If Cormac McCarthy’s brutal western Blood Meridian were set in the dystopian future of The Road and then translated into homespun sentences by Larry McMurtry, you’d approach Far North by Marcel Theroux.
Narrated by Makepeace, the constable of a barren, post-apocalyptic town in Siberia, this is a story about survival in a struggling world. A “broken age,” as Makepeace tells it, one in which human beings who are deprived of food and “unwatched” are rat cunning and will not just kill you, but will “come up with a hundred and one reasons why you deserve it.”
Makepeace is a natural prophet. A Gandhi with a gun who speaks practical benevolence like a wisecracking cowpoke. And when our hero espies something unbelievable from the past, it launches an arduous journey east. With two horses and the wits of a Tungus tribesman, Makepeace encounters the shrapnel of past communities and the shards of the worst of mankind.
Theroux has developed an original character with a voice true to someone living off the land, and he reveals the surprising history of Makepeace gradually and artfully. Just when you think you have a strong purchase on the introspective gunslinger, a modest descriptive bomb drops mid-sentence to put you back to square one. The plot is just as slippery. Chapter 3 turns the story on its ear and by chapter 6, the reader learns not to try to guess what’s going to happen next.
The horror of this damaged world is sewn with beautiful writing. When you exhale, “you’ll hear the ice crystals in your breath tinkling together, making the sound they call ‘the whisper of angels.’” When you cut ice blocks from the lake, they “sparkle in the lengthening yellow light, like outsize sugar candy, or pale blue Turkish delight dusted with powdered sugar.”
Far North investigates the meaning of our existence without braining us over the head with dense, big-picture pondering. Theroux writes simply via a simple narrator and the words that come out of Makepeace shock with their matter-of-fact observation. As Makepeace reflects, “Everyone expects to be at the end of something. What no one expects is to be at the end of everything.”