Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

World Made by Hand

A Novel

by James Howard Kunstler

“Far from a typical post-apocalyptic novel. It caters neither to a pseudo-morbid nor faddishly slick vision of the future. Though grim with portent, it is ultimately, as Camus’s novel The Plague, an impassioned and invigorating tale whose ultimate message is one of hope, not despair.” —Michael Leone, San Francisco Chronicle

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 336
  • Publication Date January 19, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4401-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

In The Long Emergency, celebrated social commentator James Howard Kunstler explored how the age of globalization and mankind’s explosive progress over the last two hundred years was based on the availability of cheap fossil fuels. He observed that the terminal decline of oil production, combined with the perils of climate change, had the potential to put industrial civilization out of business. A tremendous success, The Long Emergency sold over 100,000 copies and cemented Kunstler’s place as an important voice in the debate on our country’s future. The critically acclaimed World Made by Hand, is an astonishing work of speculative fiction that brings to life what America might be, a few decades hence. For the townspeople of Union Grove, New York, the future is nothing like they thought it would be. After the catastrophes converged—the end of oil, climate change, resource wars, and global pandemics—they are doing whatever they can to get by. Transportation is slow and dangerous, so food is grown locally at great expense of time and energy, and the outside world is largely unknown. There may be a president, and he may be in Minneapolis now, but people aren’t sure. Their challenges play out in a dazzling, fully realized world of abandoned highways and empty houses, horses working the fields and rivers, no longer polluted, and replenished with fish. With the cost of oil skyrocketing—and with it the price of food—Americans are increasingly aware of the possibility of the long emergency. Kunstler’s extraordinary book, a novel full of love and loss, violence and power, sex and drugs, depression and desperation, but also plenty of hope, is sure to find many new readers.


“The verisimilitude of Kunstler’s world leads me to think the future is Union Grove. Thirty years from now, it will be interesting to see if that little town seems excessively sad, richly luxurious or spot on. But for now, I’m hedging my bets. Where I Live, one block east of ground zero, I’ve started keeping a compost bin and am thinking about adding a micro wind generator. Two blocks south, the damaged former Deutsche Bank building comes down floor by floor. To the north, the Freedom Tower has just emerged aboveground and may one day be full of investment bankers. Recently, though, I’ve started looking at that plot through Kunstler’s eyes. It gets good sunlight, and it occurs to me it would make a hell of a bean field.” —Paul Greenberg, The New York Times Book Review

“Chronicles the aftereffects of the collapse of our technological society in the near future. Kunstler’s storytelling talents are in evidence here. Kunstler has punctuated the nightmarish scenario of his novel with . . . poignant moments where hope and despair vie for dominance of the human spirit.” —Bharti Kirchner, The Seattle Times

World Made by Hand is far from a typical post-apocalyptic novel. It caters neither to a pseudo-morbid nor faddishly slick vision of the future. Though grim with portent, it is ultimately, as Camus’ novel The Plague, an impassioned and invigorating tale whose ultimate message is one of hope, not despair.” —Michael Leone, San Francisco Chronicle

“What’s after Armageddon? No government, no laws, no infrastructure, no oil, no industry. . . . and sometimes a sense of relief. In James Howard Kunstler’s richly imagined World Made by Hand, the bone-weary denizens of Union Grove (with its echo of Our Town‘s Grover’s Corners) cope with everything from mercenary thugs to religious extremists, yet manage to plant a few seeds of human decency that bear fruit.” —Cathleen Medwick, O Oprah’s Magazine

“Richly imagined . . . The Witch of Hebron reminded me of Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove, set in the dystopian world of The Road.” —Lance M. Foster, The New York Journal of Books

“Kunstler is most engaged when discussing the fate of the status quo and in divulging the particulars of daily life. Kunstler’s world is convincing.” —Publishers Weekly

“One pitfall in painting a convincing picture of the future is forgetting all the small ways in which life would differ if big changes swept in. Kunstler avoids it, and his catalog of such finer points is a subtle, continuing pleasure.” —Michael Prager, The Boston Globe

“Kunstler is an amusing and engaging observer and polemicist, and the terrain he surveys is unforgiving and perilous.” —Robert Birnbaum, The Morning News

“Fascinating and bracing.” —C.B. Evans, The Texas Observer

“[A] brilliant commentator on American life . . . James Howard Kunstler began publishing fiction several decades ago, and then he found himself drawn to social criticism, which led him to write, using his novelist’s sense of form and narrative skill, such well-regarded non-fiction books as The Geography of Nowhere, Home From Nowhere, and The Long Emergency. In his latest book, World Made by Hand, Kunstler segues from his analysis of the possible effects of a decline in oil production on modern industrial society to a full-blown, and artfully carried out, semi-dystopic dramatization of what small-town American life might be like in the wake of major terrorist bombings and industrial decline on U.S. soil. . . . But in the end, the beauty of Kunstler’s brilliant cautionary fiction, aside from the charming narrative with its many convincing details of life after apocalypse, is that most readers will admit that Earle’s world, the world made by hand, after all the terror bombs and bad actors and missing luxuries are dealt with, sounds at least as unpredictably pleasing as our own.” —Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune

“Superb . . . an extraordinary, suspenseful, deeply affecting yarn that very successfully weaves together elements of science fiction, the Western, and even magical realism. . . . Read this book.” —Reihan Salam, The New York Sun

World Made by Hand is a powerful novel, a warning from a future we must escape. It shows the strength of a community coming together out of need, but it also shows us a lawless world of suffering. Kunstler is both a prophet and a curmudgeon . . . his vision is sharp, and . . . he illuminates the world to come if we don’t change our ways now.” —Ragan Sutterfield, Plenty magazine

“Kunstler made his name as an acidic critic of contemporary architecture and landscapes . . . [and] he could have used the novel as an opportunity to create cardboard characters that mouth Kunstlerian themes. Instead, he sketches out a scarred world wobbling between order and chaos.” —Michael Hill, Associated Press

“Spot-on in the details. . . . a Huckleberry Finn-like odyssey through the future.” —Sarah M. Streed, The Capitol Times (Madison)

“[An] engrossing and thought-provoking examination of the fate that may well await us.” —Kel Munger, Sacramento News & Review

