Thirst is an intense, stark thriller set in rural America which imagines a world without water, depicting a staggeringly convincing breakdown of society and order. Whilst the author Benjamin Warner is certainly to be praised for his prose style, which remains crisp and poetic throughout, Thirst does not quite successfully land the emotional ending it is striving towards.
The story begins when Eddie Chapman, track-star and businessman, decides to run home after a colossal pile up on one of the highways out of town. The sun is scorching. People are panicked and confused, having been stuck on the highway for hours without relief or movement. Soon, it is discovered that all the water in the reservoir has vanished along with the river and lakes. Only bottled water and liquids remain. The sense of urgency which imbues the narrative at this stage of the novel is drug-like in intensity. You are with Eddie when he decides, against all common sense, to leave his car in the jam resulting from the pile-up and run home. You feel his confusion and uncertainty and that of the people around him. A good storyteller has the ability to place you inside a world from the first sentence and this is what Benjamin Warner achieves. The prose-style is reminiscent of The Road though not quite so stripped down, retaining character names, places, punctuation.
The first half of Thirst is electrifying. If you can remember one of those events: a house setting on fire, an entire block of buildings losing power, where everyone comes out of their doors and starts socializing with complete strangers, then you have an idea of what Thirst is like. There is a vibrant energy in the air, a kind of fear-smell, people are ready to reach and close their doors at the same time. Benjamin Warner captures this in the anxious first act, showing the mounting panic and paranoia. Debates are held by the villagers, posing troubling questions: are fire teams coming rescue them? is there anywhere unaffected by the disappearance of the water? should they all pack and go to the city or is it worse there? It could almost be a prequel to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece, detailing what happened in the lead up to civilization coming to ashes.
Warner creates a world that is frighteningly real: full of charlatans trying to find ways of conning people out of their precious liquid and grim householders determined not to part with their ample supplies. There is a fascinating dynamic between Eddie and his wife Laura: Laura, obsessed with helping others and giving; Eddie, determined protect all that’s his and ensure their survival before anyone else’s. Their interactions with so-called friends become ever more problematic as the situation worsens, all supplies of liquid being used up. As events unfold which throw the couple into ever more desperate straits, Eddie and Laura’s pasts are unveiled, offering insight into their current behaviours. This is all handled effortlessly with startling and beautiful prose.
Where Thirst falls short of its mark, however, is in its second half. Once we leave behind the tense, paranoid environment of the small rural town in exchange for a journey-narrative, it starts to lose its way. A critical event happens around three quarters through the narrative and it feels like Warner lost inspiration as to how to go on from this point. Indeed, it is almost inconceivable Eddie, the protagonist we have been intimately following for 200+ pages, could go on after this event. It seems more plausible he would have lost his mind or that the event never would have transpired. In addition, whereas the earlier half of Thirst felt like it had been inspired by The Road, the latter feels derivative, not just resembling The Road styllistically but also in its narrative. Certain events lead to Eddie looking after a small boy and journeying towards an area believed to be safe from the drought. It even goes as far as the boy, Dylon, being referred to as ‘the boy’ for the majority of the narrative.
To ape The Road so directly is to invite comparison, and to have your prose held up against Cormac McCarthy’s is like pitting yourself against a five-time world champion wushu practitioner. I could not help thinking about how The Road’s conclusion gripped and moved me to a far greater extent. By the end of McCarthy’s masterpiece I was an emotional, tearful wreck, distraught, broken almost. The religious imagery is so powerful it shakes to the bone. Thirst attempts to emulate this but falls flat. This is partly because it lacks the beautiful religious dimension of McCarthy’s prose: the metaphors of carrying the fire, the sacrifice, the hope amidst absolute desolation. It is also due to the fact it is brazenly imitating: we’ve read man and boy going through dangerous woods towards some ineffable goal before. Thirst also introduces an element of uncertain reality into its narrative: the dehydration Eddie experiences causing him to have hallucinations. This is not resolved conclusively at the end and while a note of ambiguity would have been fine, as it stands, there is really no logical explanation for the incongruity of certain scenes. This confusion detracts from the impact of the final act as we try to puzzle out what’s going on rather than focus on the present action and imagery.
Thirst is short, dynamic and has some memorable moments. The opening is particularly strong in the way it portrays a transition period from civilization to societal breakdown. The ending is disappointing, but certainly does not break the immersion or destroy what has gone before. Thirst does an excellent job of winding up the tension throughout and because of this the reader anticipates something a little more emotionally cataclysmic than what actually transpires. It must be remembered Thirst is Benjamin Warner’s first book, and most writers imitate stylistically in the early stages of writing; even King admits to imitating Tolkien in his youth. Though Thirst does feel a little too close to The Road to entirely stand on its own, I look forward to Benjamin Warner’s future works which hopefully will showcase something more individual.
Thirst was published by Bloomsbury on 12th April 2016
Discover more about Bloomsbury Publishing here…
Review by Joseph Sale
Read more of Joseph Sale‘s reviews below:
BOOK REVIEW: Hidden People by Alison Littlewood.
MOVIE REVIEW: Arrival
CULTURE: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family by Ben Norris
Or check out Joseph’s Short Story ‘Soul Machina‘ here…
For more book reviews click here…