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Wanderers by Chuck Wendig3 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsA novel like Wanderers raises what might be, for some readers, a tough personal question: do I really want to read an apocalyptic novel about society collapsing into violent political and racial chaos following a global pandemic when I happen to be living in a society collapsing into violent political and racial chaos following a global pandemic? Chuck Wendig has never been a writer to hold back, and in Wanderers, he produces an end-of-the-world epic that, for a great many readers, might have its fingers on the pulse of Trump-era America a bit too firmly.

Wanderers is a tome of about 850 pages that tells of the decimation of the human race by a viral pandemic, spread by bats, called White Mask, incurable and absolutely fatal. The immediate comparison that you might think to make, and indeed which Chuck Wendig expects you to make, is to Stephen King’s classic The Stand. (In fact, one of the book’s more overtly self-conscious exercises is to hang lampshades all over this comparison by having multiple characters say things like, “Wow, this is just like The Stand!” to the point where it becomes eye-rolling.) In truth, apart from both books starting with a pandemic, Wanderers and The Stand are very different in the important details.

The Stand is a horror novel. Wanderers, despite including many scenes that act as pure horror, is science fiction. In The Stand, science is merely the enemy, responsible for creating the Captain Trips virus and then stepping aside for a conflict between supernatural forces of good and evil. In Wanderers, the crisis is both fomented and fought by science, while the forces of evil are all too reflective of human failings: racism, fanatical nationalism and mob violence justifying itself through might-makes-right authority.

At its best, Wanderers delivers what everyone comes to a book like this hoping to get: propulsive and suspenseful storytelling. But it’s never quite the apocalyptic masterpiece Wendig wants it to be. The overall impression you get at the end of its massive journey is that it was all a mile wide and an inch deep. It’s junk food entertainment for a burning world. If it feels elevated in any way, you’re experiencing that feeling people get when they’ve paid fifteen dollars for one of those meatless “Impossible” burgers; you’ve indulged a sinful craving that allows you to pretend you’ve just eaten something better for you than it actually was. The key to enjoying junk food, of course, is just not to pretend. Accept it for what it is, and you can get pleasure out of it, even though you might hate yourself for it later.

The story is set more or less in the present day. It opens with a bizarre phenomenon of sleepwalkers, who emerge from different parts of the country and form a kind of catatonic convoy, walking in an ever-increasing group with a definite sense of purpose, towards an unknown destination. Very little appears to harm the sleepwalkers, except for attempting to stop them, which causes them literally to explode in a shower of gore. Otherwise, not even hypodermic needles can pierce their skin, and they respond to roadblocks and obstacles of any kind by climbing right over them like ants. Over time, the walkers mass an even larger army of “shepherds,” mainly those loved ones and family members who refuse to abandon them even though no one has any idea what’s going on.

As bizarre as all this is, it coincides with the emergence of a hitherto unknown fungal infection that melts human beings into a mossy goo. Drawn into the crisis at this point is former CDC scientist Benjamin Ray, who was ousted from the organization for a rather severe ethical lapse. Benji meets Sadie Emeka, who works for a company that has developed — and this is where the story goes a bit Charlie Brooker — a revolutionary AI. More precisely, it’s a Predictive Machine Intelligence called Black Swan that was designed to study and model potential outbreaks related to climate change. Benji learns that it was Black Swan, certainly not the CDC, that requested his involvement in studying the spread of this new pathogen called White Mask (in reference to the fungal growths that appear around mucus membranes).

Among the rest of the cast, we get to know teenage Shana and her sister Nessie, who was the first of the sleepwalkers; Pete Corley, a washed-up and fed-up gay rockstar whose quest to turn his back on his family and career leads him to join the wandering flock; and Matthew Bird, a small-town pastor who has substituted evangelical fervor for responsibility in his personal life, and whose podcasted rants against the evil “threat” posed by the sleepwalkers ends up causing him to fall under the sway of the manipulative Ozark Stover, a hyper-militant white supremacist terrorist who provides the book a suitably hateful villain equal to the vilest bad guy Stephen King ever dreamed up.

Over the course of the novel, we see not only American but global society begin its long, slow fall. Wendig manages quite a few grace notes in all of this, especially in his chapter headings, which feature brief quotes and epigrams detailing, not a sudden crash, but the slow trickling away of everything routine. There’s something very subtly impactful about the way tweets quoted at the beginning of the story get hundreds and thousands of likes and retweets, and by the end of the book, only a dozen or so. America’s leadership crumbles as the failure to “respond” to the sleepwalker crisis and the slowly spreading plague causes the centrist Democratic president (tellingly, a woman) to be not merely ousted but assassinated to make way for a blustery blowhard of a reactionary populist named Ed Creel, very transparently based on you-know-who.

The sleepwalkers, their relationship to the plague, and the mysterious plans of Black Swan all drive a plot that leads inexorably to confrontation and revelation. And I will say, as storytelling, Wanderers mashes all the buttons it intends to mash with consummate skill. If you’re a reader of even slightly sensitive disposition, you may want to steer clear of this one, as pretty much every content warning under the sun applies here. If you’re afraid the book may have it, it most likely does.

But there are issues with Wanderers from a storytelling perspective that bugged me, even while I confess to never once being bored despite its extreme length. Chuck Wendig’s gift for characterization, while good, is nowhere near the equal of Stephen King’s, who never fails to populate his books — whatever their shortcomings in plot construction — with people who feel like people. While some of Wendig’s characters ring true, like Benji and Sadie, others come off a bit contrived. Take Pete Corley, for instance. I liked him, but I never fully believed in him. I could never quite make the leap that this guy — who feels constructed from spare parts of Freddie Mercury, Keith Richards and possibly David Tennant — was an actual sex symbol rock god who filled entire stadiums in the ’90s.

And then there’s Ozark Stover. If you read books like this because you’re hoping for a villain to hate, I promise you you’ll have hatred to burn for this guy. And it would be easy to dismiss him as an exaggerated stereotype of right-wing extremism were it not for the fact the Trumpian political climate has provided ample proof that guys like him really do exist. But it’s also obvious — especially to anyone mindful of social media and the way Wendig has been a frequent target of alt-right trolls — that Stover and his merry band of militia lunatics are Wendig’s way of trolling his trolls right back. The ultimate conflict with Stover provides the book an exciting climax, to be sure. But it’s set in motion by a character who behaves stupidly to oblige the needs of the plot. Its culmination, while definitely tense, isn’t exactly unpredictable.

Finally, the question comes down to just what Wanderers has to say to us, about who we are as a species and as a society, and how we roll in the face of adversity. And if the book really does come up short in any way, this is it. Wanderers has precious few insights, and in the end, stands as not much more than an entertainment, a bloody Netflix series mostly interested in action and carnage. Recent novels in the apocalyptic genre like Station Eleven felt fresh because they rejected the typical end-of-the-world clichés in favor of contemplation. Wanderers, after all it’s put us through, hits us with a final chapter twist and reveal that, frankly, left a bad taste in my mouth, indicating that if humanity comes out of all this, it will do so having failed to learn the most crucial lessons.