We're All Slaves Of History, In Sprawling Dystopian Novel

What would the United States look like after the collapse of everything? The answer isn't a zombie-strewn wasteland or a sudden revival of punk-rock fashions, but rather something more like a flashback to the mid-19th century. The frontier spirit, small communities banding together, roaming Indian tribes... and huge masses of the population living in slavery. Brian Francis Slattery's dystopian second novel, Liberation has many brilliant ideas, but its depiction of a 21st century revival of slavery is really what burns it into your memory.

I enjoyed Slattery's first novel, Spaceman Blues, a lot, despite a slightly all-over-the-place feeling. Liberation is also all over the place, with a sprawling cast of characters and a huge expansive vision, but it has a much stronger core.

The book's full title is Liberation: Being The Adventures Of The Slick Six After The Collapse Of The United States of America. Which pretty much sums the whole thing up. The U.S. doesn't collapse because of ecological disaster or plague, but just economic crappiness. It's pretty much Brad DeLong's worst nightmare: the U.S. dollar becomes worthless, the foreign lenders all pull their money out, the banks all go under, everyone starves. When things reach their worst point, a former gang of super-criminals called the Slick Six reunite to put things right (sort of.)

We hear a lot about the Slick Six in their heyday: their daring heists, their cunning scams, and so on. Which makes it all the more shocking when we find out that two of the Six have sold themselves into slavery. Or not actually sold, just donated. Slavery is what rises from the rubble of the American economy, when there's no money to pay anyone to do anything. Starving people are willing to give away their freedom in exchange for a roof and semi-regular meals. At first the revival of slavery is a slapdash affair, until someone puts some serious money into it.

That's the other interesting thing about Liberation — capitalism doesn't disappear after the American economy, and the dollar, are gone. The book's main villain is a crime lord named the Aardvark (whom I sort of pictured like the Kingpin from the Daredevil comics) who has the vision to realize that slave plantations can be a limitless source of wealth if someone puts the capital into organizing the economies of scale. He borrows fantastic sums from a Japanese businessman, and turns America's "peculiar institution" into a version of globalization for a seriously fucked world. It's capitalism without any government intervention, as he points out once or twice. (Reading this book reminded me of Eugene Genovese's argument that slavery was a "hybrid" system, both capitalist and non-capitalist.)

The greatest member of the Slick Six, and the book's main character, is Marco, the group's assassin/thief. He's studied fighting and killing from some of the greatest masters, all over the world, and the book is full of his ninja-tastic exploits. He's the one who comes up with a plan to reunite the group, and try to make things right again. Through his quest, we travel all over the world, visiting the New Sioux, a revived Indian tribe, as well as neo-hippies, ravers, and the free state of Asheville. Marco's journey is a weird mash-up of Tarantino and Kerouac, an introspective spiritual odyssey with comic-booky touches.

Liberation does have some flaws: Slattery's prose is lovingly crafted and musical, but there's an awful lot of it. And by the seventh or eighth lyrical, flowing description of a party where people pick up instruments and start playing old rhythm and blues songs, I was tempted to start skimming. But it's a book that rewards attention, and you'll find yourself flipping back after you finish it to find the best parts of its off-kilter odyssey and piece together new connections between its huge and memorable cast of characters. It's also a book that gets even better on the second read, as you pick up on stuff and make more of the connections between the characters. Most of all, the book's vision of a post-U.S.A. America will stick with you afterwards, haunting you and maybe thrilling you a little.

(Sorry, I realized after I started writing this review that Liberation doesn't come out until October, but you can pre-order it on Amazon. And you should do it now, lest the economy collapse between now and then.)