Grayson spat in the dirt off to his side and rearranged himself against the tree so the cuffs didn’t hurt so much. “Why is a Zimbabwean mercenary, burned out on whores, sitting on a milkcrate high in the La Sal mountains of Moab, Utah? What series of events would bring about such a thing?” Grayson asked.
The old mercenary gave a knowing smile and tapped his ash. “I’ve been many places. You really want to know? I’ll tell you. Spoils of war. Same as any man I suppose. But in this case the mighty western man and his Empire have fallen. I am given an opportunity to clean up, to take my piece, so I do. Simply put.”
“As an American let me confirm there’s no such thing as America,” said Grayson.
― Andrew Edwards, “King of Dogs”
“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”
― H.L. Mencken, “Prejudices: First Series”
The novel is as dead as America itself, it might be said. An exaggeration, but not without truth as both are rather worse for wear. This is an old and probably tired debate. Even as early as the 1920s writers like José Ortega y Gasset were beginning to see the novel as a product of nation and history and entering its final stages as a medium as it had exhausted everything it had to portray. As Ortega states, “present-day writers face the fact that only narrow and concealed veins are left”. It’s a sad and difficult state as while non-fiction has always been predicating on presenting truth, fiction is the best avenue for understanding truth.
Speculative fiction has accelerated past its golden age at the speed of light and has entered perpetual darkness. The adventure, mystery, but most importantly, the ideas that used to tantalize the writers of yesteryear, both the awesome and the terrible, have no place within the milieu of fiction that is hastily spewed out as proof of cleverness substituting as intelligence. Certainly it doesn’t help that many of the worst visions conjured up in the 20th century ended up coming true, albeit in the most passive-aggressive way, making it difficult to imagine what kind of future could even be painted. Who knew that dreary world of Oceania or Kafka’s bureaucracy could be so brightly lit in a neon rainbow? It’s a problem that contemporary writers mired in being afraid of the declining evangelical Christian while penning the next variation of some stirring tale of an ambiguously gay brown person beating the odds by getting into America and finding their true home in financial capitalism are ill-equipped to tackle.
The one arguable benefit to this pitiful state of prose has been the rise of the Extremely Online Twitter E-Book. Like all books the quality runs the gamut, with at least one book making minor political waves (Bronze Age Mindset) and another (Harassment Architecture) becoming a bit of a cult classic among those who have the entire script of American Psycho memorized. The latter is only one of two actual literary fiction novels that immediately come to mind as most of the books that have been launched in this niche publishing world have been non-fiction of one sort or another. It was for this reason that I was intrigued when the author of King of Dogs, Andrew Edwards, sent me a copy of his first book out of the blue. The book took a while to find my hands. I did not know him and had never heard of him. Edwards is not Extremely Online, he has not amassed a following enamored with pithy and ironic tweets, and so his book stands out with its utter sincerity of plot and prose.
King of Dogs is a novel set in a near-future of the United States that still feels a bit far-off but all too close now. The United States is in the throes of a “Soviet-style collapse”, a place where rump state citizens would convince themselves they’re just experiencing temporary setbacks as the people of the frontier states watch cartels and private military companies turn the most beautiful parts of the nation into their own private Wild West. What may be of most interest to intrigued readers is this picture that Edwards paints of America in this collapse. Edwards sets the stage early on, describing the near future:
“In these first decades of the new millennium, finished with social engineering and mere financial rapine, the oligarchs of the era turned to base thievery. They pillaged utilities, land and minerals. Water first: its ownership and its metering. And if American cities burned as the oligarch’s corporate mercenaries secured trucking routes amid early outcry, and if this sent economic and regional refugees of all colors and stations to antic motion, and if small wars waged scattershot here and there, and if in all this there was still no living God to be seen anywhere from seaboard to seaboard then the next logical step, by reason of the ancient paradigm become new: the oligarchs merely asked how might this activity too be mediated and metered? “But in truth the cause of collapse and decline lay not in corrupt logic but in flawed hearts. Apathy and deceit are ancient enablers. Without trust there can be no social cohesion. If this is the end, it’s a personal end. Yet most persons simply ignored it all right up to their final moment of terror, loss, regret. And, so, the few were left to fight, as ever.”