“With gas prices nearing record levels, the dystopian world envisioned in Kunstler’s new novel becomes less fiction than forecast. World Made by Hand was certainly written as the direst of warnings about our world and its dependence on oil. But the story and characters are so compelling that one forgets that this is a future that Kunstler believes may come to be.” —Drew Gallagher, Fredericksburg Free Lance Star

“High gas prices, the war in Iraq, the tremulous stock market: Complain all you want, but these troubling times are doing their part to fuel post-apocalyptic literature. Unlike the bleakness of style and subject in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand is an end-of-days novel that is more a pleasure than a burden to read; it frightens without becoming ridiculously nightmarish, it cautions without being too judgmental, and it offers glimmers of hope we don’t have to read between the lines to comprehend.” —Zak M. Salih, Baltimore City Paper

“From the author of The Long Emergency, a novel of life in the Hudson Valley of New York after the industrialized world has run out of oil. A frightening, and moving, portrayal of the lives of a group of people attempting to maintain their community.” —Mitch Gaslin, Food For Thought Books, Amherst, MA, Book Sense quote

“Not a simple survivalist tale so much as a study of despair. Kunstler explores the realization that things are not going to change for the better and that there is no way, no telephone, e-mail, or postal system, to communicate with lost loved ones. But the odd character here and there finds a way to make life bearable, and some come to prefer their new world to the magic of the old one. How and why they do so is the core of this novel, and Kunstler’s emotional understanding places the book well outside the confines of genre fiction; it’s a story about the end of the world, but Kunstler understands that losing a child can be harder to endure than losing an entire civilization.” —Even Ottenberg, Washington City Paper

“An engaging fictional preview of one possible future.” —Clay Evans, Daily Camera (Boulder)

“Even though this is known territory, the spectre that is our future, and not our past, hovers eerily. Your unease will linger long after you read the last page.” —Jeff Presslaff, WhatsOnWinnipeg.com

“As our civilization seemingly careens toward destruction, Kunstler’s tale gives some hope that whatever else may transpire in the coming years we, too, might find a little town somewhere up the road, over the bridge, by the river, and that we might find the strength and ingenuity and friendships, as well, to make a new life for ourselves, better than the old.” —truthalyzer.com

“Using fiction’s power to open us up to ideas in ways nonfiction often fails to do, Kunstler gives us a vivid depiction of the kind of world he has described in his other works. It’s a depiction that rings true. . . . For me, World Made by Hand presents Kunstler’s thesis more accessibly than in his nonfiction works. Rather than simply warning us of the road we’re on as a society, he lets us feel what it’s like to be on that road, and to go beyond it.” —AnInnocuousConversation.com

“The novel presents a view of what the world might look like not so many years from now, when the cheap flow of fossil fuels that keeps modern life running has dried up once and for all.” —PeakOil.com

“One of its charms is its success in presenting both the bad and the good of a worrisome possible outcome for our society. Kunstler depicts a community that finds ways to work together, eat and drink well enough, and enjoy itself, despite a lack of fossil fuels and imported avocados.” —FoodInBoston.com

“An excellent, brisk read. . . . One cannot read the book without looking around their neighborhood. Bravo.” —PeakE.com

“This book deals with the central issues that will determine the quality of our lives and the lives of our children. I highly recommend it as an exciting story of our future.” —Juan Wilson, KuaiaWorld.com

“Leave it James Howard Kunstler, visionary author of The Long Emergency, to write the first great novel set in a possible Peak Oil future. Expanding on the main themes of his previous book and adapting them for dramatic impact, Kunstler tells a simple story that is simultaneously frightening and yet a bit hopeful.” —Rubenation.com

World Made by Hand comes at a time when the subjects of high gasoline prices and soaring heating and electricity bills—as well as the looming energy shortages that are driving those high prices—are slowly starting to enter the realm of public discourse. . . . [It is] thoroughly engaging. . . . And while the novel’s setting may take place in the future, its subject is timeless. Societal collapses have beset scores of past civilizations, from the Anasazi to the Maya. What makes our modern age of silicon so immune from this elemental process? Nothing, Kunstler insists.” —Frank Kaminski, energybulletin.net

“The story of how [a] bloody summer unfolds makes the book worth reading. But it’s Kunstler’s ability to catalogue with an anthropologist’s precision what the world will look like that is just as compelling.” —John Galvin, Orion Magazine

“Since this brooding, powerful novel takes place in the future, you could call it science fiction. Except the end of the fossil fuel economy has pretty much done away with science—and the advent of peak oil means it may not be entirely fictional much longer. It’s a book that might actually get far under enough your skin that you take action now to keep it from coming true.” —Bill McKibben, author The Bill McKibben Reader

“Kunstler’s warnings about urban sprawl and oil depletion have earned him a large cult following, and this memorable novels transforms his theories into fascinating drama. . . . World Made by Hand is not shrill propaganda, but rather a surprisingly moving story of human beings trying to survive in a universe that has fallen apart.” —Peter Bloch, Penthouse

“Within the first few pages of James Howard Kunstler’s poignant, provocatively convincing novel set in a future possibly as near as tomorrow, you find yourself musing: Could this happen to me? By the end, you’re wondering not could, but when?” —Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us

“A must-read . . . a ripping yarn that wouldn’t be out of place in a nineteenth-century novel by Twain or Dickens. . . . On another level, though, Kunstler’s posing a great sociological question: Can civilization survive this disaster?” —7fff.com

“Well conceived and sometimes beautifully written.” —Gavin Grant, Bookpage

Praise for The Long Emergency:

“As brilliant as it is baleful . . . we disregard it at our own peril.” —A. G. Gancarski, The Washington Post

“[A] powerful integration of science and technology, economics and finance, international politics and social change—along with a fascinating attempt to peer into a chaotic future. Kunstler is such a compelling and sometimes eloquent writer that it is hard to put the book down.” —David Ehrenfeld, American Scientist

“If you give a damn, you should read this book.” —Colin Tudge, The Independent (UK)

“Kunstler displays a kind of macabre wit about the unpleasantness and strife that await us all. . . . His assertions have a neat way of doubling back to anticipate your critiques. If you express doubt about his views, then you may well be among the deluded masses too addicted to your McSUV and McSuburb to accept that reality lies ahead.” —Katherine Mieszkowski, Salon.com

“This is a frightening and important book.” —Time Out Chicago

“Funny, irreverent, and blunt . . . To his eternal credit, Kunstler doesn’t predict the end of the world; he just doesn’t think that Wal-Mart, monster homes, or suburban high schools have much of a future.” —Andrew Niforuk, The Globe and Mail


A Book Sense Selection



Loren and I walked the railroad tracks along the river coming back from fishing the big pool under the old iron bridge, and I couldn’t remember a lovelier evening before or after our world changed. Down by the rushing stream, banks of wild yellow irises shimmered in the twilight, and up in the vaulted corridor that the tracks cut through the trees, the mild June air was filled with twinkling green fireflies. We’d both been drinking some of Jane Ann’s wine.

