The character Andrew Pendergast lurked in the background during the first two World Made By Hand novels penned by James Howard Kunstler. Even so, I was intrigued by Andrew after reading World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron. This was a man who had kept the town of Union Grove’s library open during the difficult years of America’s midnight hour. In the third novel of the tetralogy Andrew is fleshed out to become a pivot on which the novel and the fictional New York state town is made to stand. In A History of the Future, James has given a full breath of life to Andrew Pendergast. I’m very glad he did so, because this is a character those bracing themselves for the seismic shifts in store for industrial in store for industrial society can emulate now. Instead of just bearing witness to the ongoing drift of American culture further along the twilight path into darkness we can take a cue from these pages of literature and do the work towards making ourselves lamps who will be able to see and act in the darkness ahead.
Andrew is such a man. Adaptable. Foresighted. Possessed of a set of “diverse skills and interests” that are necessary to live in difficult times and save those aspects of American culture worth saving. In the post-collapse village where the character makes his home he finds a number of different roles to play. These roles are not appointed to him. He takes them on because they need doing.
1. He took charge of the town library. He dusted off the card catalog. Running a library on a card system is a skill that can be relearned. When I first began in library work the Olive-Kettering library at Antioch College was just being “updated” to a computer system. Working with the card filing system was a rather fun part of the work. Now with self-checkout machines, just like at the grocery store (instead of at the grocers) human interaction has been minimized and mediated by machines. Andrew’s library ran on limited hours, and with the help of some other volunteers, but it became a treasured for re-skilling and for the non-electric entertainment and edification of reading.
2. He formed a volunteer burial committee during a flu epidemic. In Kunstler’s sequence of novels a successive wave of diseases cull the human herd. In a strained economy, in a country with a brittle health care system, responses will be limited. As bodies pile up something will need to be done with them for the families who grieve, and for the continued health of those who remain. The death process used to be overseen by families and communities. Fraternal lodges and voluntary societies used to provide their members with plots of land and headstones. Now it is all outsourced. From the time a family member gets sick to the shovel of dirt on the coffin. If your town or city faced a plague and strict limitations on resources how would you cope with large tides of death? It’s a question worth thinking about. Doing something to get people in the ground would be an important step.
3. Andrew established a model garden on his half-acre property. Other towns folk learned to copy him because they had forgotten -or never learned in the first place- how to grow plants, how to tend food crops, how to bring in a harvest. Though Kunstler doesn’t spell it out, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the towns people also got some extra seeds off Andrew. Surely he’d be saving those from season to season.
4. Pendergast repaired old mechanical clocks. Some anarchist leaning types might not be so disappointed about a world without clocks. Especially time cards. Kunstler however imagines a world in which a solution for telling time is still in demand. Andrew makes himself useful by learning to fix the type of clocks which would still work without an electrical grid. My take-away from this is that it will also be useful to be able to fix those lower tech and appropriate that can be used to trade with others in the community. Another take-away is Andrew’s ability in managing his time and energy. If you are doing one thing, you are not doing another. To deliver on Andrew’s level requires both time and energy management. (One of the ways Andrew manages his energy is through celibacy -not popular in our sex obsessed culture, but effective. This part of the book reminds me of the discussion of the body and sexual energy in Wendell Berry’s classic The Unsettling of America.)
5. He painted portraits. In these books cell phones and digital cameras are no longer in use. The grid is down. The narcissism of the selfie is not a given in this history of the future. Non-digital photography may stand a chance of surviving for a time, but portraiture again becomes the most stable method for recording an individuals visage. Andrew had a store of paints he stocked up, but they were running out. From the books in the library he began the process of learn to mix paint from scratch using minerals and substances he wildcrafted in his own bioregion.
6. He organized and directed stage shows. No netflix. No movie theater. Meaningful entertainment can bring people together instead of isolating them in front of a box. Kunstler is here forseeing a person who works to preserve one of the great arts of humanity and who sees its value in adding to the quality of life during a time in which everyone has to make do with a lower standard than the Americans of the late 20th and early 21st believed was a birthright.
7. He directed the music circle of the congregational church. Andrew played piano and organized the rehearsals of a group of the towns musicians. Again this is another way of bringing people together and giving the other citizens something to look forward to on festive occasions -performances on the Fourth of July, Halloween, Christmas, and other celebrations.
This list doesn’t even exhaust other things Kunstler touches on his text (and perhaps it should be noted that Andrew’s story is only one of multiple threads in the novel).
This is a man of tremendous energy and ambition. He likes to work. It brings him satisfaction. Rather than feeling deadened and sad by the passing of modernity Andrew feels alive with an ecstasy he did not know in his former life working in the NYC publishing business. Perhaps his ability to work so hard and so much is aided by the lack of a day-job, perhaps by the absence of distracting gadgetry and digital media. Either way time must be filled and Andrew hears the tick of the clocks he wound and fixed himself. The best antidote to the malaise of depression and meaninglessness so common now, and one of the outcomes people in a collapsed/collapsing culture contend with, is to get to work on saving things that matter, doing which add texture to life. Without shipments of food, and big box stores to supply needs and wants, busyness is also more a matter of survival. In the present, depending on its form, busyness can be seen as a way of distraction from the anxieties of life. It is my view that many of these anxieties westerners face will be seen as superfluous on the far side of Americas imperial meltdown. Rather than being tired and worn out Andrew is vividly alive. I suspect Andrew might agree with the phrase, “idle hands make light work for the devil”.
He is so alive and full of energy a man who feels he is broken seeks out Andrew out. First this man has the intention of harming Andrew. Then he opens up to the possibility that he could learn something from him. This man, Jack, ends up staying on in Andrew’s home as a kind of servant, but one who is there of his own accord. He works on the chores and projects Andrew gives him in exchange for room and board and for Pendergast’s attentiveness towards rehabilitating the mans feeling of brokenness.
On the far side of America’s ongoing collapse there will be many broken institutions and people who also feel they are broken. One of the best things that can be done as a preventive measure is to shore up any existing cracks in ones self. Don’t add to the strain society is already under, but seek to be self reliant, and from that base, work outwards into the family and community. Be a rock and shield. This book creates a great example of what that kind of person might look like.