Book Review - Shelf Life: James Braziel's Snakeskin Road

The long and winding road through a dystopian sci-fi odyssey

Friday July 24, 2009 04:00 pm EDT

GENRE: Dystopian sci-fi odyssey

THE PITCH: Fleeing a futuristic Southern landscape ravaged by climate change, Jennifer and Mazy, a pregnant woman and a teenager, head toward a Northern promised land along a patchwork trail known as Snakeskin Road.

GRIM DETAILS: “The dead are starting to smell — those lying in the waterless reflecting pools, under trees, those in the courtyard mummy-wrapped. No matter where we go in the square, the wind picks up their decay and the syrupy plastic.”

HISTORICAL RELEVANCE: The Northern-bound odyssey Jennifer and Mazy endure is an evocative adaptation of 19th-century slave narratives.

FAMILIAR TERRITORY: The details that dominate the lawless Snakeskin Road — rationed food, upturned vehicles, vaguely Fascist government agents — could have been cribbed straight from any number of post-apocalyptic tales, though the climate change backstory is a contemporary twist.

ENDURANCE FACTOR: Jennifer and Mazy suffer a gauntlet of indignities and hardships throughout their journey — from the dangerous, depressing work at a brothel to the violent machinations of a bounty hunter named Rosser. The bleak monotony might be nearly as trying on the readers as it is for them.

HYPE QUOTE: “An apocalyptic masterpiece that will keep any reader on edge,” says Donald Ray Pollock, author of Knockemstiff.

POSTAL SERVICE: Much of the story is framed through letters written by Jennifer to her mother, Delia, who lives in what’s known as the “Saved World” of the North. Jennifer’s intimations to her mother are vivid and heartfelt. “I saw specks of blue that quickly dissolved in the smoke and grit. But it’s only an illusion. I don’t believe Birmingham will ever heal,” she writes.
AUTHORIAL PEDIGREE: James Braziel first published a collection of poetry, Weathervane, in 2003 and that lyrical style continues to inform his recent fictional work. His debut novel Birmingham, 35 Miles was just published last year. A recipient of the Individual Artist Grant from the Georgia Council for the Arts, he currently teaches at the University of Cincinnati.

THE BIG MESSAGE: The future is wrecked by climate change and it’s our fault. Unless you want to shlep your unborn child through hellish miles of lawless desert trying find a decent life, put down this book and listen to Al Gore’s advice about your carbon footprint.

Snakeskin Road by James Braziel. Bantam Books. $15. 325 pp.

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