“It reminds me of Christmas at the mall,” he said.

“I don’t miss the mall,” I said. “I miss a lot of things, but not that.”

“Do you think I’m pathetic?”

“You’re obsessed with the old days.”

“Most of my life happened in the old days. Yours too, Robert.”

It made me sad, but I didn’t say so because the evening was so beautiful and that was something to be grateful for. Now and then, the fireflies pulsed in unison, mysteriously, as if they all agreed on something we humans didn’t know about.

“I wish I had a jar. I’d catch some,” Loren said. The fact that he was our minister and fifty-two years old had not diminished his boyish enthusiasm, which was one reason we were such close friends. He pulled out the bottle again, and polished off the dregs. Jane Ann, Loren’s wife, made good wine, considering what we had to work with around here. She flavored this batch with sweet woodruff to round off the foxy roughness. When the bottle was empty Loren pretended to try to catch fireflies with it, but he was obviously just clowning around. Finally, he stuck the bottle in the back flap of his fishing vest to take home and reuse. We resumed walking the tracks.

“I’ve been thinking lately,” he said.

“It’s not healthy to obsess about the past.”

“No, I’ve got an idea.”

“Oh? Let’s hear it.”

“We should start a laundry.”

“A laundry?”

“Yeah, a community laundry. A place where people bring their clothes and bedsheets and all, and they get washed there.”

“What about Mrs. Myles?” I said. Lucy Myles was my neighbor. She took in quite a bit of other people’s washing.

“She could work for us,” Loren said.


“Well, that’s why I’m telling you about this. We’d be partners.”

“I don’t know the first thing about running a laundry.”

“No, your job is to help me start it up. Fix the building. Figure out the water system. Get the tubs going. Keep things running. You know how to do all that stuff.”

“Where do you think you would do this?”

“We can use the old Wayland-Union Mill building. The title’s open,” he said, meaning that the owners were known to be dead with no heirs and assigns, a common condition in these times. “It would be useful for everybody. And we could make a little honest profit too.”

“What do you do with the dirty water?”

“Into the river,” he said.

“It’s got soap in it.”

“It’s just gray water. It’ll go downstream to the Hudson.”

“That’s not right.”

“It’s below where we fish. And mostly from town. It’s just soapy water.”

“That’s a hell of an attitude.”

“Don’t get all environmental with me,” he said.

“I wouldn’t dump soapy water in the river.”

“It wouldn’t affect anything.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“You’re being an asshole.”

“Nice talk, Reverend.”

“I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.”

“Maybe you should think about it longer.”

“Condescending prick.”


“Nabob of negativism.”

I let him have the last word. It was always better that way with Loren. He could keep it up forever. We walked a ways more, enjoying the silence and the fireflies.

“Nabob of negativism?” I said. “Where’d you get that one?”

“Spiro T. Agnew.”

“Who was he?”

“Vice president under Nixon.”

“Oh? I don’t remember Nixon too well.”

“Agnew used to call news reporters ‘nattering nabobs of negativism.’”

“He wouldn’t be able to say that nowadays, would he?”

“No, he’d have to call them nabobs of nothingness,” Loren said and laughed at his own joke. I guess I didn’t think it was that funny, since we didn’t have news reporters anymore and you barely knew what was going on five miles away. “Hey, look,” he said. “Give this laundry idea a chance. It would be good for the community. Try not to be negative.”

“I’m not negative.”

“Contrary then.”

“I’m not contrary.”

“You should hear yourself.”

Eventually the train tracks crossed over Lovell Road, and we got off them there while the road took us across the river on a steel and concrete bridge that was falling to pieces now. It had been years since the state of New York repaired any of these things. There were big holes in the deck you could see clear through. Another couple of spring floods and it might be swept away altogether. On the far bank stood an old hydroelectric station, or the brick shell of one. An inscription in the masonry lintel over the door said it was built in 1919. The big power company, Niagara Mohawk, closed down all these little generating plants in the 1960s because they were supposedly inefficient. Nothing was left but the walls and part of the roof. The turbines and metal parts had long since been sold for scrap and every other useful thing was scavenged out. We couldn’t replace them anymore. It was too bad because it might have lit up our whole town. Anyway, the little dam there had been breeched, and rebuilding that would have been more than our community could manage. I don’t know if anybody would even have known how to do it. It was chilling to reflect on how well the world used to work and how much we’d lost.

We stopped halfway across the bridge in the lovely pink light that remained of the long June day and peered down to the water. Scores of big trout finned in the current beside the crumbling bridge abutment. A nice hatch of cream-colored mayflies fluttered off the water and mingled with the fireflies. The swift little mud swallows that nested under the bridge did an aerial ballet through it, gorging themselves. Plenty of mayflies would still get away for their one ecstatic night of reproducing in the treetops. They would return to the river to die the next morning. It was called the “spinner fall.” They’d been doing it for millions of years before we showed up.

“Want to go down and try some?” I said.

“My creel is full,” Loren said.

“We could put back what we catch.”

“I’ve fished enough tonight, Robert.”

“Okay, let’s go home.”

