—Review by UntitledTown blogger Janelle Bailey
Ben Percy‘s The Dead Lands is…most definitely…dark. And yet it is those very Dark Lands that provide the only hope for so many of his characters who are individually and collectively struggling and suffering in the Sanctuary. Life there has become very grim for most. And who’d have thunk of St. Louis as that…a sanctuary? But in Percy’s story this is the place containing the majority of survivors, seemingly the only known survivors of whatever catastrophic events have locked them in here to provide the new version of a normal way of life.
It isn’t a pretty life there either, though. It’s mostly a sanctuary in name. It’s kill or be killed for many, and a great want of water and food–as in grasshoppers and grubs–for others. There are a whole lot of strange and selfish characters struggling here.
Lewis and Clark, two of the main characters, actually Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark, are two of those survivors turned explorers, who have their very own issues and who seize the newly presented opportunity they’ve both sought, to finally head out and away from the Sanctuary to see what life and better chance exists anywhere else.
Like the dark Romantics long before him, perhaps, Percy presents the psychological challenges of these people, especially those who may not be thinking about anyone but themselves in their struggles. And while some of those struggles are “normal,” like alcoholism, others are more unusual. Despite the great lack of water, for instance, the current leader of these people hoards volumes of water and luxuriates frequently in lengthy baths, claiming no wrong, as the used water does go to watering gardens. Another has a horrific habit of taking–as in removing from them–parts of living people he…admires? ogles? …and glueing them onto mannequins in his secreted cell.
It takes nearly 300 pages (of 473) to what I’d call the prettier parts, the moments when the frame of the puzzle is complete, and the filling in occurs, with the remaining explorers discovering pockets of people who are, similarly but differently, fighting for themselves and their rights…and their lives, too. Then is when the story most clearly processes deeper aspects, or maybe more hopeful aspects, in its thematic ideas regarding ideas such as love, slavery, gender, and death.
I am certainly eager to ask the guy who works a 40-50-hour week writing this kind of dark stuff, but then the rest of his days and nights being dad to his kids, how he does it. I was bothered enough, to be honest, by the week I spent reading the book and thinking the dark thoughts that Ben Percy made me think.
I’d rather play bean bags, share a couple of bloody marys, ask how Ames, Iowa, made the book…and suggest Lambeau Field as far more sanctuary-like than St. Louis.
Benjamin Percy At UntitledTown
Ben Percy reads from his forthcoming novel The Dark Net and will sign your books on Friday, April 28, at 6:30 pm at Backstage at the Meyer Theater.
He also participates in “Threats and Thrills and Tenderness,” a panel with Larry Watson and Nickolas Butler, moderated by Rebecca Meacham, at 12:30 on Saturday, April 29 in the Brown County Library auditorium.
You can read the UntitledTown interview with Benjamin Percy here.