Book Review: American War by Omar El Akkad
This dystopian novel of a late 21st century America split by civil war shows how vengeance survives down the generations
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., April 21, 2017
You're probably aware by now that since the election last November, dystopian novels have become all the rage. From George Orwell's venerable 1984 to Philip Roth's more recent The Plot Against America, tales of dark political dysfunction have seen a tremendous spike in sales. You can now augment that list with the disturbing debut novel by this Egyptian-born, Portland-based journalist who has spent time in the trenches covering events in Afghanistan, Guantánamo, and Ferguson.
His book is set in the last quarter of the present century with an American landscape ravished by the devastation of climate change and reeling from the final bloody throes of a brutal, 20-year-long American civil war initiated, in part, by the South's refusal to give up the use of fossil fuels. Deadly drones ("Birds") from the Blue North rain death down upon an already demoralized Red South citizenry. On the day of Reunification, a deadly plague is released, decimating the population for the next decade.
This is the story of the Chestnut family from Louisiana, the focus of which is daughter Sarat. It is through her coming of age that we experience the personal traumas of war and the exigencies of loyalty, to family and to a cause. Sarat sees her family members victimized at every turn and is by no means immune herself. Early on, she realizes that "the misery of war represented the world's only true universal language," a sentiment that is perhaps the book's primary truism.
Without going into a lot of detail, El Akkad alludes to the substantial North American land loss due to climate change and also makes us aware of a democratic, pan-Arab, Bouazizi Empire stretching across the Middle East and North Africa. The capital of the American North is now in Columbus, Ohio, and Atlanta is the capital of the South. The author does not venture at all into high-tech speculations so even though we are more than 50 years in the future, that paramount aspect of day-to-day American life seems oddly frozen in our present time. And while this reader was hungry for more political insights, this is primarily a tale of individuals and their tribulations under extreme conditions.
In the book's preface, an unnamed character, who we meet much later on, contends, "This isn't a story about war. It's about ruin." It's also very much a story about vengeance and how it passes on to subsequent generations.