It was about a three-mile walk home to Union Grove. In the old days, you’d drive it, of course, but now you walked. I didn’t mind. I enjoyed the peacefulness and easy pace of the walk. In a car, I remembered, you generally noticed only what was in your head or on the radio, while the landscape itself seemed dead, or at least irrelevant. Walking, it was impossible to not pay attention. On a mild luminous evening like this, the landscape came alive. The crickets had started up. In the distance a last glimmer of sun caught the top of Pumpkin Hill where men were still out mowing the first hay crop on the Deaver farm. You could hear their horses from down where we were, and someone was singing while he worked. Washington County is a terrain of gentle hills and close valleys that grows more rugged as you get east over toward the Vermont border, where the Green Mountains begin in earnest. In the early twenty-first century, farming had all but died out here. We got our food from the supermarket, and not everybody cared where the supermarket got it as long as it was there on the shelves. A few elderly dairymen hung on. Many let their fields and pastures go to scrub. Some sold out to what used to be called developers, and they’d put in five or ten poorly built houses. Now, in the new times, there were far fewer people, and many of the houses outside town were being taken down for their materials. Farming was back. That was the only way we got food. Ben Deaver employed at least twenty men from town on his farm. You could smell the horses down where we were on the bridge. Sometimes the whole world smelled of horse. It was my fond wish to own one some day.

Across the bridge, Lovell Road came to a T at old Route 29, which used to be the main route between the Hudson Valley and Arlington, Vermont. It was a standard state two-laner. We headed west toward town on it. When the sun finally went down, the sky above the hills remained pale blue, the cloud bottoms all salmon and orange. We walked right down the middle of the highway, over the faint ghost of the double yellow line. After years of neglect the pavement was broken with great fissures and potholes the size of a bathtub. In some stretches, it had gone back to dirt. Loren and I were both lost in our own thoughts when we heard horses at a distance coming up behind us. We turned together.

It was an open cart with two wooden-spoked, iron-rimmed wheels, not the old automobile tires that you used to see on a common utility wagon. You could still find rubber tires here and there, but you couldn’t get patch kits or the kinds of adhesives that would stand up to a repair job anymore, so we had no choice but to go back to wooden wheels with iron rims. This sort of vehicle was sometimes referred to as a Foley rig. I couldn’t tell you who Foley was, but that’s what it was called. There were stories, as about so many things in these new times, where the actual facts were sparse or elusive, but they named the rig after him. There were two figures aboard, a man driving and a woman beside him.

The rig came trotting out of the twilight, bouncing on the rough road, until it reached us and the driver slowed his team to a walk. They were fine, tall, stout matched blacks with some feathering on their lower legs, a mix of some kind. Since the world changed, there had not been much time to breed horses, so around here anything distinct from the American quarter horse or a common draft animal tended to stand out. These looked like they had some Percheron or other cold blood in them and their size, at least sixteen hands, was another sign. The driver brought them to a halt beside Loren and me.

He was a stranger, a clean-shaven, middle-aged man, with a nose too small for his face. It made him look oddly boyish. Among men in Union Grove, beards were the norm so any clean-shaven man was apt to look young. He took off his broad-brimmed straw hat so as to show off, or so it seemed, his full head of black hair with a few strands of gray at the temples. His skin had a pinkish cast, as though he spent a lot of time indoors.

“Brother Jobe,” he said, reaching down from his seat to press our flesh like a politician. We would learn later that he spelled it this way, with an e on the end.

“Loren Holder’s the name.”

“How’d you do?” Brother Jobe said.

“Fine,” Loren said. “Beautiful evening.”

“No, I meant how did you make out fishing?”

“Oh, pretty good,” Loren said.

“I hear the river’s better’n it ever was before,” Brother Jobe said.

“It’s quite good,” Loren said. “Less angling pressure nowadays.”

“I haven’t had the time to try it myself. Busy tending to my flock.”

I couldn’t help glancing at the young woman beside him. She had been sitting very still, like a startled doe, as if stillness might enable her to remain unscrutinized. Both she and Brother Jobe were dressed in the severe clothing of the pious. He had on a black sack suit, a cotton shirt with collar points, and a floppy black bow tie. She wore a straw hat secured under her chin with a black ribbon. She’d gathered her thick red hair into a single braid. Her skin was so pale as to appear luminous in the low light. The longer I looked the more I noticed that she had a good figure within her plain muslin blouse. Though it was buttoned to her throat, you could see the shadows of her flesh within. Her delicate face suggested she was not much more than sixteen. Few young women were left in our town. The Mexican flu had been especially vicious among the young, though death by other means had not spared any age group.

“Say, aren’t you the chief over at First Congregational?” Brother Jobe asked Loren.

“I’m the minister there, yes.” Loren said. “How’d you know?”

“I’ve got an outfit of my own,” Brother Jobe said, as if that answered the question.

“Oh?” Loren said. “Whereabouts?”

“Why, right here in Union Grove.”

Loren cut a puzzled glance my way.

“Bought the old high school day before yesterday,” this Brother Jobe said.

With the recurrent sickness and the problems with electricity and everything else, the sprawling, low-slung high school complex at the north edge of town had fallen into disuse. Once, it had collected pupils spread out over half the county in a fleet of shiny yellow buses. The small number of children in our community went to the church school now.

“That’s a surprise,” Loren said.

“We’ve been on a hard and prayerful search,” Brother Jobe said. “This place looked about perfect.”

“How many of you are there?”

“Seventy-three adults.”

“Where’d you come from.”

“We were last in Pennsylvania.”

“Why did you leave?” I said.

Brother Jobe regarded me closely for a moment, as though my question were impertinent.

“We weren’t comfortable there,” he said. “Who are you?”

“Name’s Robert Earle.”

“Robert Earle what?”

“Just Earle. That’s the family name.”

“Oh? Down where we’re from that’d be a man’s given name.”

“Like Billy Bob.”


“I take it you hail from Dixie,” Loren said.

“Indeed I do,” Brother Jobe said, running a sleeve across his damp brow. It must have been uncomfortable for him in a suit on a warm summer night like it was.

“A troubled place these days, isn’t it?” Loren said.

“There’s plenty of mischief to go around this poor country of ours. What’s left of it.”

“We don’t get much news of the outside anymore,” Loren said.

“The electric’s hardly on these days.”

“We’ve noticed,” Brother Jobe said. “But you’ve got something here maybe even more valuable.”

“Yeah?” Loren said. “What’s that?”

“Peace and tranquillity.”

