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Book Review: How it all ends: Writers keep probing, reinventing

Readers can't seem to get enough of dystopian stories.

Witness the success of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," in which father and son roam a world devoid of most people, scrounging for cans of Spam. It's a depressing mess, but it has already been made into a movie.

One of the first post-apopolyptic stories I ever read was an eerie little story by William Rose Benet, called "By the Waters of Babylon," in which the narrator walks down a "god road" and comes to ruins, onto which are etched letters, helter-skelter.

What was going on? It finally dawned on me (I was fifteen years old) that the 'god road' was once an interstate highway and that all those letters spelled out something like "New York Public Library." Frightening.

Later I read Neville Shute's "On the Beach" (also made into a movie) in which after a nuclear holocaust the last living souls on earth were a few Australians.

They were busy finishing off the vintage port at the local men's club and singing "Waltzing Matilda" before radiation would kill them, leaving only cockroaches to rule the world. Frightening, too.

But none of these eerie end-of-the-world stories, books, and movies I've seen can match a new book recently arrived on the New York Times Bestseller list.

It's Colson Whitehead's the "Zone One" (Doubleday, $29.95). In this artfully written novel, Whitehead tells of a plague that has swept the earth, leaving only a few people remaining.

There's a provisional government set up in Buffalo, N.Y., which supervises the retaking of Manhattan.

Lower Manhattan has been classified as Zone One, and the military has been stationed in Chinatown to "mop up" the few remaining plague victims who are still alive and dangerous.

They're still dangerous because they like to eat people's brains if they get hold of you. One of the military is named Mark Spitz (not the Olympian), and he's assigned to go from store to store, door to door to eliminate these horrific creatures from their and his misery.

He struggles also with PASD, or Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, and also wonders of it's worth trying to save a very damaged world.


Publisher Jim Perelman of Holy Cow! Press never ceases to amaze. His small outfit up in Duluth keeps churning out quality stuff year after year.

And this year it's award winning author and National Book Award nominee Jane Yolen's gritty book of poems, "Things to Say to a Dead Man: Poems at the End of a Marriage and After" ($15.95, paper).

Yolen deals with her husband's illness and death in a most straightforward and honest manner, as in "Smells":

The dying man does not smell

Like the living man,

he smells of old pee and unwashed teeth,

of sugar drinks and protein shakes the color of prunes.

He smells of sweet decay.

When my mother died,

my youngest child was nine days old,

smelling of baby lotion and talc.

I could breathe him in all day.

I couldn't remember my mother's smell.

Going into her closet I closed the door.

Chanel No. 5 still lingered

on the shoulders of her camel's hair coat,

and Ban roll-on had sunk under

the arms of her jackets.

For a moment she was alive.

All I have here are my husband's shirts

covered with milky spills,

and his pajama bottoms smelling of pee.

I want that heathery yellow soap man back,

the one who I spent most of my life

sniffing like a dog in heat.

Perelman also sent a wonderful new book on the relation of pictures and words by painter/writer Ann Iverson, "Art Lessons" ($15.95 paper) that deals with the emotions of family and friends.

In 2003 Southern Methodist Press published Anthony Bukoski's wonderful collection of short stories set in Superior, Wis., "Time Between Trains."

Perelman has just released a nicely produced paperback version (Holy Cow! $15.95). Years back, Booklist magazine compared Bukoski to Sherwood Anderson and rightly so.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.