Unit, The by DeHart, Terry, 2010

Unit, The by DeHart, Terry - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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I know he can't be trusted. In this new reality, there are only two groups of people: good people who can't be trusted, and bad ones who need to be avoided or shot.

Terry DeHart's 2010 novel The Unit is a post-apocalyptic family drama that is full of polemic, and woe. Over the last several years there has been a cornucopia of disaster and post-apocalyptic novels. This one rides the bridge between SF fabulation and survivalist manifesto, failing to accomplish the goal of either genre sub-category. Crafty and ingenious survivalism? Fail! Cautionary tale where the world dies as a result of the opening of Pandora's Box? Nope, not really. The Unit is a watery stew of cliché about survivalism, neo-Christianity, and right wing wish fulfillment that examines its topic by putting a hard-edged family of four through the wringer, marching them through one travesty after another in a post nuclear Northern California landscape. I probably could have done without reading this, and I’m even more disappointed to find out that Orbit has advanced money for two more entries in a trilogy.

Surprisingly, The Unit picks up only two short weeks after a limited nuclear exchange between the U.S. and an unknown nuclear power or powers. I say “surprisingly” because the family of four that is the subject of the novel, Jerry, Susan, Melanie and Scotty, are at two weeks out acutely in tune with their environment, and have become survivalist/scavengers with nary a bump on the road. To be sure, they all bitch and moan about their situation, but they have accepted it and to a limited degree revel in it, especially Scotty. The all have also decided that the war has an upside, because it eventually will give them each the opportunity they need to get the hell away from each other, which is what they all really want to do.

As the story started Jerry led his family down a high altitude highway in the Sierra Nevada as they tracked a group of elderly and children shepherds. Jerry has realized that it’s best to allow other groups to blaze a trail for them while they followed from a safe distance, thus sparing his family the brunt of any pirate raids. And that is exactly what happened to this group. A spotter in a small aircraft marked the flock on the highway, and called down the fury of a group of pirates that escaped from juvenile detention right after the nukes stopped flying two weeks prior. Jerry and his family survive by hiding in the woods above the road. They are all already so numb with the reality of life in post-nuclear California that they hardly blinked when they came across the bodies later, after the pirates had moved on. Thus began the trek of the Sharpe family as they traveled and scavenged the land to survive. As the story progressed the Sharpe family wandered unknowingly into the den of pirates; a small, high altitude California town. A gun battle ensued, during which Melanie was kidnapped and pressed into service as a camp prostitute. Jerry vowed to rescue his daughter or die trying. The Sharpe family reconnoitered the area and found the plane and its pilot, Bill Sr., who turned out to be the father of the chief of the band of pirates. They captured Bill Sr. and forced him to fly Scotty and Susan to their home in Sacramento (which we later learn suffered a direct hit by an enemy nuclear bomb) while Jerry marched into the pirate’s base again, was captured, then later escaped with Melanie at the first early snowstorm of the year.

The rest of Jerry and Melanie’s tale was essentially a chase story. Eventually the family (or at least the surviving parts of it) met up at an aid station that had been set up. As the story ended the government was making its presence known again and began the early steps of rebuilding. Apparently the culprits were in the outer mountain provinces of Pakistan, and North Korea. Having wiped those regions “off the face of the map,” it was time for the U.S. Government to turn its attention inward again. I’m guessing that the next two books deal with the repercussions of a repressive government on the war-torn, libertarian California survivalists.

DeHart had a flair for describing the action of the story, particularly the parts where combat occurred. But really, what author these days fails in that regard? This fact makes DeHart the KJA of the survivalist scene and nothing more. And this book certainly is lacking in clever subtext or alternate meaning. And as I said before, the writing is pretty terrible. Not that it did not have a high-point (or maybe “middle”) or two.

The plane makes a shallow turn and flies parallel to the interstate. I feel the pressure of searching eyes. When the pilot adds power to hold a sharper turn, we run uphill for better cover.

And this, which I found particularly clever:

Bill Junior doesn’t say any words over them. The fire is low and smoky and he throws a cup of gasoline on it and walks away. The fire blossoms into the sky and seems to hover above the bodies, then it gets right down into the evidence of their existence.

And that is about as good as things get. The entire thing was written in an "edgy" but annoying first person present tense (both of the above quotes were from an character's point of view, not from a narrator), and it switched points of view regularly, from Jerry then to Susan, Melanie, Scotty and Bill Jr. Absent those one or two interesting points the rest of the book was one sorry, used one cliché after another. Virtually every paragraph had the equivalent of “I curse the world…,” or “If I only had a drink…,” or “If I only had a smoke…” Other parts were just silly.

The other boy isn’t used to being on the wrong side of an ambush. At the sound of the bullet’s impact he stands and spins around, trying to spot me instead of trying to take cover or holding Melanie as a shield. He gets off three loud rounds from his pistol before I put two quiet rounds into his head. He’s not a sociopath anymore. I look for the smaller kid, but he isn’t so stupid. He’s gotten the hell out of Dodge and Chevy and Ford too.

For a story about family, there was no family closeness here at all. All of these people hated each other, and except maybe for Jerry who was too dim to realize that he was hated, nobody was of the mind to stick together longer than was absolutely necessary for survival. Melanie even seemed a bit glad to have been kidnapped and pressed into service as the caboose in the pirate’s train (or is it the coal car? I can never remember) as long as it meant her snotty brother, warlike father or weak mother was not around. God kept popping his head into the story too. Susan and Jerry were alcoholics, so they kept reverting to twelve-step success strategies to make it through whatever confronted them. I’m sure that middle America will appreciate all of that, but I don’t. I commented on this a bit a while ago when I put up my review of One Second After, in which also God kept making unusual and unpredictable appearances. Personally I find this kind of rhetoric to be indicative of a politically conservative focus, and where that is buried in the text like it is here and One Second After, I find it disturbing. I’m not sure why, but it bothers me nonetheless. In any event, this book is not worth ever revisiting. Off it goes to Beer’s books, to help me buy something that I want!

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 1.5 star(s)

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