“The last real news we had was when the bomb went off in Los Angeles.”

“California got dealt a bad hand, all right,” Brother Jobe said, “but things are rough from sea to shining sea. It’s no fun in Phoenix or Albuquerque either, so I’ve heard. From Texas clear to Florida, there’s folks shooting each other and trouble between the races and all like that. Seems like the law is on the run everywhere. We were on our way up out of Virginia when the other bomb hit Washington, D.C. Pennsylvania wasn’t no picnic after that, I can tell you. We tried it for more than two years, but it wasn’t any go for us there. We pulled out the end of April.”

“I’d like to hear what you’ve observed on your travels sometime,” Loren said.

“Hardship. Not a whole lot of brotherhood.”

“This is a friendly place,” I said. “But it would have been nice if the powers that be had consulted us about selling the school. We weren’t informed.”

“It’s all signed and legal, I assure you.”

“It seems to have happened under cover of night,” I said.

“Are you up to the Lord’s business too?” Brother Jobe asked me pointedly.

“In a manner of speaking,”

“How’s that?”

“I’m a carpenter,” I said.

Brother Jobe pointed at me and laughed, the way comedians used to do long ago on TV. The girl beside him cracked a trace of a smile too, but looked away self-consciously when she saw me notice. Eventually Brother Jobe’s strenuous hilarity ebbed.

“Let’s have a look in those creels, boys. I’ve got to see those whoppers you bragged on.”

Loren opened up his creel and held it up to show.

“Hooo-weee,” Brother Jobe said. “I’ll take ’em.”

“Excuse me?” Loren said.

“Five hundred bucks, American.”

“They’re not for sale.”

“Aw heck, okay, seven hundred fifty.”

“No, I—”

“You boys drive a hard bargain,” Brother Jobe said and whipped out a fat roll of bills. “Here’s a thousand. Lay them babies right down there under the dash by my boots.”

Loren shot a look at me that attempted to convey a humorous appreciation for all this but really signaled his discomfort. He liked to make other people happy but not usually at his own expense. He had lined his creel with ferns to keep his four nice trout cushioned and moist, and he now laid them all down, including the ferns, like a kind of grocer’s display, at the driver’s feet up under the Foley’s curved mudguard.

“Let’s see yours now,” Brother Jobe said to me.

“I didn’t get any.”

He guffawed. “Like fun you didn’t. Let’s have a look.”

“There’s nothing to show.”

“I thought you said it was good fishing down there tonight.”

“It was good for him, not so good for me.”

He held up the bankroll again. “Sure you won’t talk to the old persuader?”

“A dollar isn’t what it used to be.”

“That’s the God’s truth. But heck, I’ve got a flock to feed.”


Brother Jobe made a kind of show of looking deflated for a moment, then pulled himself upright and puffed out his cheeks.

“All right then. I hope you have better luck next time. We’ll be starting a regular service soon in that old school auditorium. Maybe you’ll come by sometime.”

“I’m in his outfit,” I said, cocking my head at Loren.

“We put on a hell of a show. Hymns and preaching. I got a 1930 Schwimmer pump organ. It’s like the old-timey times.”

Smiling broadly, Brother Jobe raised his whip and sort of dusted both horses over the hindquarters. They snorted and began to walk. They were well trained. We watched them set off and a little way down he got them trotting. He never did introduce us to his companion.

Reading Group Guide

The first chapter of James Howard Kunstler’s nonfiction book The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century is called “Sleep Walking into the Future” and begins: “Carl Jung, one of the fathers of psychology, famously remarked that ‘people cannot stand too much reality.’ What you’re about to read may challenge your assumptions about the kind of world we live in, and especially the kind of world into which time and events are propelling us. We are in for a rough ride through uncharted territory.” In this novel, World Made by Hand, we are certainly on that rough ride.

1. What was your initial impression of the narrator Robert Earle? What kind of a man does he seem to be?

2. Kunstler has painted a grim picture of a crippled America after the end of available oil, the global economy, consumerism, jihadist bomb attacks on major cities, and the reintroduction of wide-scale plagues. Can you imagine yourself living without electricity, motorized transportation, a regular job, lack of medicines, and contact with the outside world? Do you think that you would be able to survive in this new society? What skills would you rely on? What skills would you no longer need?

3. Does the new organic farm based local economy described in World Made by Hand seem more gratifying than our contemporary life and culture? In what ways? In what ways does it seem inferior?

4. “Plenty of mayflies would still get their one ecstatic night of reproduction in the treetops. They would return to the river to die the next morning. It was called the spinner fall. They’d been doing it for millions of years before we showed up” (p. 4). Cite some of the numerous other insightful observations of the natural world throughout the book. Do you find it paradoxical?

5. At the end of the second chapter Robert says, “I tried to avoid nostalgia because it could destroy you. I was alone now . . .” (p. 14). Is he really alone? What is his relationship to the greater community? Do you think that his attitude is helping him or hindering him from becoming resigned to all that he has to cope with in his new reality?

6. In chapter 3, Robert says to Jane Ann, “Maybe I’m crazy. I live with hope. . . . that we’ll recover some. Maybe not back to before, but some. I live in hope that my Daniel will walk into this house again some fine morning, and your boy with him” (p. 18). How would you describe Robert’s relationship with Jane Ann? In addition to his optimism, what helps him to be a survivor in the face of his wife and daughter’s deaths and everything else that he has suffered?

7. “The general was run at first as a public cooperative, under the illusion that the ongoing catastrophes would ebb and normality would return. But the flu and the bombing of Washington put an end to that illusion, and the general eventually came under the management of Wayne Karp and his gang of former motorheads” (p. 28). Wayne Karp is the cult leader of the remnants of the basest layer of society, who now live separately in Karptown. Their attitudes and amorality lead to young Shawn Watling’s death. What is the outcome and reaction to this senseless murder emblematic of in the new society? Did the reaction of the townspeople surprise you? What could they have done?

8. When Robert and Loren first encounter Brother Jobe and learn of his acquisition of the high school for himself and his New Faith Brotherhood, they feel a bit troubled. When the brotherhood attends Shawn’s funeral, they start to interact with the rest of the town. How are Brother Jobe and his followers different from the people of Union Grove? Why are Robert and Loren apprehensive?

