The critical and commercial success of The Road casts a long shadow over the fiction that follows it – not so much in Cormac McCarthy's technical or emotional accomplishments, but in its vision of a post-apocalyptic America. Setting any story in a similar terrain cannot help but invite comparisons with those blasted landscapes. And while Steven Amsterdam's Things We Didn't See Coming is in places original, insightful and bleakly romantic, it cannot quite escape the spectre of such a celebrated precursor.
A novel in stories, Things We Didn't See Coming takes the arresting premise that the fears and paranoia around YK were, in fact, realised. In the opening story, the narrator describes the move from the city to the country, his father's predictions of apocalypse indulged by his family rather than believed. The familial tensions are wonderfully teased out, the menace of the gathering storm subtly implied, a moment of moral panic deftly judged.
In understated prose, Amsterdam traces the narrator's life from his teens to his forties, through the wastelands of a world suddenly deranged and despoiled. From the rain-lashed countryside, where wild animals and nature itself are mortal enemies, to the barricaded cities where black-market dealing and scavenging keep the citizens alive, we see a man adrift physically and ethically: part survivalist, part moralist. It makes for an engaging, occasionally infuriating character – attuned to both raw beauty and spiritual ugliness.
Among these stories there are clear stand-outs. "The Theft That Got Me Here" is a tautly written tale of escape, marital love and homecoming; "Dry Land", in which a drunk mother and her 17-year-old daughter reach a harrowing crossroads, is tender, brutal, and unnerving; while "Predisposed" features a teenager who is treated as a god but is full of bile and bemusement. These stories deal with the facts of living even though the world outside seems to be dying.
Yet there are too many others that don't quite convince, and Amsterdam's talent for voice and telling detail feels somewhat thrown away on sketchy political plots and pointless ménages-à-trois. Still, there is much here that points to a bright future, suggesting that Cormac McCarthy no longer has exclusive rights on this territory.