eric in Kansas (not verified) on 09 Dec 2010 #permalink

IMO, Kunstler is a bigot. His constant putdowns of southerners and others that are for him beyond the pale, is what chased me off his blog.

More than that... he is a gleeful, proud bigot. Bah humbug.

My biggest complaint (for the topic of this post) is Kunstler's incorporation of magic into the plot line. Even though I felt that most of the characters in WMBH were rather flat, (and we wont touch the role of women right now) I rather enjoyed reading about a future possible world. With the introduction of real magic though, in my mind it shifted from "possible future senerio" to mediocre fiction that no longer had anything to do with peak oil. I also thought it would be interesting to read further about how the town organized itself and/or possibly focus on Robert and his new family, but I felt that TWOH had no real protagonist and all the point of view switches between characters made it hard to like or care about any of them.

Not having read Kunstler before (not even _The Long Emergency_) I thought he was focusing so much on post peak oil life that he didn't go though the trouble of developing any believable female characters, but after reading TWOH, I really think he demeans the role of women in ANY society and doesn't care. But, Sharon says she'll do another post concerning Kunstler and his portrayal of women later, so I'll leave my rant for that post.

No offense, but reality folks. Being furious that someone presumes that women's status will be reduced if modern society fails -- ummm.... counterproductive? History and any understanding of human nature indicates that in an agricultural society (which is what would reappear in his future) women WILL return to being sex objects, cooks, and possibly even less. Egalitarianism is a direct function of high technology.

Now, for the record, not everyone reading this believes that future is inevitable, or even that a similar future is inevitable - a great deal of time is spent lashing the future with a whip - let's back science and technology NOW and see where we end up, shall we?