My column about Don Powers’ presentation at Boston’s Traditional Building Conference a couple of weeks ago, which comes amid a lengthy set of threads about real or fake building materials on the TradArch listserv, reminded Steve Mouzon (who also spoke) of Jim Kunstler’s novel World Made By Hand. Had I read it, he wondered? Had I!? And what a joy it was. I now hear from Jim that he has published two more in the series: The Witch of Hebron (2010) and A History of the Future (2014). I reviewed World Made By Hand not long after it was published, and here is that review:
Back to buildings made by hand
June 26, 2008
HOW WILL WE LIVE without cars, television, oil and electricity? I’m not so sure it will come to that, but James Howard Kunstler is. He has written a fascinating novel imagining a world without cars, television, oil and electricity.
Kunstler’s World Made by Hand (2008, Atlantic Monthly Press, 317 pps., $24) fictionalizes his book The Long Emergency (2005), about the peak-oil crisis – after oil production peaks even as more countries guzzle more oil, driving up its price. Experts disagree how far we are from peak oil, but gasoline prices tell us it’s not too early to start worrying.
In his novel, Kunstler hastens the crisis with terrorist nukes that obliterate Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, and an influenza pandemic that reduces the global population. In the hazy but not too distant future of the book’s action, the end of the world as we know it happened a decade before. Life has become extremely local, with little travel or communication among cities and towns. Normal life has broken down, as has government at every level (a rump president is rumored holed up in Minnesota). Other countries might as well be other planets.
Kunstler’s protagonist, Robert Earl, is a former executive who is also the most competent surviving carpenter in the small town of Union Grove, in upstate New York. Earl and a neighbor visit the general supply store, where a gang of local rowdies peddles items plundered from abandoned homes, businesses and factories in the largely depopulated suburbs. One of these “former motorheads” kills Earl’s neighbor and his dog. That gets the plot going.
Earl tries to rally the rest of the town to seek justice, assisted by members of a recently arrived cult that has fled violence elsewhere. Suspicions are put aside, somewhat, as the quest for justice takes Earl and a few other townsmen on a hair-raising trip to Albany – where we get a sense of how America has fared without cars, TV, gasoline, electricity, etc., but with lots of horses. We learn a lot about what it is like to be close to one’s horse.
Kunstler’s literary talent and psychological imagination are extraordinary. Without necessarily buying into the peak-oil crisis, I’d call his book a page-turner of considerable philosophical depth. Its characters and their trust, distrust, friendship, enmity, desire (including one of the most titillatingly suggestive passages I’ve read), and how they deal with their lost way of life, are trenchant and plausible.
Occasional passages recall my anti-modernist architectural camaraderie with Kunstler – his invention of the word “crudscape” in The Geography of Nowhere (1993), the “Eyesore of the Month” on his Web site, http://www.kunstler.com), etc.
Through his protagonist Earl, Kunstler wonders whether rolling time back to the pre-modernist era would be good or bad. Some of his characters are unable to let go of being without television or cars. Others find their spirits are revived by life lived at a more basic level. People live more in the center of town, walk to work, cook meals with local produce, barter for food and services, socialize mainly in the neighborhood, and tend to go to bed when the sun goes down, and rise when it comes up.
World Made By Hand could almost be the New Urbanism on steroids, or Grow Smart Rhode Island cubed. Oil at $140 a barrel and gasoline at $4 a gallon are pushing us toward a world made by hand faster than ever before. The pocketbook has joined fears of global warming as impetus for energy conservation. “Frustrated owners try to unload their guzzlers,” reports the May 6 Boston Globe. Priuses and Mini Coopers (full disclosure: I drive the latter) begin to seem almost ubiquitous in Providence. In “The beginning of the end of sprawl” (June 22), the Wall Street Journal reports a growing desire to live closer to work, or at least to transit.
Even if a world made by hand arrives with more time for deliberation than Jim Kunstler imagines, it’s not just our automobiles that must change. We must start to think about an architecture that makes environmental sense, or someday we will indeed be forced to make our houses by hand. Architects must embrace new buildings with windows that open and close, rooms arrayed around courtyards, designed to take advantage of natural air and natural light. They should use natural materials that take less energy to make and transport to building sites. Houses with porches are “entertainment systems” that build community. The green building movement needs to rethink its focus on fitting ever more energy-saving devices into increasingly goofy buildings. Architecture that instead taps into public tastes for tradition, familiarity and comfort will give us places that create their own natural preservation societies, because they are loved. Reusing old buildings is the true green architecture. Buildings designed for decades must give way to buildings designed for centuries.
This – in addition to reading the book itself – must be part of how we keep a World Made by Hand from arriving at our doorstep too soon.
David Brussat is a member of The Journal’s editorial board (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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Photo courtesy of http://www.kunstler.com
Horse pulling car evokes life in the book World Made by Hand.