Haw | Sean Jackson | Harvard Square Editons | June 2015 | ISBN: 978-1-941861-06-6 | $22.95
In the future, some literary critics will express wonder at the popularity of the dystopian novel in the early twenty first century. Why, they will wonder, would readers in a world beset by global warming, economies that tilt on the verge of ruin, a series of small wars, and religious and political extremism of all stripes want to read about the collapse of society? Perhaps for some, the fracturing of society is an inevitable outcome of the course we seem set upon now. Perhaps for other readers it is a comfort to believe that however bad things might be, they are not yet this bad.
However, Haw, Sean Jackson’s debut novel, alerts readers to what might be if these conditions are allowed to continue unchecked. The characters who populate Haw live in what remains of Raleigh, North Carolina, but not a Raleigh current residents would recognize. Pollution, a stratified class system—the very wealthy are known as the Hidden, the very poor are called citoyens—and indifferent policing have created a city as toxic as the pollutants that make the water undrinkable, the air all but unbreathable. For those in the middle, like Lucas, the book’s protagonist, and his son Orel, life is an unending struggle to achieve a semblance of normalcy without being assaulted, robbed or killed. “Crime is always in a state of flux,” Jackson writes as Lucas and his son secure themselves in their home for the evening. “But of late it is spiking terribly.” The pollution in the atmosphere has not only poisoned the city’s most vulnerable inhabitants physically, but mentally as well.
Lucas works for Water Purification, a department in which “there is never any good news.” The damage done to the city’s environment is so far-reaching that a final collapse seems all but assured. In one section of the novel, we follow Lucas to the far west, which has become a wasteland. The deep south, as well, has been all but wiped out by contaminants and pollution. Lucas, troubled about his son’s precarious future in such a world, realizes that their only chance is to escape.
The counterpart to Lucas is Gail, who oversees Lucas’s department and other, less savory aspects of the government. For Gail, “Humanity always loses.” He is the cynical product of bureaucracy and the harsh climate humans have created for themselves. If Lucas is trying to maintain a notion of order amidst of the chaos of the society depicted in Haw, Gail thrives upon that same chaos. A pathology such as Gail’s requires constant conflict, so he is constantly on the hunt for an enemy. When Lucas takes his son and some salmon spawn saved long ago and flees for a rural community, he becomes Gail’s next target.
It would be an easy task to paint the world of Haw in simple primary colors, but Sean Jackson knows better than that. The rural retreat, centered around Bynum, North Carolina, is no less menacing in its fashion than the city. And, inevitably, the problems of the landscape and the malevolence of Gail and his cohorts make the retreat from the city no less dangerous than remaining in the city would have been. Lucas and Orel’s rural escape is both short lived and fraught with danger, forcing Lucas and Orel, along with Orel’s boyfriend Nico, into the city.
There is little room for contemplation in Haw. The characters are so caught up in meeting their immediate needs that they have little time to ponder their current circumstances. Even outside of the city, the need for constant vigilance keeps the settlers nervous even in the moments when one suspects they might relax. When Lucas and Orel leave the city for the country, most of the people they see, even children, are armed. As for Gail, he is not built for reflection and demonstrates no inclination to think about how he came to be the man he is or in of how the world in which he dwells has shaped him.
To heighten the razor edge upon which this world—which is our world after all–Jackson keeps the dialogue brief, the descriptions eloquent but short. Here is a short passage describing Lucas and Orel’s flight from the city: “They will zoom for a stretch, winding around back roads flanked by twisted hawthorn trees and glazed quartzite the size of tents, as Orel waves vaguely at children standing in fortified yards, rifles clutched to their sides.” This brevity and matter-of-factness serves the bleak story well and heightens the sense that these are men and women truly trapped in circumstances they do not understand or control, but must survive.
Yet this brevity works against the story in a way. It took longer than it should have to be pulled into Haw, partly because the back story is so thin. We are told of the death of Lucas’s wife only in passing and it takes a while to understand Gail’s malevolent influence over the entire proceedings. A few passages devoted to these things, perhaps a face to face encounter between Lucas and Gail early in the book, and the conflicts might have been much clearer.
But these are small quibbles in the face of a strong debut. Sean Jackson has written a strong and all-too-believable novel about the world we are busy making. I stand eager to read whatever comes next from Sean Jackson.
Sean Jackson has published numerous short stories in literary journals, from the U.S. to Canada and Australia. Haw is his debut novel. He was born in Raleigh, North Carolina. He lives in Cary, North Carolina.
Al Maginnes published ten collections of poems, most recently Music From Small Towns (Jacar Press, 2014), winner of the annual Jacar Press contest, and Inventing Constellations (Cherry Grove Collections, 2012).. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina and teaches at Wake Technical Community College.