The cities of the nation had long been engaged with manifold chaos and were becoming landscapes of contradiction where tiny enclaves of exclusive wealth were run round by burnt, wasted zones. Yet the old patriotic platitudes regarding democracy, opportunity and individual freedom wore on in every media. No better off than the cities, the rural sectors were beset with a plague of uncertainty, social disintegration, and low-intensity guerilla war. The civil, the business, and the extranational martial, now fully merged in cartels and cabals, sprawled over oceans and borders, eating states and then eating each other in fights over territory. If an area went untouched by direct kinetic conflict, there was still no avoiding confrontation with second and third order effects: epidemic human trafficking in the wake of mass, haphazard migrations and every associated degeneration and sickness, be it physical or of the spirit. Sophisticated and region-specific propaganda was ubiquitous. For the strong: lies to cripple. And the weak were sent programming to wallow in that weakness.”
We don’t learn much more about this collapse of the United States after this expository setup as the nearly all the plot is an intimate story of tragedy and survival focused entirely on the character of Grayson.
For men in novels, the protagonist has always been a problem in terms of what it should mean for men with the privilege to be literate. While the ability to read is not inherently an aristocratic virtue, there is a certain privilege to being well-read in any society that doesn’t have an industrial and democratic character. Novels are often reflective of those who read them, and thus you have the working-class power fantasy of men against the world in pulp novels and the intellectual fantasy of men against themselves and society within literary novels. Edwards attempts to merge the two in the character of Grayson, a martial man who has lost the family he wanted to start but who soldiers on with a samurai stoicism and a spirituality brined in Eastern Orthodox mysticism.
Grayson is a man stuck between worlds. Neither warrior or monk, Grayson learns how to fight from his mentor while his natural asceticism and personal readings give him the insights of an undisciplined Desert Father. It evokes the tension of never really being anything in particular like the state of modern man under a system that moves without his volition or participation. His purpose comes from his dying mentor Jack giving his pupil a “righteous mission” to defend Jack’s brother and his brother’s wife and coming child.
What stands out about Edwards’ writing is its lyricism. The story simple. A man vows to his dying comrade that he will take care of his brother, his brother’s wife, and his brother’s soon to be born child, in the disintegrating Moab. He is supposed to get them to some place safer. Things go bad and they go bad fast, and that soldier-of-misfortune marches through hell to get to them and discover what can be saved in a world that has no right to be saved. Edwards composes intricate set pieces of every scene and trial that Grayson endures. When the story is not at a breakneck action pace describing the violent brutality of mere survival he often lingers on the spiritual degeneration of man and their embers of hope against the vivid descriptions of its physical landscapes. Throughout the story Edwards merges these sentiments into a dark poetry in motion:
“Downstream Grayson saw green northern lights merging into a dark forest and the shimmering surface water where the creek widened and met another branch. Slow and coiling like a helical ladder in the margin between earth and heaven, the fluid bands of green light billowed on a sky stratified pink and blue at sunset and for an interminable, recursive moment, he knew he was not alone and had never been.”
There is a prescient quality to the novel as well as collapse is constantly on the tongues of anyone not in love with the system or its currency of clout. People debate what collapse even is, if it’s happening, how it will happen, and compose clickbait articles and videos about the coming collapse, sell collapse gear and collapse lifestyles, and write collapse books and movies. It’s become imbued with all the trappings of post-apocalypse fiction as to paraphrase Mark Fisher it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of your society’s complexity. Collapse comes in many forms, but to the mind that imagines it a zombie invasion immediately seems more realistic.
