Alabamians may not be aware of it, but in Gadsden and Huntsville live two women, Linda Howard and Linda Jones, who have written 50 novels and 72 novels, respectively, and collaborated on five more. Their novels are “New York Times” and “USA Today” best-sellers. The total number of copies sold is nearly incalculable.
These are romance novels, or more specifically in this case, romantic suspense, often a kind of gentle thriller, but with a powerful love interest.
In “After Sundown” the time is now. The scene is Wears Valley, Tennessee, Sevier County, east of Knoxville.
On Cove Mountain, in a fairly isolated cabin, lives Ben Jernigan. Jernigan has served multiple tours in America’s wars, seen a lot of combat, watched a lot of men die, and wishes to be alone. He’s had little human contact for years.
In the valley, Sela Gordon lives alone, still unsteady and traumatized by her divorce. Her husband, Adam, had made it clear she was not “enough” for him. She was too timid, unwilling to take chances, live a more exciting life.
Once we have met these two, the reader knows what must happen — and it will happen — with 300 pages of literary foreplay: Sam and Diane in Tennessee.
Ben learns from an old buddy that there is about to be a massive CME, a coronal mass ejection — a solar storm — which will cause a worldwide catastrophe. Satellites will be fried. Almost all power grids will go down. It is possible that 90% of humanity will die of starvation and/or violence.
Like the radioactive cloud in “On the Beach” circling the world, headed for Australia, this catastrophe will hit the world as it turns to face the sun — first in the Far East, then the Middle East, then Europe, then North America.
The disaster will last a year or more. In this novel the sun “calls the shots” just as the virus does today.
Jernigan has a few scant hours to prepare but he already has solar panels, solar water heating, guns for hunting, a ham radio, and a year’s worth of food hidden away.
But there is Sela, in the valley. Jernigan tips her off so she can prepare a little, with her aunt and cousin.
It is already September. We watch and learn as people can vegetables, smoke any meat they have, cut wood for winter heat. Jernigan helps.
It brings out the best in most of them. Interestingly to me, the valley people will share with each other but not with outsiders. The city of Knoxville, for example, is not in their orbit. It seems a kind of natural tribalism pops up. They organize patrols to spot dangerous marauders from the flatlands.
By October, they have done what they can. Folks who used to sit at home watching TV now walk or bicycle. A new social pattern emerges. Afternoons, neighbors meet in the middle of the road with perfect safety because there is no traffic. They bring folding chairs, talk, play the guitar, sing. “There was more to survival than food and water. People need people, a sense of community.”
In our present condition, mitigating the virus, staying home, we have heat and food and TV. It is socializing, human conversation and touch that we miss so keenly.
In this new cultural moment, both Sela and Ben need human intimacy more than they have for years. Sela especially notices Ben’s physique.
Truckloads of ink have been spent on excoriating the “male gaze” — the way in which male authors and characters objectify women. That table is fully turned here.
Sela notices: “His arms were thick and roped, decorated with a few tattoos, his hands scarred. . ..” Discussing Ben, Sela and her aunt call him “Hottie McStud” and “Hot Buns Steelbody.”
He doesn’t seem to be offended, and he notices her physical presence very powerfully also.
The two lust powerfully for one another and finally achieve liftoff.
The sex is steamier, more explicit than I had anticipated. Not X-rated, maybe, but close.
But “After Sundown” is also filled with action, violence, blood and death — as much as many thrillers.
Most residents are good folks, but some are meth heads, creeps, violent and selfish. Sela and the good folks must fight for their lives.
And “After Sundown” is compulsively readable. I can imagine reading it all night long.
The style is fluid, transparent, one might say, calling no attention to itself, just moving the action forward, faster and faster.
Reading Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man” one might stop to learn what Stephen Daedalus means by “the ineluctable modality of the visible.”
In Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom,” one might pause to look up an unknown word or marvel at the sentences two and three hundred words long. Or in Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” when Nick, telling us how Gatsby, after years of separation and longing , finally reunites with Daisy says: “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault,” but because “No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
Is this a complaint about books like “After Sundown”?
Superior commercial fiction like “After Sundown” is diverting and immediately pleasing. I think it is the potato chip of literature, finally. You can eat a lot of them but there is little valuable nutrition.
It’s fun though.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.