I can't believe this book is out of print. I can't believe this is not considered a classic. I don't say that lightly. Probably my my favorite subgenre of fiction is the post apocalyptic epic - the Stand, Mad Max, the Road and hell I even liked Book of Eli. This wasreleased the same year as the book I considered the greatest in the genre - Swans Song by Robert McCammon. I admit that I have no experience with author Neal Barrett before reading this book, but to say I was blown away is an understatement. This book slapped me around while I begged for more.
While this novel is certainly Post apocalyptic it feels like a western. It explores issues of violence and inhumanity, ecological devastation and in my mind does almost as good a job of exploring humanity's messed up relationship with animals they consider to be food as any animal rights book I have ever read. It is one of the single darkest and brutal novels in a subgenre speculative horror that is well known for being brutal. If I have already sold you do yourself a favor and buy a used copy on amazon(this book is not easy to find), because I have to give away some early plot points to talk about why this novel is so brilliant.
Through Darkest America takes place sometime after a great war, was it a nuclear war? Biological warfare? The author doesn't explain but we do know it was several generations in the past. Our main narrator is Howie Ryder son of a livestock farmer who provides meat for the government fighting rebels out in the western frontier.
You might think this sounds pretty normal but after the war, the majority of the mammals have died out sometime in the process of the war. A few prized horses are left to be used transportation, so what so the people eat? They eat stock. What are stock? Well as Howie's dad explains to him Stock look like humans, but they are not. You see Stock don't speak and they don't have souls.
Just as Howie is set to take over his father's herd, He witnesses a brutal crime. A group of soldiers sexually assault a female "Stock." Howie's father kills the rapist and gives Howie a speech about what separates people from stock. Howie is confused because the victim looked human, he even found her attractive. This incident sets off a chain of events that ends with the killing or kidnapping of his family. Howie barely escapes.
The rest of the novel we go with Howie on a coming of age journey that includes him joining an old fashion cattle drive, except the drive is made of stock. Along this journey Howie falls in love, and questions the leader of his gang. I refuse to give away the very end but it sets up a sequel I am dying to read.
Through Darkest America being out of print is a crime. This might be one of the most important works of speculative fiction I have ever read and it's only dumbluck that I read it. You see a couple months ago I picked an issue of Twilight Zone magazine publish in 1988 at a vintage store. In this issue Through Darkest America was reviewed on the same page as Robert McCammon's Swan Song( as I mentioned above). As soon as I read the review I knew I had to read this book. That wasn't easy since it's out of print, I looked at every used bookstore, library I could but I had to break down and order a used copy off amazon.
The story works as a coming-of-age story, it works as a post apocalyptic epic and most of all it is a gritty tale of the wild west. More than anything it is a slap in the face that explores many issues. He might not be vegan I would think Barrett is at least a vegetarian. As a Vegan myself the idea of "stock" in cannibal America is not much of stretch. Since this book was written before terms like "free-range," and "Humanely raised" are used and argued with in many of the same ways Howie's dad explains the ethical reasons behind raising Stock.
Just as meat-eaters try to explain away the emotions, and feelings of so called "Livestock animals" the characters of this dark future dismiss the lives of their food. They are just souless stock after all. As you might guess the ethical standards for what makes someone a person or stock gets blurred. In the end Howie discovers truth about stock. They can't talk because they are disfigured, they can't rebel because they have never been taught and their spirits have been broken. And just as we have that truth revealed the book ends setting up perfectly for the sequel.
As speculative fiction author who means to express himself on important political and social issues I have never been so jealous of a novel or an idea. A genius work speculative activism, this novel should be a goddamn classic. Read it. Think about it. Maybe if enough of us write about it, Barrett can get it back into print.