I read a lot of hype about this book before committing to it and so I had pretty high expectations. And for a while I thought it might live up to it. But in the end, no, it didn’t.
The story begins with Isherwood Williams (Ish), a college student who aspires to be a professor of anthropology, hiking in the mountains. He’s bitten by a rattlesnake, but makes it back to a cabin, where he treats himself. He gets sick, though. When he recovers, he discovers that most of the population of the United States has been wiped out by some sort of plague. After a cross-country trip, he returns to San Francisco, where he eventually meets a woman and a few other survivors, and together they set up “the Tribe.” It was after this that my interest seriously began to flag.
The problem, really, was Ish, the narrator. He was one of the most arrogant narrators I’ve come across. I get that he was supposed to be sort of detached, watching how humanity adapted to the “Great Event,” but his constant, repeated negative assessment of the other people and their lack of intelligence grated on my nerves. He thought he was so much smarter that everyone else, and yet he wasn’t smart enough to get them to do any of the things he thought had to be done so civilization would survive.
Ish lives to be a very old man. In the end he is with a young, grown man who he says is his great-grandson, but we learn very little about these later generations. Ish goes from passively trying to impose his will on the Tribe to simply letting the new civilization evolve, and once he makes that decision decades are treated in a few paragraphs.
Although the death of Em was fairly moving, because of Ish’s detached arrogance and Martin’s refusal to give us any other point-of-view character, the reader never really feels close to anyone. It’s very much like reading an anthropologist’s lifelong thesis. In other words, dry, with long intervals of “Look how smart I am!”
All that aside, it isn’t a horrible book. When I put it down I often found myself wanting to know what happened next, and the story is compelling enough that I plowed through Ish’s self-aggrandizement to find out what happened. But readers hoping for something like Stephen King’s The Stand or Robert R. McCammon’s Swan Song will be disappointed.