Monday, February 01, 2010

Recognizable Characters in Predictable Circumstances

Act I of James Kunstler's new play "Big Slide" is now available as a staged reading via KunstlerCast, with Acts II and III to follow, and the entire text also available as an e-book.

The play is set in the not-too-distant future, after West Los Angeles has been obliterated by a bomb, Chicagoland's drinking water has been laced with Botox, the President has been suicided, gas is at $10 a gallon and mostly not for sale, stores have been looted, electricity is off for good and armed gangs in police uniforms man checkpoints and confiscate anything edible. Other than that, everything is fine. It is a story of three generations of the prosperous and privileged Freeman family, who flee the growing mayhem in New York and Boston and hole up at Big Slide, which is their family compound in the Adirondacs.

Big Slide comes complete with a stalwart and competent caretaker, a large collection of guns and fishing tackle, a nearby lake stocked with trout, a forest full of deer, rabbit and seasoned timber felled by a winter storm, a greenhouse and an ample garden plot. If only the Freemans had prepared... but then their varied needs include morphine, a replacement hip joint, a strict vegan diet and plenty of booze—all inaccessible or in short supply, now that even venturing into the nearby town has been deemed inadvisable. Also, with family tensions worthy of Anton Chekhov, can they avoid shooting each other?


Abilard said...

Gave it a listen. Kunstler has a discernible bias for traditional Yankee culture, and this comes out in the first act and in his other writings and commentary. In a real collapse scenario the rural South and Appalachia would have less far to fall than other regions and consequently may do better than he (and his characters) think.

That said, the first act was engaging enough that I am interested in hearing the rest of the play. Biases notwithstanding, he writes well. I would also recommend "The Long Emergency," even to peak oil skeptics, as a good read (though I doubt many such skeptics lurk here).

Dmitry Orlov said...

Abilard -

I don't think that rural Appalachia and the rural South are particularly ready to appreciate a 21-century Chekhov; conversely, people who might be interested in the intersection of Peak Oil and Chekhov are not so likely to also be interested Appalachia and the rural South. When art meets life, art wins - at least in the minds of those who appreciate it, which are the only ones that exist as far as art is concerned. But I do hope that a modern-day Faulkner or O'Connor emerges - one informed about Peak Oil and the climate. Or perhaps a modern-day Poe would be found who could write a horror mystery that takes place in genteel old Charleston as it plunges under the Atlantic (it will be completely submerged before the end of the century, you know).

(off-topic) Bilbo - You just don't know, and I would prefer to keep it that way. Inquiring minds should read the National Enquirer.

Kevin said...

And these are the lucky ones, who have some place to go to. Imagine what it's like for those who are stuck in what's left of L.A., or in Botox Chicagoland.

Abilard said...


They would probably need to be introduced to Checkov first. :-) You are right that those worlds seldom meet, unfortunately. While I am sure that neither group longs for each other's company at present, rural people could benefit by having an intellectual and scientific structure that validates many aspects of their traditional ways of living. Peak oil/climate change intellectuals could benefit if rural people were to take a few more steps in the direction of self-sufficiency as this would, after a few years effort, create practical examples of alternative ways of living, ways then demonstrably valuable regardless of one's position on those two potential threats to our civilization.

Gudovac1941 said...

Oh yeah - West Virginia and the 'Rural South' will sure do fine in a collapse scenario. They will revert to their standard of living circa 1965 - ie. scratching out an existence in drafty shacks with some barefoot children playing in the mud out back.

West Virginia and the Rural South are the regions perhaps most dependent on cheap energy to provide decent life. Prior to 1965, these regions were filled with starvation and poverty which would shock anyone today.

Abilard said...


If that were true, the transformation between 1965 and 1970 must have been stunning. Curious that it was not reflected in any of the photos, stories, or related experiences of my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or others in our community. Given that seven generations of us have been in the same Appalachian village, you would think we would have noticed. ;-)

Jeff said...

As someone who lived most of their life in West Virginia, I can tell you that some people there have heard of Chekhov and Peak Oil.

Poverty, like literature, can be found anywhere, including in the erudite lands of Boston, et al.

The only mud on my feet has been thrown there by posters who know not of what they speak. In West Virginia they have coal to burn. Perhaps Gudovac can burn his prejidices, to stay warm.

sendoilplease said...

"[C]an they avoid shooting each other?"

And, "can they avoid eating each other?"

"Out in the woods, or in the city
It's all the same to me
When I'm (wild) and free
The world's my home (and humans I own)
When I'm Mobile - wheee-hou- BeepBeep"

Mother Nature, 2010

Abilard said...


You have to admit Checkov is not a going concern here.

The North Coast said...

People like Kunstler often underestimate the resilience and resourcefulness of poor rural folk.

I once had a client who was a plastics manufacturer here in the midwest. General Motors had told him they would no longer give him their business unless he built a new plant in Mississippi (this was c.1992). He consulted with a friend who had already been suckered into spending $5M to build a small plastics-casting plant there, and this friend warned him off in the strongest terms.

