Review: “The Witch of Hebron” by James Howard Kunstler

A good novel is one that conjures images that linger. It creates characters that you feel a variety of emotions toward. The person stands in front of you and you can imagine interacting with them. You know whether you’d invite them to dinner or bar the door when they come knocking. A good novel does more than have a plot, an adventure, a tale. It brings you into the lives and times of the characters and gives you a chance to feel what they must feel, share their wishes and dreams, and hope along with them for the best (or the worst) as you move through the story. You sympathize, feel anger toward, want to comfort or hold your breath saying to yourself “No, don’t do that!” knowing quite well that the character will in fact do that very thing.

And you understand why.

For me then, as a clinical psychologist, a good novel is all about character development, even more so than it is about the demographics, diversity, or employment opportunities of those characters. Like a good meal, it leaves you satisfied after you finish it and haunts your thoughts. It may also bring lively debate.

It is with this in mind, that I review two very different books, one the latest by James Howard Kunstler, The Witch of Hebron (WoH) and in Part II, the first novel by ASPO co-founder Kurt Cobb, Prelude. Each novel takes place in a very different point in time. Kunstler’s WoH, is a post-apocalyptic novel, while Cobb’s Prelude takes place only a few years ago. Let me take each novel separately.

The Witch of Hebron

Let me state for the record that I love the last two novels by James
Howard Kunstler, and I’ll read every upcoming one eagerly. The characters have stayed with me, like friends I know, and I care about. I find no misstep in Kunstler’s novel for his lack of full-blown, in-depth female characters. Okay, so Jim’s women are courtesans, mystics/magicians, or wives, but I look at it this way: If you want vivid female characters, write your own novel. Or wait for his next installment. I don’t slam people for what they don’t write, I prefer to look at the stories they do tell, and this is a great continuing tale. Both books are a very entertaining and captivating story and this last one centers on the adventures of a young boy, Jasper, the town’s physician’s son, and yes, it is a decidedly male perspective. That’s not a problem for me, because the writer satisfies my sensibilities.

Jim Kunstler writes novels you can read aloud. They leave vivid impressions. They make me feel things; sometimes painful, sometimes deadening, but never simple emotions. Take Billy Bones, a highway bandit and a violent, murderous kid that Jasper takes up with. I know kids like Billy. Our ghettos are full of “Billy Bones.” They haven’t known kindness or fair treatment and are desperate for the kind of self-esteem that comes from an I-phone or a fast car, (while Billy has to settle for a self-composed ballad about his life and his escapades). And like Billy, they are very, very dangerous because they foresee no future.

But even in this barren world, foster parents and decency exists. Kunstler describes a level of cooperation between Jane Ann and her minister husband Loren that would be common in any middle-class home today, as they take in and cared for several kidnapped children.

Yes, we can be drawn into the mysterious world of sex-magic weaved by herbalist and witch Barbara Maglie. But the true porn Kunstler weaves is “food porn” as in the following beautiful description:

“Lying on the fir-scented bed, reflecting on the end of his days, Perry Talisker’s hunger pulled his train of memories past all the wonderful meals he had enjoyed across a life-time, many of them dishes he had not tasted for years, and never would again. He could imagine, in all his senses, the gigantic batter-dipped, deep-fried sweet onion he used to order on week-end nights in the old times when he and his wife, Trish, splurged at the Outback Restaurant at Aviation Mall outside Glens Falls. What a marvel that thing was! A gigantic, sweet Vidalia split open by a cleverly designed patent device so that the onion layers formed petals like a great flower allowing an eggy batter to penetrate every crack and fissure and then puff up magnificently when it met the hot fat in the Fryolator. The sublime crunch of the batter contrasted with the yielding sweetness of the onion and the smoky piquant dipping sauce that was several notches better than plain ketchup. He could never finish a whole one, but he’s still follow it with a rack of baby pork ribs, slow-cooked until they were nearly falling off the bone and then finished on the grill offset with a dish of creamy cole slaw, which he regarded as a vegetable, something good for you.”

This passage brings the reader into a “Nostalgia for the Present.” We are with that hungry man, remembering back to those “everyday luxuries” that are no closer to him than walking on the moon is to us now.

Sex

And what is sex to a culture that has been stripped clean of anything resembling normalcy? In this world, sex is both stolen and violent, or the balm that is shared between willing partners. When it is purchased, Kunstler describes Madam Amber’s Fancy House, a whorehouse that caters to a part of the male soul we might have trouble relating to here in the First World. Walking into a “proper” house of prostitution in this novel, a man does not simply receive sex. He also gets a hot meal, a warm bath, a comfortable bed and a luxurious environment for an evening, for those desperate to re-live their former world. It stands in sharp contrast to an otherwise dreary existence for the man without a home.

Kunstler captures something so scrapped clean, so raw, when he explores the night Jasper stays in Madam Amber’s Fancy House with Robin, a thirteen-year-old ‘all house maid’ who is sent to wash the boy and put him into bed. Today I work with children living in an environment where sex is what they can offer adults who are both unpredictable and often violent. Few of us who have not known starvation, bare mattresses and violence can appreciate the pleasure of a bath, fluffy towels, clean clothes, a freshly laundered bed, and a person who invites you to: “Be still. Just for a little while. I won’t hurt you….You’re safe with me.” Jasper’s awkwardness and “surprise” in the scene feels genuine to me, and the sexual skill of a young adolescent, painfully real, even if her orgasms were not.

The “good” women of Union Grove offer something ‘ole timey’ to men and children: a belief that basic needs for affection, wholesome food, an organized house, and safety can still be achieved in a world that offers no stability. Okay, so I don’t know that much about the minister’s wife, Jane Ann, in either novel, but I do know the great love Loren has for her, that allowed him to withstand her sexual relationship with his best friend, or brings him onto dangerous roads in search of sex magic to make love to her once again.

What can tap into the flame of desire, of life, of vigor, for a man, a cleric, robbed of all, including his religious conviction? Nothing short of magic. Loren, once “cured” of his lack of sexual desire, interacts with his wife Jane Ann with a:

“…physical presence in a way that he had not for years, and she sensed his feeling her and each perceived the other in the fullness of the moment, and then a wondrous thing occurred…

“What’s happened to you?” she asked.
“I’ve changed.”
“But how?”

He hesitated. “I found a witch,” he said. “And she put a spell on me.”

Something in his voice convinced her that it was not necessary to ask if he was kidding. Instead, she asked, “Have you changed? Or is the whole world changing around us?”
“Both I think.”

The adolescent among us can read ‘physical presence’ as simply Loren’s erection, but I think it refers to the capacity, long dead in the deeply depressed person, to come alive again, to have the capacity to relate with full attention to another person. Moments become full when each partner is engaged and connected emotionally. The wondrous thing is not simply the act of intercourse, but the life, the full engagement that has returned after being missing for so long.

And they are correct, their world is, indeed, changing in their small town.

Community

In the earlier novel, World Made By Hand, a band of religious folks, the New Faith Brotherhood, first appeared. In that novel, a murder has been committed, and it is clear that the town is unable to muster the energy to do anything about it. We can feel the inertia, the lethargy that chronic, unrelenting depression brings to the townspeople of Union Grove. Depressed people view situations as beyond their control, and believe they are helpless to impact events. In contract to the depressive’s inactivity, the New Faith Brotherhood are the “normals” who have an “unrealistic view” of themselves as having the capacity to impact not-likely-to-change events. They wear “rose-colored glasses” and imagine that their own spunk, faith and creativity can overcome even the worst of circumstances. It is paradoxical that while “depressives” often perceive the world more accurately, non-depressed people are aided by their self-deception in some situations to continue on, despite an unlikely favorable outcome.

Brother Jobe and his band unnerve the town with their energy and enthusiasm, but by their sheer number and certainty, something is altered in everyone. By the second novel, WoH, the reader feels the change. Some semblance of life re-appears, just as it had in Loren. What we witness between these two novels is the creation of something larger than “pure self interest.” We experience the power of community “taking itself on,” to form values once again, and lift itself up from despair.

Kunstler offers us a glimpse into three types of communities. The first is run by a wealthy man, Steven Bullock, who cashed in on collapse, by buying up adjacent land, and setting up jobs and a means of production. He has a well-oiled machine of workers who live in his “village” while he lives like a wealthy industrialist. He’s been given the job of keeping order in Union Grove.

The second is a religious community, the New Faith Brotherhood, run by Brother Jobe. Brother Jobe himself is one of the most engaging of Kunstler’s characters. I know a man quite like Brother Jobe, and Kunstler describes him perfectly: part angel, part rascal. Jobe’s Creator makes exceptions, overlooks, and is pretty flexible when need be, but ultimately is most useful as an inspiration to the New Faith Brotherhood community. It is a tricky business to doctor to men’s souls in hard times.

The final community is made up of the townfolk themselves, freed of Bullock’s village, a role that they see as servitude, but having neither a boss to work for, nor a savior to worship.

In the first novel, “World Made By Hand,” Brother Jobe demands from Bullock what seems like an absurd expectation: Justice. A murder has been committed and Jobe demands that an investigation take place. Interestingly, Bullock’s village is unable to exert enough energy to take this task on, preferring instead to allow matters to stay as they are. While the residents are considerably better off than the townspeople, the indentured takes a toll. It’s a “factory town,” and a place where townspeople end up reluctantly and out of desperation. As Bullock tells Brother Jobe, when asked how his workers are fed: “They feed themselves.” In contrast, the New Faith Brotherhood works for themselves and their only boss is the Almighty. They answer to a higher authority. Brother Jobe sees his job as protective, not exploitative.

It’s a widely-held belief that when energy and jobs are plentiful, it is easy for a culture to be progressive and equitable in their distribution of resources. We seek “justice” for wrong-doing. We might define “good times” as the absence of misunderstandings, screw-ups, snafus, conflicts of interest, and unplanned consequences. Excess resources enable us to smooth over both interpersonal misunderstandings and conflicts of interest between people. We make a bigger pie. We also embrace cultural ideals and expectation of ourselves as members of the social system. We “right the wrongs” and “maintain decency.” We try to line up how we conduct ourselves with cultural ideals we embrace, and our actual or intended conduct is in keeping with these ideals. In other words, what we say is what we do.

When culture breaks down, however, this effort to keep in “culture-conduct alignment” also deteriorates, as we see in Union Grove’s townspeople and Bullock’s village in the first novel. Their resources are taxed, as is their patience. Those in positions of power have secured their “piece of the pie,” leaving the crumbs for those with less social power or resources. But it is this very mis-alignment between their internalized cultural values and the currently deteriorated social condition that intensifies the very depression and hopelessness they feel. While the townspeople “know” that justice isn’t being done, the very awareness of this fact intensifies their helplessness and despair. Brother Jobe’s clan are the voices of not only social justice, but also conscience for the people of Union Grove.

My suggestion: Give both World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron as a set for those who like a good yarn, as well as the Doomers in your life who can’t wait any longer for the community copy to reach them. Read it aloud. Or have a get-together and a discussion.

Two thumbs up!

Next Review: Prelude

About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.

Comments

  1. This was a wonderful exploration of JHK’s 2 post collapse novels, you have put into words my on visceral response to these works. He does an outstanding job of creating a very believable future scenario. One of the criticisms of these works I have read was about the style of language the characters speak — quaint, almost, as if hearkening to an earlier century. Then I thought long and hard about this, and realized that these characters had been without mass media for years — for certain the language will change in the isolation from the broader world. The way we speak is a full reflection of our culture and norms that evolve from circumstances. Of course there is no way to tell what these nuances will be, but the fact that JHK introduced changes that you can hear was brilliant.

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  1. www.scoopit.co.nz says:

    A Gift for that Peak Oiler in Your Life…

    A good novel is one that conjures images that linger. It creates characters that you feel a variety of emotions toward….

  2. [...] Review: “Witches of Hebron” by James Howard Kunstler [...]

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