"Can you let go of what is gone? I think at first I felt that I could not go on. The things I lost were too painful and I could not imagine a life without them. I remember feeling awful. All the time. But I cannot remember when I changed. When I thought of salvage. When I thought of what was today, and not of what had been or what was lost "
What happens when you take Hemingway's age old classic about an old man fighting alone against nature and adapt it to a dystopian future? You get "The Old Man and the Wasteland"
In the hands of Nick Cole, this is a story that you just cannot put down…
In an future only a generation away, an apocalyptic war, most probably nuclear, has laid waste to everything. Everything that man takes pride in – his creations of steel and brick, his civilization, the technologies, communication systems all have been destroyed and what is worse – has faded away to forgetfulness. People in the book actually marvel looking at freeways and flyovers – wondering whether its their own species who had built them.
All that is left now for scattered survivors to do is scavenge. Things that people a generation ago took for granted – steel, tinned food, worked metals, electronic parts, batteries have now become more precious than gold ever was. A man's worth is measured in how much scavenging he can do. A man's reputation is built on the value of the scavenge he can bring back. The hunter-gatherer turning full circle to scavenger..
Nick Cole brings alive this frightening world. The reader is never told directly what has happened and why things became the way they did. We are just put bang in the middle of the reality, the present. Everything is told from the perspective of the old man, who is trying to survive in the terrifying present reality while still holding on to vestiges of a very different past, fast fading. All we get are flashbacks from the memories of the old man, a common young man at the time of the apocalyptic disaster. The horrors and the helplessness of the time when everything familiar and comforting – society, government, geography, technology broke down, never to come back, is told to us in short flashes of memories. These are memories that still haunt the Old Man but he has learnt to live with them and even use them for scavenging. We are left to piece together what might have happened. And because he is one of the last people around who still remembers something of the life before, the reader is able to relate to him more.
Its a world that is beautifully created, if beautiful is a word we can use for a desolate dystopian world. Man has reverted back to his primitive ways, in the background of crumbling skyscrapers. This is a world that can lend itself to many clichés, but in the hands of Nick Cole, this is a breathing, living world with nameless horrors lurking at every corner.
The old man, like in the Hemingway classic, has a point to prove. To himself and to the world. That he still has it in him – to be useful. That he is not cursed to failure. The old man in "Old man and the sea" took to the sea. Here the Old man takes to the wasteland.
And the Old man takes with him his favourite book – a tattered much used "Old Man and the Sea", a story that is his most prized possession, a story that he hopes he would be able to fully narrate to his granddaughter one day.
Through the Old Man, we see the world as it has become. As he pushes further than anyone from his village has ever gone, he meets a world that has completely broken down in half a century. From the motel owner to the savage band of cannibals right down to the end where a soldier had made his last stand, the old man goes and sees and we see with him, a world that seems familiar as if in a slow nightmare. The reader, along with the old man, struggles to retain their senses. The powerful writing of Nick Cole ensure that we constantly stay on the precipice. The small parallel story of the wolves pack pursuing the Old Man and the last stand of the pack's leader is a nice touch – giving a sense of universal struggle for survival
A bit of an unusual ending does take away some of the perfection of the story but its a small blip. Overall, as the ending ends in a happy one (though I would have preferred a more open ended ending), you put down this book wanting more of the Old Man. Nick Cole has created a character that will stay with you a long time – a everyday man caught in an alien world trying to make the best of what he has. I think we would all relate to that at some level. And that is the triumph of the book – "The Old Man and the Wasteland" is a familiar book in an utterly unfamiliar world.
"I want to tell my granddaughter the lesson of the book. The lesson that they can beat you, but they cannot defeat you. I must tell her that. "
Btw, I have to thank Amazon and its Kindle for the book. This is not a book that you can get in a bookshop easily and certainly not at a price of $0.99! The low price enables experimentation with new authors and then you realize that there is huge choice of good stories out there, independent of what publishing houses promote.