The 1970s were marked by their violently stark contrast to the optimism and civil consciousness of the previous decade. Crime was on the rise, as was poverty. The war in Southeast Asia had already bubbled over into a full-scale disaster. Even the arts, especially film, were grittier and bleaker than the relatively tame 1960s. In The Dreamt and Deathless Obscene, Andrew Bonazelli capitalizes on the atmosphere of the period and increases the stakes, making 1975 the setting of a post-apocalyptic nightmare.
In 1973, an event occurred that changed the face of the earth. This event is not described in any great detail, but essentially separated the world into the three classes: regular folks, the afflicted, and the unsound. The unsound are the most obviously changed. Diseased and depraved slaves to their carnal and violent desires, they roam about attacking anyone and anything in their path. The afflicted apparently have some form of the disease that created the unsound. They live in the quarantined cities under an Orwellian program to ease their “unnatural” appetites and desires. In the meantime, other folks try to pick up the pieces of their lives outside the shattered urban zones and the violent anarchy of the countryside.
The novel follows the lives of Allan, Neil, Rosie, and Sophie, and occasionally Walter, as they try to make sense of their lives in a shattered Philadelphia. Allan and Neil are brothers, sons of Walter, who handle the situation in very different ways. Allan is emotionally stunted and self-absorbed while Neil is choosing the ill-advised path of starting a family with his pregnant fiancée, Rosie. Sophie was Allan’s girlfriend before the affliction began and now lives in the quarantine zone with the other afflicted, where she takes her turn manning the “touchline” phone service used by its citizens to achieve release. Walter generally just falls back to old memories of football from before the end times.
Bonazelli’s writing is crisp and lively and displays a unique voice—though occasionally dances on the line between style and affectation. Further, he truly captures the emotional and physical wasteland that his characters inhabit. Unfortunately, those characters are largely unsympathetic and are not moved in any meaningful way by the plot. Events happen, but the characters—and the plot—simply tread water. Nothing truly changes in their lives. The plot doesn’t really begin to move from exposition to conflict until the final third of the narrative, setting the reader up for an ending that doesn’t really happen. The story simply stops.
The true shame is that the final third of the book introduces some characters and ideas that would have been more interesting to explore than the central characters of the novel. Even gonzo wordsmithery cannot save a novel from a shallow plot. Unfortunately, this novel suffers for it, essentially showcasing a place where uninteresting characters wallow in the bleakness of their landscape.
Reviewed by Shedrick Pittman-Hassett
Shedrick Pittman-Hassett is a full-time librarian and part-time writer trying to do that the other way around. He has written reviews for Library Journal and has also had two articles published in the award-winning Knights of the Dinner Table magazine. Shedrick currently resides in Denton, Texas ("The Home of Happiness") with his lovely wife and the obligatory demon-spawn cats. When not writing, gaming, or watching cheezy kung-fu flicks, he can be found in a pub enjoying a fine brew.