I’m trying to read a new book, but it’s slow going.
It’s called One Second After, by Dr. William R. Forstchen, and the basic premise – survival in America, following an EMP attack – is compelling. At least, that is, until you start reading the book.
I was sold by the preface, written by Newt Gingrich. Whatever you might think of his politics, it’s hard to deny that he’s an educated, reasonably literate man who is trying to be a serious person. So it was based largely on his endorsement that I took the plunge.
What a mistake.
I’m about a third of the way through, and so far, it’s been nothing but sophomoric, naïve and predictable. The characters are painfully cardboard, their dialog is stilted, and there’s nothing terribly compelling about any of their interactions.
Early on, the author admits that he’s writing about a town that seems a bit too much like a Norman Rockwell painting, and his self-consciousness is well-founded. The entire cast of characters is straight out of the 1950s. Think Barney Fife meets Stephen King’s The Stand, with a little standard right-wing patriotic fluff thrown in for good measure.
The action centers on the emotionally wounded father, an unsung hero with a military background as yet unproven (but soon, yawn, soon to be proven, you just know it’s coming), a man who is a widower with a couple of daughters, one a diabetic, one a 16 year old dating a boy who acts so much like a boy scout that we’re reminded of the author’s early years spent writing for Boy’s Life.
We’ve got the predictable love interest for our hero, the sexy nurse who is quite a bit younger than him, but not creepily so. He’s already shown her his heroic side, thereby proving that he’s not yet part of the “I need Cialis to be ready for when the moment is right” crowd. This achievement came with a wound that she tends for him while calling him “sir”, a noble scar that he earned by fighting for proper southern behavior while in line at the local CVS.
Finally, he seals the deal by demonstrating his emotional accessibility, breaking down in front of the nurse because of his fatherly concern for his diabetic daughter’s insulin supply, which he just secured by whacking someone over the head with a beer bottle.
It gets better.
There’s a moment when the hero hands a few cans of Ensure to a WW2 vet (stranded in a nursing home without electricity, staff members, food or even running water) before snapping to attention and saluting the old guy. I kept waiting for the hackneyed “Thank you for your service, sir!”
But all pretensions of one warrior’s respect for another are dashed, because our hero turns tail and abandons the poor old guy to a lonely death, stealing the rest home’s remaining supply of Ensure and running for the hills.
Not just here, but overall, his behavior is a mixture of schoolboy sentimentality offset by angry, chain-smoking, combative selfishness. And it is in this toxic mix that our hero completely loses the reader’s sympathy, while what remains of our interest in his fate dims even darker than the lights in his electricity-starved world.
At this point, the only reason that I’m sticking with the book (skimming it would be truer) is for the remaining EMP-related disaster scenarios, which are interesting and thought-provoking. But the clumsy plot, laughably cartoonish characters and saccharine dialog are so cringe-worthy that even skimming brings too much sap over the gunwales.
And yes, as hard as it might be to believe, it gets even better.
Apparently, nobody ever mentioned to the author, a man with a PhD in history from Purdue, that the phrase “might of thought” is not quite English. Unless you’re referring to the intellectual fecundity necessary to spawn a particularly mighty thought, an animal which I doubt has often crossed this author’s inner savannah.
I found myself dumbfounded as I ran across variations of this glaring, grade school error. Amazingly, he doesn’t seem to realize that phrases like “might have thought” are commonly contracted to “might’ve thought”.
Yes, that sounds a lot like “might of thought” when spoken, but both the author and his illiterate editor prove their striking lack of might in their own thought by (in the author’s case) making and then (in the editor’s) missing this type of error, something that would’ve knocked me out of my socks as a 5th grader.
And sadly, this is neither a one-time mistake, nor a typo. I’ve run across many examples of Dr. Forstchen’s profound misunderstanding of written English in this book. Throughout it, he writes no better than the author of some choice graffiti on a truck stop restroom wall.
How is it possible that mastery of middle school English is not simply a given for Purdue’s doctoral candidates? For those in the sciences, I could see an exception or two, but for those seeking a doctorate in history, where the meat and potatoes of the entire program is nothing but writing? How was this kind of an error suffered to exist at all during his candidacy, or more to the point, how does it endure today in this professor of history at Montreat College?
Apparently it isn’t just Purdue or Montreat that spawn such literary genius. Although I can’t fathom how the publisher, Tor Books, is able to employ editors illiterate enough to miss them, the book contains stunning clunkers like these:
“We might of lost the fight.”
“We might of gotten even.”
“You might of seen that as too forward of me.”
Garbage like this isn’t a question of my being overly grammatical or failing to cut the author some slack for an honest mistake. This kind of thing is ignorance, plain and simple. It is ugly. Writing this poor is an insult to the reader. It drags the author’s work into the slush of amateurish, self-published trivia.
And that’s the sad part, because as I skim through the remaining pages, I find myself thinking “Oh, if only it had lived up to Newt’s hype, how great a book this might of been”.