Because, he said, these people don't need to work and they can live on $4000 a year, and they hunt and grow and forage most of their food.And they don't mind living in shanties. And when Deer Season is on, you might as well not even turn on the lights, because they are NOT gonna show up for work, any of them. This guy's plant, as you can imagine, was a complete failure and broke him.

People who don't need anything or demand anything can adjust to deprivation much better than people like those in the Big Slide. The affluent are going to have the hardest time of it of anyone, and no matter how difficult "ghetto blacks" and the denizens of rural Southern counties may be when disappointed, their rage and disappointment will be nothing compared to the formerly well-off.

As a denizen of the Chicago lakefront, I'm not half as scared of botox in my drinking water as I am of the tens of thousands of formerly affluent suburbanites who will flood this city in search of a place to live and work where they don't have to drive 50 miles a day each direction. America's former suburban middle-class will become one dangerous and implacable crowd of people.

Spanish fly said...

Hello, I am new here and I'm not very good in English...

"America's former suburban middle-class will become one dangerous and implacable crowd of people".

Not only American middle class: European, Japanese, Australian, Canadian and new middle class in China will become dangerous.
I am worried with the situations here in Southern Europe (4 million people unemployed). A lot of spanish people paying long-life mortgages and having too many debts...

Gudovac1941 said...

The above quote is from wiki, despite huge amounts of subsidies over decades - Martin County has a per capita income 1/4 of the US average, still 3rd world.

What little prosperity does exist among the "Hill Folk" comes mainly at the behest of Federal Programs - this will vanish soon enough. The region will return to subsistence farming, smuggling, and laying about.

As for outer ring suburbanites transforming themselves into 'the wandering hordes'. I doubt it, by the time of collapse they'll be so demoralized that they'll just fade away.

Abilard said...


"What little prosperity does exist among the 'Hill Folk' comes mainly at the behest of Federal Programs - this will vanish soon enough."

In the 1940s my Grandmother, a divorced working mother, received a letter from the IRS accusing her of lying about her income. In the view of the government employee responsible, there is no way she could be raising her daughter and caring for her mother on the salary involved. What the IRS agent did not understand is that there is a thriving non-monetary trade system here:

Rhoda Halperin - The Livelihood of Kin (Anthropology of Appalachia)

She had a garden, she canned, she had a well, she made clothing, traded the same, and so on (on top of her day job). As you can tell from the 1991 book above, such practices have continued long after Johnson's war on poverty, the TVA, and various other social programs increased the amount of fiat money in the region. The effects of this non-monetary "economy" are what outsiders (and the government) tend to miss when assessing the wealth and industriousness of the region.

"The region will return to subsistence farming, smuggling, and laying about. As for outer ring suburbanites transforming themselves into 'the wandering hordes'. I doubt it, by the time of collapse they'll be so demoralized that they'll just fade away."

Hmm, what was it I said in the original post you critiqued?

"In a real collapse scenario the rural South and Appalachia would have less far to fall than other regions and consequently may do better than he (and his characters) think."


sendoilplease said...

North coast, you make a very good point about the inability of the adult-sized children in the middle and upper classes to cope with the slow-mo collapse we are undergoing - and that many of their less-well-off rural counterparts will have better coping skills.

What worries me is that Gudovac1941
is also correct. The skills and work ethic passed down by our ancestors has been undermined by the Federal Handouts to poor rural regions. On the native american reservation where I work they are used to monthly rations of "commods" from the government, subsidized education, subsidized heat, subsidized... existance, period (to the point they have people paid to do nothing in jobs created soley for the purpose of spending the federal funds that will have to be returned if not spent). They are also for the time being still subsidized by a dying casino (and are desperately borrowing money from where ever they can to pay for adding on casino capacity - i.e. digging themselves deeper into the hole chasing their previous malinvestment).

There are some rural folk whoswe culture and heritage might have remained uncorrupted by the crippling enabler we call the federal government. Some of these will cope with the changes now underway.

As for my local native friends and many non-natives like them, their fate may differ when the Nipple of Subsidies is pulled by the dying Federal Government and the empty casino. To many of them are dependents - wards of the state. I think many of these "rural folk" will NOT cope as our grandparents did.

Martin said...

After a promising act I, I was eager for act II und III, and got very disappointed, in particular about the ending.

Unknown said...

I am from the rural South and my ancestors are from Appalachia. Kunstler is way off with his opinion on how well we will survive in a collapse. Besides many people having knowledge passed down to them about hunting, gardening, preserving food, tending livestock, etc., there are some interesting trends developing here. For various reasons which include optimum nutrition, health, religious values, and economic practicality, there are trends toward learning the above skills on their own, making soap, home-schooling their children, beekeeping, raising chickens in areas not zoned for it, using herbal, alternative medicine, barter, and building their own houses. Many people have water wells on their property. Some of the most intelligent people I know have more children than average, which can be an advantage in a rural, post-collapse society.

If solar panels weren't prohibitively expensive for most of us, we would have them. Believe it or not, this rural southerner has heard of Peak Oil and have studied and blogged about it. My parents were lower middle class, at least financially, yet they didn't grow up in shacks with mud on their feet. We were civilized even back in 1965.

Unknown said...

subsistence farming isn't something most people dream about