Collapse is a process however. It’s civilization just going out to get a pack of smokes. There doesn’t come a day where people rubbing their bleary and sleep-crusty eyes go to their windows and suddenly realize “golly, I don’t think I live in the Empire anymore!” This may come as a disappointment for many who have been trained to believe sanctification only comes from the blood of martyrs who throw their lives away or believe living within a Hollywood spectacle is something to aspire to. The disappointing truth is that we must live our lives in times of diminishing returns.
The problem with collapse fantasies is that many who have them have the dream of a better world for them and their own. That is, they will be the ones that come out on top of this mess and chaos. This is rarely the outcome. Collapses come with civil wars, foreign interference, and no end to plundering, raping, and looting with little recourse other than whatever countervailing force can be mustered for the moment. In the final days of the Western Roman Empire, the wealthy Ecdicius and his brother-in-law the Saint Sidonius Apollinaris defended the Gallic town of Clermont from the Visigoths on their own and with their own money. On the one hand it shows the will of the few when they and only eighteen horseback men defended the town but on the other how many will have real saints and rich men in their corners?
Clermont fell three years later to the Goths. Sidonius was imprisoned until he was released to finish out his life as a shepherd to his flock. Ecdicius disappears from the historical record after being recalled to Rome. Clermont, a hard fought lost cause, was then ceded to the Visigoths in exchange for Provence. Three years after that the last of the Roman emperors, Romulus Augustulus abdicated, making official what everyone already knew: the people were on their own.
According to some speculation the last emperor lived out his last days on a pension.
Collapses are miserable experiences for the good and decent people that have to live through those times through no fault of their own and no money to run anywhere else. Edwards’ novel captures the spirit of this awful truth. A family who did right in a society that no longer expect it by marrying, creating life, and carrying the torch, aren’t afforded any fairy-tale favoritism. Two centuries before Ecdicius and Sidonius defended their town from the chaos of that age, men of that same region had tired of the hostile imperial bureaucracy that was making their lives miserable and found no issue with joining the half-barbarian banditry plaguing the empire. There comes a point when all men must look at their brigands, look at the behavior of their capital men in response to the crisis, and contemplate which is the real enemy.
John Michael Greer in Dark Age of America writes of that coming inflection point for any empire–any society really–when the switch between civilization and barbarism is flipped.
“…the overall attitude of American politicians and financiers seems to be that nothing really that bad can actually happen to them or to the system that provides them with their power and wealth.
They’re wrong, and at this point it’s probably a safe bet that a great many of them will die because of that mistake. Already, a large fraction of Americans–probably a majority–accept the continuation of the existing order of society in the United States only because a viable alternative has yet to emerge…
…It’s not necessary or such an alternative to be more democratic or more human than the order that it attempts to replace. It can be considerably less so, so long as it imposes fewer costs on the majority of people and distributes benefits more widely than the existing order does. That’s why, in the last years of Rome, so many people of the collapsing empire readily accepted the rule of barbarian warlords in place of the imperial government. That government had become hopelessly dysfunctional by the time of the barbarian invasions, centralizing authority in distant bureaucratic centers out of touch with current realities, and imposing tax burdens on the poor so crushing that many people were forced to sell themselves into slavery or flee to depopulated regions of the countryside to take up the uncertain life of Bacaudae, half guerilla and half bandit, hunted by imperial troops whenever those latter had time to spare from the defense of the frontiers.”
As romantic a notion it might be to take up the life of the bacaudae, and there were some French radicals who saw a proto-French proletariat nationalism in their own interpretation of this Gallic phenomenon, it must be stated that at the end of the day these were just bandits with a decent excuse. Morality often fades when the decisions of survival are required to be made, but reality does temper the mythology. Lost in the stories of collapse are the stories of people who would live modest, ordinary lives in any society, including a collapsing one. King of Dogs captures the brutal and harsh reality for people like that. They become survivors within dysfunctional and cobbled together communities at best, but plundered pocketbooks and pickings for the next gangs, cartels, and mercenary armies more likely. Only men like Grayson could survive in a place like this, but what does it even mean to survive? Edwards puts the dilemma square at the center of his story.
