Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez
Post-apocalyptic novels thrive on stark imagery. Violence, devastation, and death are par for the course -- the most prominent recent example of the genre, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, infamously offered us a human baby on a spit. So the most shocking thing about Sigrid Nunez’s Salvation City is her decision to forgo shocking us -- at least, in the sense that she avoids deliberately provocative images and situations (i.e., no one cooks an infant).
The setting is still grim, of course. Influenza has ravaged most of the Earth’s population, and the United States teeters on anarchy as the illness makes the most basic services impossible. But we never see the real horror of the plague, the Hollywood-style depths of physical suffering it implies. Nunez is more interested in illuminating the lives of the “survivors,” particularly that of an orphaned teenager named Cole.
This decision makes the novel more realistic. Nunez hints that his is her intention, when Cole first encounters news of the epidemic online:
And in fact Cole was skeptical about some of these flu stories. People screaming from the pain, people bleeding from their noses and ears and even their eyes, people completely losing their minds -- it was like one of those horror movies so over the top that instead of being scared the audience ends up laughing.
In a sense, post-apocalyptic works, even the most brutal ones, are escapist. This is because they are so clearly fantasies -- no one reads The Road and identifies with what happens. Nunez, on the other hand, doesn’t let her reader escape -- not even into horror. There’s no risk of anyone laughing at Cole’s plight.
He has certainly had a rough go of it. Both of his parents die during the outbreak. He even endures his own bout with the flu, though remembers very little of the ordeal. Soon after, he is rescued from an orphanage by a religious couple, Pastor Wyatt and Tracy. Pastor Wyatt (PW to Cole) is a leading figure in Salvation City, a socially conservative enclave whose millennial Christianity led them to prepare for the epidemic; they expected the end of the world and were ready to survive it. As a result, the community is largely spared the disease and lawlessness of the rest of the country.
Salvation City offers a stark contrast to Cole’s deeply secular childhood in Chicago. His father worked as a professor and his mother as a lawyer, and both valued education above all else. Their marriage as a shaky affair, however; Cole’s upbringing was often overshadowed by their arguing. PW and Tracy are the opposite. They are outwardly happy and at peace with each other. They also define themselves through their fundamentalist Christianity. PW even takes to the radio to discuss his faith on a local program called Heaven’s A-Poppin’! To PW, religion is the most important subject he can think of. “[I]f you aren’t studying the Book,” he tells Cole, “there isn’t much point in studying any other book.”
Nunez has placed his characters in a world that PW and his congregation can thrive in. When people are dying by the millions and society is disintegrating around you, belief in the rapture doesn’t seem so exotic. And when a group of outlaws menace PW and Cole on a camping trip, PW’s comfort with guns (a product of his own rural youth) seems both practical and essential. Finally, the community feeling at Salvation City is palpable -- as Cole’s friend Clem explains, “Nobody’s ever on their own in Salvation City.”
Ultimately, though, the novel doesn’t embrace the millennial religion of PW, who tells Cole that “other plagues are coming.” Some of this is because Cole never agrees that his parents’ agnosticism is an unforgivable vice. “The Christians he has met are not better people than his mother and father,” he decided. More importantly, though, Cole continues to grow up. Even after the plague, Cole realizes that he is still “only a child, too young to know what to do.” But instead of despairing, he continues to try and learn, to strive to eventually become an adult.
In that sense, Salvation City repudiates its own genre -- because the “apocalypse” of this post-apocalyptic novel isn’t the end of the world. And it’s this that separates Nunez’s novel from The Road or Stephen King’s The Stand (which also centered on the aftermath of a flu outbreak). Cole is interested not in surviving, but in living. And as a result, his story is really about a young man’s efforts to navigate two homes: that of his parents -- secular, intellectual, tumultuous -- and that of PW and Tracy in Salvation City -- religious, focused on homeschooling, serene. It’s to Nunez’s credit that this conflict is far more engrossing than the apocalypse that sets it in motion.
Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez