Short Take: The big meaty horror novel you’ve been craving.
Good morning, my darling nerdlings, and Happy Almost Back To School! I’ve loved spending my days with the Junior Nerd, but I am definitely looking forward to having some uninterrupted reading time.
I have learned a valuable lesson though: If a book is really great, and if that book is an 800+ page behemoth of awesomeness, well, I’ll have to resort to alternative means to finish it. No kid ever died from 9 straight hours of Minecraft, right?
The book in question is Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, in which a comet passes overhead, and a young girl named Nessie goes for a very long, very strange sleepwalk. Unresponsive and impervious to weather, road debris, and the pleas of her sister, she’s only the first. As the miles and weeks pile up, Nessie is joined by other sleepwalkers who become known as the Flock, and their loved ones (the Shepherds) who try to care for them. The “care” is more for the benefit of the Shepherds, though, as the sleepwalkers don’t wake, eat, or drink, and any attempt to stop them results in something terrible happening.
Of course the media gets involved, and of course the paranoid right-wing and religious lunatics have conspiracy theories that get the militia gun nuts foaming at the mouth, and of course a faded rockstar sees a way to get an easy hit of his favorite drug (fame) by joining the Shepherds, and of course the CDC is struggling to find a cause and/or a cure, and of course the Internet is blowing up all of this and amplifying everything, for better or worse.
Wanderers is a small personal story of one family struggling with the inexplicable, and it’s a massive universal tale of how humanity responds to something terrible and unknowable – hiding, helping, or hating.
Our narrators are a nice cross-section of the factions mentioned above. Benji is a disgraced CDC doctor, Shana, Nessie’s sister and the first Shepherd, Pete, the hedonistic rock star, and Matthew, a mediocre pastor moved to fire and brimstone (and a whole lot of notoriety) when he begins preaching against the Flock.
The main characters have a gorgeous level of depth and realism (and in the case of a certain Neo-Nazi gun nut, a far too realistic amount of insanity), and the pacing is impressive, but what really smoked my anchovies was the sense of immediacy Mr. Wendig created. Each chapter starts with a quote, which isn’t unusual, but the sources firmly ground the story in the USA of the late 2010’s. There are bits from the bible and classic literature, but also twitter, tumblr, and CNN. The author has effortlessly covered all of our contemporary sources of information.
I feel like I should bring up the Stand-sized elephant in the room. Many reviewers have already drawn the obvious comparisons, so I’m not going to elaborate on the similarities. There are a few, of course, because there are similarities in all the stories that involve something terrible happening on a global scale. And although Wanderers gave me marvelous “Stephen King in his 1980’s cocaine-fueled prime” vibes, Mr. Wendig’s writing is more disciplined and less meandering (although I think we can all agree that The Stand’s “No Great Loss” chapter is unmatchable, right?), with an ending that sticks the landing in a way that The Stand didn’t quite manage.
Yes, I know that’s blasphemy in some circles, but it’s true. Big books are hard to end, with so many characters, subplots and settings that inevitably, a ball or three gets dropped, or the author has to resort to something completely out of left field and awkwardly shove it in there. But Wanderers managed to hit the sweet spot, and wind up all of it in ways that may not have always been happy, but fit perfectly.
And I have to include what may be the best line I’ve read in years, with some light censoring for Amazon’s benefit:
Benji lifted the box. “The world was an odder place than I knew.”
“[Shoot], Benji. Have you MET America?”
The Nerd’s Rating: FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (and a big bowl of ice cream, which I understand enhances virtual reality experiences).