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Snakeskin Road

By: James Braziel
Reviewed by: Andrew McNamara
Bantam, 2009
$15, Paperback

Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

At once the recognizable inscription marking the entrance gate of hell in the Inferno, Dante’s warning is equally appropriate for the apocalyptic vision of America depicted in James Braziel’s haunting new novel Snakeskin Road. Set in 2044, Braziel’s dystopian world is plagued by government corruption, and the southern United States—or more appropriately, what’s left of it—is ravaged by harsh, inhospitable deserts created by gaping holes in the earth’s ozone layer. As if that wasn’t enough, the government controls access to and from the aptly named Southeastern Desert, receding and redrawing the border between the desert and the "saved world" as the vast wasteland slowly eats its way north.

Caught in the midst of the rampant death and decay, Jennifer Harrison’s only ticket out of Birmingham, Alabama—at one time the last gateway to the "saved world"—is through indentured servitude. She leaves behind the only life she’s ever known, one marked by an austere living in bleak desert camp towns, where the only working life most know—including her husband—is deep within government controlled clay mines and labor camps. Along with her unborn child and Mazy, a teenage refugee left in her care, Jennifer begins the arduous journey along Snakeskin Road, the series of obscured roads and backwoods passages employed by smugglers dealing in human trafficking, in hopes that—after her contract expires—she’ll reach Chicago, one of the remaining autonomous, fortified city-states, and ultimately her freedom.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire—the climate and surroundings quickly change for Jennifer and those in her care, but the outlook in the Midwestern "free" territory is as corrupt and unwelcoming as the desert she leaves behind. The roads through the area are dangerous and dominated by roaming gangs, feuding farmers, ruthless bounty hunters, and black market profiteers dealing in organ and human trafficking. The terrain is littered with casinos, brothels, and ghost and shanty towns, and high stakes gang violence runs rampant through the area, constructing a disheartening gauntlet between Jennifer and her ultimate goal of freedom.

Braziel’s harrowing tale is not for the faint of heart, and a gripping sense of urgency is present from the onset, continuously driving the narrative forward. Each page displays Braziel’s ability to carefully craft characters who are at once as authentic and multidimensional as they are distinctive. The narrative’s point of view continuously jumps back and forth, providing keen character insights through Jennifer’s letters to her mother and husband, and the first person narration of Rosser, the obsessively opportunistic bounty hunter set on a payday at the expense of both Jennifer and Mazy’s freedom. Braziel’s prose is urgent, immediate, and at times whisper-thin and elegant, elevating his depictions of death, destruction, and poverty to ephemeral heights before crashing down just as quickly into the ever-present despair coursing through the pages.

One aspect notably missing from Snakeskin Road that is a staple of most futuristic dystopian works is the presence of a back story. No explanation as to how or why the government becomes so oppressive and corrupt is offered, and neither is any elucidation given into the causes of the damage to the ozone layer—an important factor to the novel’s setting, the desert. Braziel misses a golden opportunity to properly ground the narrative in his own rich, fictional history and provide the novel with a significant layer of added depth.

Despite this drawback, Braziel’s efforts are successful, and he’s blended elements of apocalyptic and southern gothic literature to brand his own unique style of fiction. Braziel creatively utilizes grim subject matter and strong characterization to explore the depths and nature of death, despair, desperation, and the preservation of hope in a seemingly hopeless world. Nov 2009

Andrew McNamara is a writer and editor living in Montgomery.

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