Set in the barren hills of the countryside, this sinister dystopian novel is a compelling read that explores the power of words. When everyday life has been thrown to the wind and an existence rooted in violence and survival takes over, The Last Good Man is a gritty look at what happens when a community turns on itself.
The book begins by throwing us straight into this near-future wasteland when protagonist Ducan Peck leaves the flames of the burning city to be reunited with his cousin, James Hale. Arriving in the countryside, he finds the community enclosed within a wall, on which messages of accusation are written about the inhabitants. Far from empty threats, these sentences come with real ramifications – anyone who is accused of something on the wall is immediately punished, depending on the severity of the crime, their image suddenly changed in the eyes of the townsfolk. Initially, Peck is critical of this unjust and barbaric approach, but very quickly the paranoia and isolation of the setting consume him, and he sees himself succumbing to the grips of the village.
The cause of the downfall of humanity is never explicitly addressed – instead, we’re thrust into this apocalyptic world and given hints into the state of society. There are very few animals, for one, and the constant underlying threat of violence and general unrest. The city – from where Peck has traveled – is engulfed in flames, though we’re not sure why. While there are examples of normality – children (though few in numbers) are going to school, there are some traditional jobs, as well as cafes, leisure activities, etc. – these are tarnished with a sinister feel, a sense of simply getting by amidst the chaos.
McMullan doesn’t need to give a great deal of backstory to the setting; by starting the book with Peck arriving in the village, we’re able to uncover how society functions in a more natural way. The bleakness of the environment – particularly the surrounding hills – is so delicately described that it’s almost suffocating.
“The name left somewhere in the wood. Fallen out of a trouser pocket as they’d lugged the corpse through the dark.”
Even when the accused attempt to run in the wild, we’re made to feel like escaping is futile and any glimmers of freedom shortlived. Despite the vast openness of the area, they are trapped, consumed by a new hierarchical order that is embedded in dire accusations.
While Peck attempts to enlighten the village and promote tenderness, the deep-rooted attitudes of the community do little to change their minds. McMullan details the violent scenes with nuance, exploring the hints of beauty, chaos, and desperation within the actions. While it may be easy to judge the behaviour of the townsfolk, as we get deeper into the narrative it’s clear there is pain among all those involved. No one is safe from the judgement of the wall, and this paranoia drives many to adhere to uncomfortable practices and beliefs, despite logic.
“The way his throat shakes as he drinks the hot water reminds Peck of animal entrails throbbing under fur.”
Though perhaps there is a substance to the villagers’ methods; as were shown, once the less-seriously accused have completed their punishment – often involving breaking their bones and scarring their skin through carrying pieces of furniture, or spending time being pelted with rotting produce in the stocks – they are welcome back into the community with a fresh consideration, seemingly cleansed of their ‘crimes’.
The power of the wall contains the madness within, giving a loose order in a world where most things have fallen away. As anyone can be accused no one is (supposedly) above anyone, although it soon becomes evident that the promise of equality is not always as simple as it sounds.
Mourning what has been lost often drives the characters’ actions. Peck is still coming to terms with seeing his mother killed as a boy, and the reunion with Hale only exasperates this sadness. Charlotte, the wife of one of the accused, mourns the murder of her baby, said to have been committed by a family member, and attempts to keep her affair with Hale under wraps. After appearing on the wall, she too flees to the woodlands, this period of isolation providing a newfound clarity that feeds her strength and turns her into a formidable character.
With relationships fractured and livelihoods lost, the sadness of the village seeps out into their surroundings, thanks to the lyrical talents of McMullan. Even with the sun is shining in the countryside, the effect is muted by the barren loneliness that engulfs the novel, creating a darkness that intensifies as events come to a head.
The most gut-punching effect of The Last Good Man is the way McMullan places new importance on words. Each chapter begins with a fresh set of exclamations written on the wall, the villagers waking at dawn to see their fate. The metaphorical power of the statements guides the narrative, and we too become captivated by their strength. It is not until much later in the novel, when Charlotte wipes the paint of her own name outside the confines of the village, that we unearth the weak and fragile nature of the sentences. Physically, they are nothing – it is each other that the community should be conscious of, not the painted letters.
“He remembers the applause that came when he cut the rope binding Peter’s hands, and assures himself that people can get excited about mercy as much as cruelty, as long as a show is made of it.”
The Last Good Man is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.
Thomas McMullan is a writer, critic and journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Guardian, Observer, Times Literary Supplement, Frieze and BBC News, and has been published in 3:AM Magazine, Lighthouse and Best British Short Stories. He has worked with visual artists, game studios and theatre companies in London, Amsterdam, Beijing and Los Angeles. He lives in London.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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