Sunshine State, By James Miller

Struggling under cover of Darkness

Peter Carty
Tuesday 06 April 2010 00:00
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James Miller's debut novel, Lost Boys, was a story about youths running away to join a global insurrection with mystic anti-Western overtones. This time he presents us with another disturbing near-future, in which the US is torn apart between the forces of the militant Christian right and mounting climate-change disaster.

Across the land, vigilante Christian bands of Witch Hunters and Klansmen are punishing immorality with ruthless force on behalf of their evangelical president. Meanwhile, it seems Hurricane Katrina was only the tame precursor of terrifying storms, "great sky-stalking tarantulas of destruction, symptoms of a feverish planetary rage". A devastated Florida has become the Storm Zone, abandoned to groups of outlaws and outcasts.

The Zone's latest renegade is the shadowy Kalat, a former British secret agent who has become a messianic figure at the head of a paramilitary army. Kalat's one-time colleague and brother-in-law, Mark Burrows, is sent into the Zone after him.

Clearly, this is a novel of compelling imagination. It is also a literary thriller which simmers with energy, powering a bristling narrative. The difficulties arise with the style, because Miller does not wear his learning lightly, and the novel threatens to buckle under the load. Quotations from Milton's Paradise Lost and Conrad's Heart of Darkness follow close upon the title page; Kalat's speeches owe much to Milton's Satan, while Burrows's journey through Florida's swamps strongly evokes the voyage towards Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

It can be argued that these obtrusive influences merely situate the novel in a respectable post-modern niche. The feverish atmosphere, moreover, is in substantial part the result of his prolonged delirium of derivative writing. The practical problem is that while his mimesis are technically outstanding, the novel contains so many overwrought passages. Nonetheless, its chilling dystopian vision and sinewy plotting are generous compensations.

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