There’s something very pleasing about having a book recommended to you and discovering it is one you have read before and really liked. I blame it on the vague title, but this novel, written in 1949 (!), is probably the first “last man on Earth” story and a great read. A normal guy, hiking in the California mountains is bitten by a rattlesnake, and while he recuperates in an isolated cabin, a pandemic kills 99.9 percent of Earth’s population.
Ish, the young man, survives the snakebite and finds his family, friends, and college mates are all dead. Since the plague seems to have sent most people to the hospital to die, there’s not a lot of dead bodies lying around, and he moves back into his parents’ house outside San Francisco. Power and water are still working because of automation and food is readily available in supermarkets.
Restless, he packs up a car and travels across America to New York City. He discovers small pockets of people who have survived and is surprised how rapidly nature is taking back the highways and farmland. Dogs become feral, except for the one he picks up on the trip, cats return to nocturnal lifestyles. Some domesticated animals such as chickens and sheep are defenseless without humans to protect them. Cattle and pigs roam freely.
People are forming family units and trying to rebuild their old lives. In Arkansas, he meets a black family raising cotton even though there’s no market for it. In Manhattan, he plays bridge with a couple who complain about not having ice cubes for their martinis (they are losing power as time goes on). Saddened by the slow march of decay he sees on his road trip, he returns home.
En route, he finds a woman who enjoys his company, and he brings her home to start a new family.
Several travelers settle nearby and become close friends. One has two wives, but they are all satisfied with trying to return to the lives they once had. Food is plentiful, the weather is temperate, and aside from an occasional swarm of ants and rats, life is good on San Lupo Street. Years pass and many babies are born. One of the neighbors is a carpenter and keeps the houses in good condition, and their lives are fairly uncomplicated as his diary entries of the years pass.
They lose electricity, stop using the vehicles, and finally must dig wells when the dams erode. Amongst those events are the details of babies born and Ish’s daily life with the ever-increasing families they try to educate and teach about the Old Ways.
Ish does a great job of documenting his worries and concerns that the next generations may not be as civilized as his life was. He tries religion and classes for the youngsters but gradually he realizes he should be teaching them how to survive and not how to regain the Old Ways. He teaches them how to make bows and arrows and fires from scratch.
As decades pass, the group grows, fending off an occasional outsider and marrying one another where continuing to grow into a New World. I loved the intimacy of one person’s view dealing with small details such as unlimited razor blades as the world crumbles and reforms. I also appreciated the science journal asides explaining why the rats are becoming overpopulated and the water finally runs out.
Great book and I’ll probably reread it again. Yes, it’s dated (woman and people of color get short shrift), but it’s still amazing how timely it is.