“Shorn of multiform vanity, a man must only concern himself with observation and acceptance if he wishes to go on when most give up. Observation so that he can respond to what the world presents and acceptance of the inevitability of it bringing more suffering and eventually death. This was the secret to Grayson’s endurance: the worst had already happened. All that was left of psychic weight was to prepare to smile at death.”
King of Dogs is likely to stay with its readers long after its haunting closing pages. The influence of Cormac McCarthy can be felt throughout the novel, initially within its depictions of an American frontier that never really feels settled but especially in its swift and harsh resolution that leaves the reader uncertain, possibly disappointed, but especially troubled. The story is over in an almost shaggy dog sort of way, but the loose ends are tied and the question mark we are left with is if life is worth preserving. Survival for its own sake strikes people as not worth enough to fight for, and it’s not for nothing that if you were to ask people living off the fruits of industrial society what they would do if that lifestyle were suddenly and permanently shut off many of them would choose suicide. Ask the people you know during one of those six-whiskey conversations what their long-term plans are in a downturn and you may be shocked at how many people you know have the Ernest Hemingway Retirement Plan in mind.
King of Dogs is not a perfect book. The book sometimes feels as though it’s in a mad dash to get to the end of the story while Edwards’ writing pleads for a breather to take in the beautiful terror of apocalypse America. The singular focus on Grayson also prevents many of the characters outside the antagonists from being fully fleshed out. The book however is greater than the sum of its parts and Edwards shows promise in a time where heartless novels can only express themselves through the tired cliches of irony, transgression, and politics. Like its subject matter, King of Dogs puts a question mark on the dying of a medium and despite the decay and degeneration that surrounds it shows that there is terrible beauty in being able to survive. The purpose to it is that it must be done.
D.H. Lawrence writing in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine writes on how men go mad and their souls are broken by what he calls “debacles”, that is the crises and revolutions that try the souls of ordinary men.
“Debacles don’t save men. In nearly every case, during the horrors of a catastrophe the light of integrity and human pride is extinguished in the soul of the man or the woman involved, and there is left a painful, unmanned creature, a thing of shame, incapable any more. It is the great danger of debacles, especially in times of unbelief like these. Men lack the faith and courage to keep their souls alert, kindled, and unbroken. Afterwards there is a great smouldering of shamed life.
Man, poor, conscious, forever-animal man, has a very stern destiny, from which he is never allowed to escape. It is his destiny that he must move on and on, in the thought-adventure. he is a thought-adventurer, and adventure he must.”
In ages of constant crisis, the literature of the age often turns apocalyptic and inwardly focused. This is reflective of the state of man’s spirit and often an expectation of the afterlife to come. But when the actual world is a purgatory with pleasantries then what is there to say? There is nothing more to say on this society. We are all post-apocalyptic neoliberal capitalists now. In order to not turn completely inward literature needs to look outward, either with a prophet’s vision of the future or a preparation of the wounds, physical and spiritual, toward death. The writers of today will need to find something to say about tomorrow and how to pass through to it, even if it they don’t know what it looks like.
King of Dogs reveals this mindset in its subtitle. Life is the training ground for death. For Edwards, action, survival, and meditation are three synonyms for the same holistic necessity. I leave him with the final word on the subject.
“The act of going-on, of surviving, was his religion put over against whatever else seemed true. The trick to survival was in realizing how utterly unnatural it was to give in, to cower or crumble. To complain and not act. A thousand generations of men, fathers and their sons, had faced austerity absolute in cataclysms, plague, extinctions, and exile. Murder and pain were implicit in the unity of things and while the saints had sufficiently, to his lights, reasoned out why it is so, Grayson reasoned that pain did not tell the truth but only pointed the way. The truth lies beyond the gates of pain.”