Book Review : Frank Bill - The Savage (2017)
Post-apocalyptic novels were a fad like many others in contemporary literature. Wastelands, violence, despair and ultimately, the triumph of the human heart (or the extinction of our species) were very popular in the years following the release of Cormac McCarthy's The Road up to recently. What happened before and during the apocalypse/collapse of society was usually skimmed like a bad magazine article until Frank Bill, the man behind Crimes in Southern Indiana and Donnybrook, courageously decided to explore this gap in our collective imaginary in his latest novel The Savage.
It's not an easy novel to grasp and it's by far Frank Bill's most ambitious project to date, but the man can write about the mess that is the human soul as spectacularly as anyone.
The Savage is the story of an eventual socio-economic collapse in the United States, seen through the red States. People are forming militias, hiding in the forest, enslaving whoever's not a member of a faction or running and hiding for their lives. The protagonist is a eighteen year-old named Van Dorn, who's not only trying to survive but also keep a sense of morals in this broken world. The Savage is also the de facto sequel to Donnybrook. Some of the characters of this soon-to-be major motion picture are hawking around a powerful gang leader named Cotto Ramos, who himself is obsessed with Van Dorn's ability to elude him.
There's a lot to unpack about The Savage. There is a palpable influence from depression-era novels, particularly William Faulkner's. It's easy to forget, but the U.S have experienced a socio-economic collapse and elements like people living off the land, wandering strangers and the inescapable present can all be found in The Savage. Of course, it would be different this time around because people have become insanely well-armed, so violent militias would terrorize everyone, but Frank Bill addressed this change quite aptly. I love how he replaced the highways of depression-era novels by the forest, among other things. I don't know if the symbolism was intended, but the characters of The Savage are lost and not trying to find "the way".
The Savage is also influenced by Westerns. Van Dorn is a contemporary cowboy figure who chooses the walk a moral path when he could just join a militia to rape, kill and loot. There's a damsel in distress in "the Sheldon girl," who gets kidnapped by an evil outlaw. In the world of The Savage, like in Westerns, drawing a line between good and evil is a personal choice. Once again, it's more complicated than just being a simple Western, Cotto Ramos also represents the boss figure that literally consumes employees and resources for his own gain, but his inevitable confrontation with Van Dorn is classic cowboy vs outlaw. The Savage's narrative might be about cutting the bridges with history, but it certainly embraces its own literary history, which is quite stimulating.
I'm not going to write in length about Frank Bill's peculiar use of language, because it's what every reviewer does, but it felt good to read his squishy, gory, organic prose again. Everything seems to hurt in a Frank Bill novel. The Savage was ultimately rather straightforward, a variation on a classic theme if you will. It did stood out in its execution that brought back old, painful memories from American history and recontextualized them in this terrifying apocalyptic scenario. The Savage is quite different from Crimes in Southern Indiana and Donnybrook, and I have to tip my hat to Frank Bill for writing something this ambitious and sneaky-nuanced. His capacity to reinvent himself inside of his own paradigm is why he's one of the best we have.