9. “As the modern world came apart, and the local economy with it, Bullock took the opportunity to acquire at least eight other properties adjacent to the original family farm. . . . Stephen Bullock had a comprehensive vision of what was going on in our society and what would be necessary to survive in comfort, and I don’t think he ever deviated from that vision for a moment” (p. 85). After Robert introduces Brother Jobe to Stephen Bullock; he says, “That fellow is a dangerous man” (p. 92). Even though Bullock is nominally the town magistrate, his community is somewhat removed from Union Grove. What makes Brother Jobe react to him in that way? Is he another cult figure like Wayne Karp? How is his community organized? What does he offer his followers?

10. How did Brother Jobe’s influence on Robert figure in his heroic rescue of Britney Watling and her daughter from the fire, his dominance at the board of trustees meeting, and his installation as mayor? “It’s like we’ve been living in . . . Jell-O. Trapped. Immobilized. Watching everything around us slowly fall apart through this thick, gummy transparent prison of Jell-O, and unable to do anything about it” (p. 205). Is Robert aware of Brother Jobe’s effect on him?

11. Why does Britney Watling decide to throw her lot in with Robert? Consider Jane’s comments to Robert: “You’re quite the hero. First the fire, then you shove Dale off the plank, then the Big Breakout, and now the water system finally gets fixed” (p. 204). Did you think about how Robert could have used his new status? Many other men in this story have done less and reaped more. Who are they and how did they do it?

12. When Robert undertakes the expedition to Albany to find out what happened to Bullock’s missing boat, the Elizabeth and its crew of four men, he starts to see what has happened to the surrounding area. What experiences open his eyes to the condition of the rest of the country? Draw some contrasts between our information age and the complete absence of media in the new society. How does this affect people’s perception of each other?

13. “Brother Minor was skinny and smaller than me. He had a sharp, weasely face and a joking demeanor, and when he laughed at his own jokes, which was often; his eyes creased and seemed to close up tight, while his laughter was nearly silent, more like air huffing through a pipe. He joked incessantly” (p. 124). Brother Minor has many aspects to him in addition to being a comedian. What are the qualities that set him apart? What is your overall impression of him?

14. “I showed Minor my hand and asked him how it was possible that such an injury could actually heal overnight” (p. 151). There are a number of things in this book that seem impossible to explain. There are some parts that may seem apocryphal. Remember a few and explore their meanings?

15. “A fellow makes a few things happen and the world falls at his feet” (p. 162). What kind of a government is Dan Curry running in Albany? How is he portrayed? The search party also encounters Lieutenant Governor Eugene Furman. How does he do his job? How is he portrayed?

16. “‘Abominable wickedness the Lord hates,’ Joseph screamed at her, with the tendons standing out on his neck and blue veins bulging in his forehead, while he waved his pistol at the terrified woman. ‘Then the just shall rejoice to see his vengeance and bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked’” (p. 176). Joseph and the other brothers are as adept at killing as they are at other gentler skills. Why are they so sure of themselves and where do they find their justifications? Are they free to do what they please because there is no legal system, no courts, and no real rules? Do you think that they were hypocritical?

17. “The levee at Stephen Bullock’s farm was the greatest social event around Washington County in decades, even going back into the old days, when television and all the other bygone diversions held people hostage in their homes after the sun went down” (p. 208). What made the party so enjoyable? In what ways was it different from parties of today? What place does music play in Robert’s life and in the lives of the people?

18. “‘The world has become such a wicked place,’ she said quietly, just a statement of fact. ‘There’s goodness here, too.’ ‘Where is it?’ ‘In all the abiding virtues. Love, bravery, patience, honesty, justice, generosity, kindness. Beauty, too. Mostly love.’” (p. 226). What does Britney offer to Robert that Jane Ann couldn’t? What can Robert offer Britney? What has prepared him to accept her and Sarah into his life?

19. “‘Look, old son. There’s real strangeness in this world of ours. Back in the machine times, there was too much noise front and back, so to speak, to keep us from knowing what lies behind the surface of things. Now it stands out more.’ ‘Am I ever going to understand what I just saw?’” (p. 262) What did you make of Robert’s meeting with Mary Beth Ivanhoe? Why is he chosen? Do you think he will understand?

20. What has changed in Union Grove that makes Robert and Loren willing to go after Wayne Karp and his boys for burgling houses during the levee? Why do they also decide to prosecute Brother Jobe for the forced shavings? Did Robert and Loren take on more than they could handle when they went to Karptown to arrest Wayne? Were they testing themselves?

21. “We returned to the jail room, Brother Jobe was now kneeling at his bed with his hands clasped on the mattess, his eyes closed and his lips moving soundlessly, the way little children pray” (p. 297). Do you think Brother Jobe knew that his son, Minor, had been killed before he was told?

22. “In the days that followed, stories circulated around town about Brother Minor and Wayne Karp coming to an eerily similar end” (p. 313). Did you find the identical killings, spooky, magical, apocryphal, biblical? Kunstler speaks of news reaching Union Grove of religious hysteria in other towns. Do you think that is what is happening in Union Grove? Do you think that might explain the curious happenings? Does it matter?

23. “‘We believe in the future, sir. Only it’s not like the world we’ve left behind,’ Joseph said. . . . ‘We’re building our own New Jerusalem up the river. It’s a world made by hand, now, one stone at a time, one board at a time, one hope at a time, one soul at a time’” (p. 142). In the end do you think that Brother Jobe, Robert, and the people of Union Grove were ready to begin building their New Jerusalem?

Suggestions for further reading:

The Last Man by Mary Shelley; The Road by Cormac McCarthy; The Scarlet Plague by Jack London; Earth Abides by George R. Stewart; The Death of Grass by John Christopher; Lord of the Flies by William Golding; A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.; Children of Men by P. D. James; Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank; The Stand by Stephen King

Films that might interest you:

Apocalypse Now; An Inconvenient Truth; The Omega Man; The Andromeda Strain; On the Beach

Author Interview

Conducted by Megan Sullivan, Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, MA

Megan Sullivan: What made you decide to write a fictional account of The Long Emergency?

