Omar El Akkad, “American War” (2017) – The first major literary attempt at depicting the big wet dream fantasy of the right (and at least some on the left), the second American Civil War is, alas, lousy. El Akkad is an Egyptian-Canadian journalist who has reported on the war in Syria and uprisings in places like Ferguson. There’s some realism in his depiction of refugee camps, where most of the story takes place. But, for a book that’s supposed to deal with this risky territory, it really punts on the nature of the war itself. In the 2060s, the US, already minus Florida because of climate change, tries to ban fossil fuels. The South rises again, I guess out of sheer love of rolling coal (the depiction of the South is both deeply patronizing and weirdly hands-off). The rest of the country very slowly grinds them down until, at the start of the book in 2074, only a rump state of Mississippi and some other places are left.
This is lame. I know we shouldn’t tell people they should write a different book. But it’s just takes you out of the story when it doesn’t really engage with so many of the things that have divided Americans, past and present- particularly race. Despite harkening back openly to the Confederacy in its propaganda, the rebellious South is depicted as race-blind in an easy, nonconflicted way. The North wouldn’t even be that. People give the main characters, a black Latino family, more stick for being Catholic (though not in any way that advances the plot or builds the world) than for race or immigration status or any of the stuff that matter more to people post-20th century. You see more of refugee life than you do of the war, but the details of the war don’t work either- that things would break down easily by US state, that the North would take out the whole state of South Carolina and ONLY South Carolina with a bioweapon (like it wouldn’t spread), etc. Twenty years of straight-up war is way too long, even though I know these wars drag… which makes the one big apocalyptic ending off-key, too. It just all feels contrived.
The prose and plot of the book doesn’t redeem it. El Akkad sees some things. His depiction of the experience of the refugees who make up the family we follow seems real enough- equal parts terror and boredom with confusion ladled over it all. The parts where a Southern militant begins recruiting one of the members for suicide attacks starts out good but becomes way too flowery, too much a courtship. The dialogue runs the gamut from ok to drek, averaging at pedestrian. At the end of the day, there’s not a lot of there there, which probably explains why the likes of Kakutani got so ga-ga over it. It’ll take someone who has caught at least a whiff of the fever that stalks this country to tell this sort of story right. *’