My book club gets me to read a number of books I would have never read otherwise, and One Second After (2009) by William Forstchen is one of them. On the one hand, this book is a bestseller, with 4.5 stars on Amazon and over five thousand reviews! That’s a good sign. On the other hand, this book begins with a foreword by Newt Gingrich. Eww, please don’t mix my fiction with politics, especially politicians I don’t particularly like.
One Second After is a post-apocalyptic tale set primarily in the small town of Black Mountain, North Carolina. The country is attacked by an EMP (electromagnetic pulse), which can occur when a nuclear weapon is set off a couple hundred miles above the ground. In this novel, the EMP disables anything with a computer chip, knocking out the electrical grid, radios, phones, and even most cars. In one second and with no warning, the entire country is set back hundreds of years.
It’s an interesting premise, and despite Newt Gingrich, I started the book optimistically. Thirty pages in, I e-mailed one of my book club friends, despairing that I had another three hundred pages to go. The writing was painfully bad, and Forstchen took every opportunity to snidely push his political agenda while living out his own personal fantasy. The author is a history professor at a small college in North Carolina and father to one daughter. John Matherson, our protagonist, is a retired colonel turned history professor at a small college in North Carolina. His wife has recently died and he cares for his two teenage daughters. His daughters act like they are straight out of a Nick at Nite show.
Fortunately, once the EMP went off, the book picked up a little bit. Unfortunately, Forstchen focused his story on exactly what I found the least interesting. Instead of day-to-day survival, Matherson becomes something of a de facto leader for the town, and they dig into the business of who is allowed to stay in town, restrictions on food, dealing with the dying, and protecting their town from roving bands of criminals. I was much more interested in how Matherson’s family was getting food. About two thirds into the book, Matherson finally mentions that he’s been hunting for food, but he’s so busy running around town, I have a hard time believing it. There are a lot of fascinating survival and ethical issues that come up when a society is trying to continue with scarce resources and outside threats. Unfortunately, Forstchen is very inconsistent in his world view and it’s hard to take anything away from it.
I did not like John Matherson. Although he is written as the unabashed hero, he is an arrogant asshole. He smokes (personal pet peeve), orders people around, and ignores his own rules. Everyone has to give up their vehicles for the good of the town, but Matherson–the big man he is–says the Sheriff will take his car over his dead body. The first full day of the EMP, he charges into the Mayor’s office, ordering her around and demanding breakfast. SPOILERS His sixteen-year-old daughter falls in love with a neighbor boy. Instead of teaching her about safe sex, he refuses to talk to her about it. When she winds up pregnant, Forstchen acts like Matherson is some kind of hero for forgiving her. Also, it was almost creepy to read a book where I imagined the author as the protagonist, writing a story where his daughter becomes pregnant at sixteen, her boyfriend tragically dead from a huge battle, so his daughter and her new child live indefinitely with him. Also, John Matherson meets a sexy nurse on the road into town at the time of the EMP. It was not romantic. “It’s an insult if you check her out, an insult if you don’t.” (76) [Um, no. It’s creepy if you’re an asshole who does not respect boundaries.] Fortunately the sexy nurse liked that Matherson was checking her out.
I feel like I’m having a hard time conveying just how irritated this book made me. In addition to the many typos and the general tone, here are some specific instances that had me shaking my head. I had to return the book from the library, so some of these quotes may be paraphrased.
-“the old-boy network, though disdained as politically incorrect, did exist, and it did help at times when needed.” (18) Yes, the whole point of the old-boy network is that they help other people also in that network. Thank you for explaining that that to me. I’m not sure I’d call it politically incorrect but an example of how those not in the old-boys network are often working at a disadvantage.
-“a woman with a gun–the most dangerous thing.” (54) Really? Right after you tell a story about how you were shooting warning shots with a rifle at a bunch of armed hoodlums when you were a drunk college student. That’s some responsible gun ownership right there.
-“global warming–though a lot say it wasn’t a threat” (67) How is this even relevant?
-“all those peace loving liberal arts colleges are dying because they don’t have the weapons to protect themselves.” Nice try, Forstchen. Try reading World War Z, where the Claremont Colleges totally kicked some zombie ass.
It’s frustrating because it could have been good.
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