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Snakeskin Road
James Braziel
Bantam Books, 336 pages

Snakeskin Road
James Braziel
James Braziel's short fiction has appeared in over a dozen literary journals, including the Berkeley Fiction Review and the Chattahoochie Review. His poetry has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and he was the recipient of the Individual Artist Grant from the Georgia Council for the Arts. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.

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A review by Greg L. Johnson

The future's not pretty. That's the inescapable lesson to be found in Snakeskin Road by James Braziel, a gritty, bleak look at a near-future United States torn apart by a collapsing ecology. That collapse is most notably seen in the desert that has made the Southwest uninhabitable and is spreading east across the southern U.S., or what's left of it.

We are introduced to this world through the eyes of Jennifer Harrison, a young woman who has decided it's time to get out of the desert, but it's too late. The system has broken down, and Jennifer finds herself stranded without her husband, a refugee with no way out. She also finds herself entrusted with the care of a teen-age girl. Jennifer's struggle to get herself and her charge to the safety of her mother's home in Chicago is the heart of the story in Snakeskin Road.

Aside from its near-future setting and a few references to implanted cell phones, there is not much about Snakeskin Road that marks it as a speculative novel. What's compelling is the depiction of characters pushed to their limit, still finding a way to survive, and grabbing on to whatever hope they can find. That sentiment shines most brightly in Jennifer's letters home, and in her refusal to let her mother see just how desperate her situation is. That's a kind of courage, and it's Jennifer's courage that give Snakeskin Road its few bright spots.

While the novel's relentlessly pessimistic story can a bit wearying at times, the main fault with Snakeskin Road is a character introduced near the end who functions as a kind of reverse deus ex machina, nothing good can come of his presence. it's not so much that the ending should be different, it's certainly true to the novel's overall vision, but the introduction of a new character is a contrivance that wasn't necessary, there was already plenty there to establish how Jennifer's story had to end.

There's been a recent surge in post-apocalyptic novels, and Snakeskin Road fits right in. The doomsday scenarios envisioned this time around generally have more to do with climate change and environmental collapse than nuclear annihilation, but they often feature the same scenarios of life for the surviving few amidst the devastation of the past. The approach can range from the seriousness of Cormac McCarthy's The Road to more comic novels like Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World. Snakeskin Road more resembles the former in its depiction of society after a collapsed civilization, but Braziel brings his characters to life enough for his vision of a dying landscape peopled with desperate survivors searching for a way home to succeed on its own terms.

Copyright © 2010 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L Johnson recently finds himself pondering the various incarnations of road stories, from yellow brick to roads to the stars in fantasy and science fiction. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, for something different, Greg blogs about news and politics relating to outdoors issues and the environment at Thinking Outside.

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