For a while, book sales seemed to be driven by wizards. Then by vampires. Now it may be the flu. If this sounds mundane compared with sorcerers and the undead, you probably missed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven or Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, both wonderful (and very different) best-selling novels about a postapocalyptic world brought down by … the flu.
The latest novel to imagine the Earth undone by illness is Sandra Newman’s epic, The Country of Ice Cream Star. And it is an epic, with all that connotes: It’s a big, sweeping saga set in Western Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., with ferocious battles, a desperate romance and an against-all-odds quest for a cure. What makes Newman’s effort a departure from these other strains of literary flu, though, is this: The fictional disease she has created, “waks” or “posies,” kills people when they reach their late teens or early 20s.
The novel is set 80 years after the “killing fever” has resulted in a world filled only, it seems, with children and teens — and only African American children and teens, because they alone seem to have any resistance to the deadly virus.
The narrator, 15-year-old Ice Cream Star, lives with her Sengle people in what she calls the “Massa woods” not far from Lowell, Mass. The voice Newman has created for Ice Cream is complex, showing how the English language has evolved into a patois with roots in African American slang and teen speak: “I waken to my name, and look up nervy in besweaten skin. Night be in its blackness. From the window, only come the skeiny light of Lowell’s outdoor lamps. Ain’t no one by, nor Driver stir. Ain’t figure if my name was spoken real, or been in dreams.”
Driver is Ice Cream’s older brother, the leader of the Sengle people, who is showing the first symptoms of posies. What sets the novel in motion is the Sengles’ discovery of a man with “yellow furrish hair … a yellow roo … his skin whitish like a no-luck sky.” The fellow is white, and he insists he’s 30. He says his name is Pasha, and when he claims his fellow roos have a cure for posies, Ice Cream is determined to find it in time to save Driver — and her Sengle people.
Her efforts take her on a richly imagined picaresque to New York City, which still has some electricity and automobiles and is governed by a Christian cult that takes Ice Cream for a new Virgin Mary and expects her to rule. These scenes in Manhattan where Ice Cream meets her Machiavellian “apostles” are especially riveting. It’s a corrupt world that makes the Medici Renaissance court look rather innocent. (“I do hate honest people,” one of her administrators tells her, “they really have no place in politics.”) Later, she travels to Washington, D.C., the capital run by people who call themselves the Marines and who claim to have three nuclear devices they will use to blow up the city if they are ever overrun.
Little by little, Ice Cream learns the geopolitical realities of what’s left of planet Earth: who the roos are, what remains of Europe and Africa, what the cure means. And joining her on her odyssey is this mysterious Pasha roo. Is he as disenchanted with roo violence as he insists, or is he a double-agent, leading Ice Cream and the Sengles to their deaths? Might he and Ice Cream wind up as best friends or even lovers?
But what makes the novel so fascinating — and, yes, so challenging — is the language Newman has created for Ice Cream and the way we see this disease-ravaged world through her eyes:
“Days that come been clean bonesse. We keep to 495, a highway broad as any field. Got a twin highway the same, these two companion faithful. Together, they go stretch and snake across all unkept distance, till they find our new Connecticut. All this way be forest. Ain’t scarcely notice when the Massa woods be left, and yonder start. A hummock seem familiar in your eye; then it come queery that the individual trees be strangers.”
I worried about Ice Cream, and I rooted for Ice Cream. And when I was done with her story, I was very glad that I had gotten my flu shot.
Chris Bohjalian reviewed this book for The Washington Post.