The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering
I got a copy of The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering by Jeffrey Rotter from Henry Holt and Company, and was at first wildly diverted by the details of the near-future America after some kind of civilization-ending event has occurred (present-day American leaders are referred to as “gunts” which is probably not a word you want to look up, as I discovered, and if you do, it won’t tell you anything about the way the word is used in this novel).
The neologism place names broadcast the strangeness. Characters talk about Canaday geese, a Caribeen brogue, and Old Miamy, which is right down the road from Hiya City, “a geriatric stronghold” in Floriday. Later they find “Cape Cannibal” and a rocket ship, which they don’t really believe can penetrate the “night glass” that shows them the stars.
The description of modern life—which reminds me a bit of the picture book Motel of the Mysteries—is the main delight of the first third of the novel. The narrator likes history, he says, and likes to parrot what he’s learned on tours of the “Old Miamy Ruins” because “it is a comfort to know how swiftly and thoroughly a civilization can crumble when nobody wants it anymore.” The highlight of the tour is a place the narrator–who we finally find out is named Rowan–knows only as Pork and Beans:
“This was a gated housing compound built by the famed Commie Gunt called Roserfelt. He was a Chief in his own way, stinky rich and hitched up to the finest families, but old Roserfelt had a deviant attachment to the poor. It may have been sexual. He wanted to see them pampered and put up like sultans, so he gave them Pork & Beans. He gave them police and water at no extra charge. Men addicted to drugs and women hooked on pregnancy got free sirloin and sedans and potable water. Swimming pools, in-unit toilets, a doctor that made house calls in a hi-tech van: Pork & Beans was paradise for do-nothings.”
Rowan’s view of the ruins of a zoo are also enlightening:
“Beyond this gate…citizens would pay a tithe to gigantic rats, long-neck horses in pokey-dots, and virus monkeys. Excited with sugar drinks, children gave in to the rapturous worship of beasts.”
Because Rowan, his brother Faron, and his “Pop” have no impulse control, they get into trouble with the law, and the only way the mother, “Umma,” can get them out of it is to sign them all up to train for and test the Orion rocket, one that was found underground in the ruins of Cape Cannibal. This is possible because
“at the end of their run the Astronomers anticipated a brief exile before Gunt rule was restored. They buried the Orion until such time as it could be safely retrieved. In the case, however, that their learning did not survive the intervening age, they left behind detailed instructions. They prefabbed every piece of hardware and automated the guidance system so that even barbarians like ourselves could use their antiques.”
After their parents lose faith in the project and each other (Umma commits suicide and Pop gets himself run over and mutilated until he’s like a villain from a Carl Hiaasen novel, one who keeps coming even though he’s been gravely wounded and has a crab clinging to where his hand used to be, or something), Rowan agrees to blast the rocket off with his brother and the divine Sylvia in it, a girl they both love but who seems to reciprocate only Faron’s affection. He does this, and then the novel turns into the story of how he is on the run, all over this futuristic U.S.
Rowan’s running also turns out to be the story of how he came to be traveling with his daughter, who he calls Sylvia. It seems that he might be trying to pass along to her a few warnings about impulse control, as he says things along the way like “you think you can go fugitive forever, but they don’t tell you about the blisters” and “after what had happened to my own family, I could not be trusted with another.” Still, the last half of the novel is mostly a series of unpremeditated events, bleak and with no obvious point.
The end of Rowan’s journey, however, turns out to be an abandoned observatory in Chile (“Chilly”) where he has set up camp, hoping to get a signal from Faron and Sylvia that they have landed on Europa. It’s a nice blend of the bleak with the whimsical, as all the best parts of this novel are.
Overall, I’m glad I read it, although I could have used a little more whimsical to leaven the bleakness of Rowan’s tour of the futuristic U.S. Perhaps he has to hit those low points, though, to be able to finally bring up his daughter on the “Star Track, a switchback trail the Astronomers used for long contemplative hikes. The stones along the path are etched with alien images, of stretch-neck horses like they kept at Zoo Miamy, of human figures with multiple eyes and radiating heads, chiseled gray astronauts. You call them your ‘rock guys.’ They wave hello from the past, hello to Little Sylvia. You always wave back.”