By now, we’re all well acquainted with the literary tropes of the post-apocalyptic novel. From The Stand to On the Beach to The Road, there’s a long shelf of end-of-days books giving us blasted landscapes, good and evil writ large, and every man struggling for survival. It’s stirring stuff that many of us—not to mention Hollywood and the videogame industry—can’t get enough of. But what about the pre-apocalyptic novel? Ron Currie, Jr.’s rambunctious, heartfelt Everything Matters! is a mostly winning entry in this much slimmer, less-explored genre. Deploying a lightly experimental structure, and an anything-goes approach to plotting, Currie, Jr. poses the question: What would you do if faced with the knowledge that the world is going to end with a comet hitting Earth on June 15, 2010, at 3:44 p.m. EST?
What would you do if faced with the knowledge that the world is going to end with a comet hitting Earth on June 15, 2010, at 3:44 p.m. EST?
If you’re John Thibodeaux, nicknamed Junior, a middle-class kid from Maine, you turn to drink and dabble in domestic terrorism as you grow up, eventually joining the CIA and building a spaceship to launch a lucky portion of humankind off the planet. Currie, Jr., who won the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award for his 2007 debut novel-in-stories God Is Dead, navigates his carnivalesque storyline with confidence, wisely balancing it with the ordinary, more-grounded drama of the Thibodeaux family. Junior’s father, mother, and brother may not know a deadly comet is speeding their way, but they have all-too-real problems (drink, drugs, cancer) of their own.
We start in the womb, where Junior first hears a mysterious voice: “First, enjoy this time!” it declares. “Never again will you bear so little responsibility for your own survival.” It’s the same voice that will reveal to Junior the comet’s due date—36 years hence, “a comet…from the Kuiper Belt near Neptune will impact the Earth with the explosive energy of 283,824,000 Hiroshima bombs”—and add that, armed with this knowledge, Junior’s role is to answer a doozy of a philosophical question: “Does Anything I Do Matter?”
Note the capitals. Alas, Currie, Jr. a little too forcefully works his novel’s existential theme. Thanks to the exclamatory title, Junior’s verdict is never in doubt—but it’s also not the most interesting thing going on here. Impending apocalypse or no, growing up is a tough business, especially when you have, as Junior and his brother Rodney do, a distant father with an angry streak, and a closet-alcoholic mother.
The early chapters of Everything Matters! are thus the novel’s best, offering an entertainingly cracked coming-of-age story. Junior’s older brother Rodney is a 9-year-old coke addict who emerges from adolescent rehab with a brain injury and an otherworldly talent for baseball. Meanwhile, Junior is still too young to fully absorb what he knows about the end of the world, but experiences a seizure at the sight of a nuclear explosion on TV, and glumly asks his first-grade teacher, “It’s so big, the world is so big, how can it be obliterated?”
A little later on, when Junior screws up the courage to tell his high-school girlfriend that their time on Earth is limited, her response is not what he’d hoped. It’s the beginning of Junior’s unraveling, an antic interval where he moves to Chicago, hits the bottle hard, and aids a would-be terrorist. The CIA picks him up, spirits him away to an ex-Soviet gulag, and persuades him to help them save the human race.
Little of Currie, Jr.’s rollercoaster plot seems probable (least of all “President Huckabee” announcing the grim news of the comet’s approach). Still, the novel’s final, surprising act has a poise and emotional resonance that serves as a counterbalance to what’s come before. Over the last 30-odd pages, with that omniscient voice still haunting Junior, counting down to zero, Currie, Jr. spins out an alternative, more-affecting version of the book’s second half. No CIA, no giant spaceships, just Junior and his girlfriend Amy getting married, settling down, having a startlingly precocious child and making a life for themselves. When the comet arrives, they band together and face apocalypse as a family. You knew it already, but this is a touching reminder; everything does matter, even—especially—at the end of the world.
Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel The Headmaster Ritual.