James Howard Kunstler: Two things, really: first, I wanted to vividly and graphically depict conditions in a future everyday America that I forecast in my previous book, The Long Emergency, which was nonfiction, of course. I wanted the audience to really sense the way this world felt, looked, and tasted—what it was like to smell the horses, and feel the tranquility of a place relieved of automobile traffic, and taste the cornbread fresh from the oven. I also wanted to put across the idea that, as different as this new world I depict may be, it is far from being a terrible place. In fact, the textures of life unmediated by electronic gadgets, free of incessant advertising, and automobile traffic, begin to seem rather appealing when you spend a little time there, mentally. My second reason for writing this book is that I adamantly insist on being a “full-service” writer—I like writing fiction and I refuse to be pigeonholed as just a certain kind of polemicist.

MS: I think comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will be inevitable due to the subject nature. Have you read that book and how do you feel about any comparisons? Personally, I see them as two very different stories. McCarthy has written the Odyssean epic and you’ve done something that has pastorale aspects to it.

JHK: Frankly, I avoided reading other “futuristic” novels while writing World Made by Hand—though I am a fan and a reader of Cormac McCarthy through No Country for Old Men (which impressed me with its sheer dramatic velocity!). But I do know something about the story in The Road from all the Web chatter, and I like to joke that World Made by Hand is the antidote to it. Yes, World Made by Hand was conceived consciously as a “pastorale”—a work saturated with rural themes, and hence located firmly in “nature.” It also has elements of a classic quest story, in so far as the central incident of the book is a rescue mission down the Hudson Valley to free four local men held in a hostage-for-ransom racket. But mostly it is the story of what has become, by circumstance, a rather isolated rural community in a land that has changed severely.

MS: What made you decide to bring in religion? Are you religious yourself? It’s interesting that though this sort of fundamentalist religious movement moves into Union Grove, they’re not what you think they are. In the end, they’re not the group that wreaks havoc in the story. Instead, they’re arrival brings about new growth to the town.

JHK: No, I’m not religious myself. But it seemed to me that religion would have to furnish much of the structure of daily life that will have been lost in the demise of corporate jobs, government at all levels, school, and all the other trappings of complex modern society that had sheltered people in their daily lives previously. In World Made by Hand, the townspeople of Union Grove are very involved in their church. It’s all they have left. Now that there is no more canned entertainment, no CDs, movies, iPods, the townspeople have to make their own music, and a lot of it is organized through and around the church. For all that, however, the townspeople are not very pious. The minister of the First Congregational, Loren Holder, is one of the few characters in the book who uses profane language regularly. Another side of this, of course, is the New Faith Brotherhood, the evangelical group from Virginia that has moved to Union Grove (and bought the abandoned high school) in fleeing the disorders down south. When I began writing World Made by Hand, I assumed they’d be the “bad guys.” But I grew fond of them quickly, especially their leader, Brother Jobe, a comically dark figure who is a combination of Boss Hawg and Captain Ahab, and I went another way with them. They display a good deal of competence, earnestness, and bravery, though they certainly have a lunatic edge to them. Interestingly, almost all their attempts to proselytize others end in failure. Their targets all say they’re “not interested” in one way or another. Way back in my days as a newspaper reporter, in the 1970s, I kind of specialized in investigating religious cult groups, so I am not unfamiliar with their ways. I enjoyed consorting with them, though not a few of them were dangerous characters.

MS: So you’re saying that people will use religion as a means to gather together for all sorts of reasons. Entertainment will be hard to come by with no television or movies, etc. Do you see people falling back into religion in a world without oil?

JHK: Only in the social sense that the church provides a place for the enactments of communal life. In the book, actually, many of the characters express anger toward God, blaming him for their losses and hardships. Yet they all understand why the church has become the focus of what happens outside the household. The other structures of everyday life are gone. The New Faith sect, led by Brother Jobe, appears to be organized as much for practical survival as for worship. They’re not especially rigid in their habits. The New Faith brothers are portrayed as enthusiastic drinkers (and very effective killers, when the necessity arises). The women are described as sensuous and possibly even available. For what is left of the “mainstream” folks of Union Grove, the Reverend Loren Holder probably expresses their attitude most emblematically. He’s a minister who has lost God but finds his fellow man.

MS: How much research did you have to do to write about the details of daily life in Union Grove? They’ve gone back to a lot of what I always think of as the Little House on the Prairie practices. Also, do you think people will really be able to function as well in a non-machine age?

JHK: Oh, I dug out the usual manuals of self-sufficiency and gardening and my girlfriend was a horse owner and she was hanging out with the ox, mule, and draft horse crowd, so I picked up some useful information around that. I hasten to add that I am not myself anything close to being an expert—or even competent—in these skills. But in writing a novel, one’s job is, so to speak, to construct a “script” for somebody to run a movie in their own head. You don’t have to furnish the reader with encyclopedic information to accomplish this. (Moby-Dick might have been a more successful book if old Herman held back some of those didactic chapters about butchering whales and rendering the blubber.) But I did think the reader needed a rich set of suggestions from me to bring out the sensual elements. For instance, I dwelt quite a bit on the cuisine of the “post-oil” age, partly because I am a good cook myself and interested in these matters, but also because it was a sure route to the reader’s sense-awareness. Mostly, World Made by Hand is an exercise in dramatic imagination. Personally, I am not what some might call “a survivalist”—I’m not hoarding brown rice in plastic tubs in the basement or acquiring an arsenal of firearms. I am an avid gardener.

MS: The social divisions revert back to the old ways–racial tension, a classist, almost feudal society, sexes back to old labor division. Do you really see society reverting back to these?

