By Jonathan Lethem
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Jonathan Lethem tackles a post-apocalyptic world in The Arrest, which is set in a small coastal village in Maine following an unexplained collapse of civilization known simply as the Arrest, when technology ceased to work and communication was cut off. The village of Tinderwick is located on a peninsula and protected/cut off from the mainland by a region called the Cordon. The novel focuses on Journeyman, also known as Sandy Duplessis, who happened to be visiting his sister's farm when the Arrest happened, essentially trapping him in Tinderwick.
Journeyman is an outsider. Although he has ties to his sister, he was just passing through when he became trapped in Tinderwick. Without means to support himself, he was a writer in Hollywood before the Arrest, he essentially becomes a deliveryman and odd jobs man, moving food and other goods around the peninsula, telling stories, and generally trying to help the community retain its identity. Journeyman has clearly found a comfortable space for himself in the community, trusted despite being an outsider, by both the townspeople and the people living in the buffer Cordon. However, things change for him when an old friend, Peter Todbaum, shows up in a futuristic car, the Blue Streak.
Todbaum and Journeyman had a previous life together in Hollywood, working on their own never-realized script and doctoring other people's scripts. When Todbaum became a successful producers, he continued to throw work to Journeyman, but the two did grow apart. Todbaum's arrival causes issues for Journeyman who doesn't want to be linked to the interloper. Meanwhile, Todbaum's own ability as a story-teller combined with his access to technology and knowledge of the situation throughout the rest of the country has made him a magnet for the news-starved villagers.
Although the cause of the titular event is never fully described, The Arrest alternately is reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney and David Brin’s The Postman, the former showing a small town acquiring self-sufficiency and the later offering up the outsider who is seen as a tie to the time before the collapse of civilization. One of the oddities of The Arrest is that while Journeyman is clearly the sympathetic character at the center of the novel, he shows little agency, allowing himself to be used by those around him, whether for simple meal deliveries, maintaining a lifeline to those who have been ostracized, or for vengeance. Even when his sister is involved in a major activity, Journeyman is left in the dark about any of the details, until the rest of the community is brought on board. Lethem builds up a conflict between Todbaum and Journeyman’s sister that exists, but is nowhere as large and looming as Journeyman believes it will be, at least not in the way it is shown coming to fruition in the novel. This, again, plays into the idea that Journeyman is not aware of things going on around him and is being kept out of the loop by everyone he knows. He is an uninformed narrator. The effect of this lack of information means the reader is never quite sure if they are fully understanding the situation, either with regard to people's relationships, the actions being taken, or even the actual impact of the Arrest.
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