JHK: I do believe that a lot of the “progressive” social relations that are normal for us today will fall by the wayside as our society stumbles into broad and deep economic distress. Many of the supposed triumphs of feminism, for instance, are, in my opinion, a product not of “higher consciousness,” but simply of overcoming age-old division of labor issues via the cheap and abundant energy supplies we enjoyed during the twentieth century and a little beyond it. We’ll look back on that as a kind of odd luxury, I think. In World Made by Hand, however, none of the characters complain about the new disposition of those things. The corporate milieu no longer exists, so nobody’s concerned about the “glass ceiling” or hiring policies. They’re too busy surviving, and they’re all working within their obvious strengths and competencies. As for race relations, there are references to conflict in other parts of the country, but the news is so sparse that we don’t get a whole lot of detail about it. While I think there is plenty of potential for ethnic conflict in an unraveling USA—and I said so plainly in The Long Emergency—I didn’t see any benefit in dragging that onto center stage in World Made by Hand. Anyway, there’s plenty of conflict between the various local groups depicted in the story—the townspeople of Union Grove, the New Faithers, the crypto-feudal denizens of Stephen Bullock’s plantation, the lowlifes led by Wayne Karp of Karptown, who run the old town dump for salvage, and the gangsters who surround Dan Curry, boss of the Albany docks.

MS: The several factions that you mention above, are they archetypes? You’ve got Stephen Bullock’s peaceful yet rigid society, the chaos of Karptown, the more organized gangsters of Dan Curry in Albany, the religious folk of the New Faith, and the townspeople of Union Grove. Do you think that people will be able to survive at all on their own? It seems necessary for people to gather together in any way possible in order to survive. Is this how you see people reacting in the future?

JHK: The various groups are self-selecting factions. Wayne Karp’s followers are the lowlifes, petty criminals, and motor heads who have gravitated to each other by their predilection for trashy things (and it is no accident that their chief business is excavating the old town dump). Their community is not portrayed as “chaotic,” by the way—Wayne correctly states that he “rules with an iron got-damn fist”—but you sense that without him in charge, his tribe of followers would tend to act without a great deal of impulse control, shall we say. The people around the gangster Dan Curry are clearly in it to benefit from the order he imposes on the Albany docks (which is the city’s sole remaining center of business). The people who live and work on Bullock’s plantation are portrayed as having “sold their allegiance for security”—in other words, they’re little more than landed peasants now, living under the rule of a rather benign feudal lord. The New Faithers have their obvious attractions to the Jesus myth and the security afforded by Brother Jobe’s charismatic competence. And so on. It is only the townspeople of Union Grove who are left without any obvious reasons for mutual allegiance other than the geographical happenstance of them occupying what remains physically of the town. They are the only group depicted in the book who are utterly bereft of authority, and suffering from it. As the one who created them in an imaginative exercise, I feel that they have an awful lot yet to work out in the years ahead.

MS: Death is more commonplace in your book. People die from basic diseases and also from violence more often. Today, in America at least, we don’t lose people that often. Do you think that the end of oil will bring society’s numbers back down in some sort of Malthusian episode?

JHK: Oh gosh, the America of our time is hugely violent. For starters, we have the forty-five-thousand odd souls killed in traffic accidents every year—almost as many as died in the Vietnam War from 1963 to 1975!!!—and this doesn’t count the ones who survive the car crashes who live on merely maimed and brain damaged. For the past year we’ve had a spate of campus shootings, including the one with the highest death toll to date, at Virginia Polytech, and one just last week over at Northern Illinois University. Drug gang violence is going strong in L.A., Miami, and many other metroplexes. The sheer demeanor of everyday people is startlingly bellicose (you should see the tattooed, Road Warrior-looking freaks at my local small-town gym!). The nightly cable news is a veritable Grand Guignol of savagery (and that doesn’t even include what happens overseas, in Iraq and Afghanistan). The violence in World Made by Hand pales in comparison and scale. But what’s a bigger problem is the absence of the rule of law. At the center of all the incidents in the story is the fact that authority is no longer present. The police and the courts are not operating. The government is a memory. Nobody knows who to turn to when something bad happens. The restoration of authority—and of order and justice—is what concerns many of the characters most. Now, the question, what do I expect to happen demographically in “real life” is somewhat separate (and academic). I think it’s self-evident that Spaceship Earth (as we used to call it so quaintly) won’t support the current crew of 6.5 billion. In World Made by Hand, epidemic disease has enforced a powerful rate of attrition. Between that and the other “usual suspects”—war and famine—the population has collapsed by better than half. Medical care is not what it used to be. The doctor lacks antibiotics and advanced anesthesia. Life is fragile.

MS: Are you optimistic about new alternative-fuel technologies? Sales of solar panels are on the rise, more people are moving to smaller cars, biodiesel, composting, etc. At the very least, people are thinking about the impact of oil. Do you think oil is already on the way out and we’re just kidding ourselves? Or do you think we could avert some sort of big disaster by moving away from our oil independence?

JHK: I tell college lecture audiences that we will be hugely disappointed in what so-called alt.energy can do for us. Across the nation right now, a delusion reigns broadly that some mythical “they” will “come up with new technologies” that will allow us to run Wal-Mart, Disney World, and the interstate highway system by other means than oil. Ain’t gonna happen. The popular political war-cry for “oil independence” is a companion delusion. There’s a lot we can do to get our collective act together, but we’re not going to run Phoenix on ethanol, solar, wind, and used french-fry oil. There’s a lot of confusion out there aggravating the wishful thinking. People think that energy and technology are interchangeable, substitutable—if you run out of one, just plug in the other. We’re about to find out the hard way that that isn’t so. There’s no question that oil is on the way out. On top of the sheer geological limits to a finite resource, there are new geopolitical sub-plots developing that will aggravate the situation hugely, for instance the only-recently-recognized oil export predicament and the new oil nationalism—topics perhaps too complex to get into here. The bottom line of all this is that the basis for civilized life as we’ve known—cruisin’ for burgers in the good ole USA—is about to wobble. At the very least, we’d better prepare to live a lot more locally and self-sufficiently so—and by this I mean in the community sense.

MS: I want to ask about the title World Made by Hand. How did you come up with that? I see it as sort of a double entendre. In the book, the people must create everything by hand now that the machine age is over. At the same time, the current world was made by the hands of man with the misuse of oil. Is that accurate?

JHK: Well, you’ve kind of got it. On the one hand (no pun intended) there’s the line from that old American gospel song I use in the epigraph about God’s holy city—“. . . and it’s not (oh, no it’s not) not made by hand. . . .” And then there’s the apparent situation in the book that the townspeople of Union Grove have been left both without the comfort of belief in God, and faced with the task of keeping their world going absolutely by hand. Whatever the make of their little corner of the world, Washington County, New York, will be a world made by hand.

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