Earlier this year I expressed the need to stop reading manifestos. This time it’s dystopias that have drawn my ire: I think I’ll take a break on these too. Salvation City, a novel by Sigrid Nunez, is no duller than some of the other post-apocalyptic books I’ve read in the past few years. It’s also not particularly memorable.
Cole Vining is a thirteen-year-old orphan whose atheist parents died in a flu epidemic. The atheist bit matters, in this case, since so much of the narrative is focused on the conflicting identities of the young protagonist, as the storytelling jumps back and forth in time to pull all the strings together. Following his parents’ death, and after spending time in an orphanage known as Here Be Hope, young Cole was then delivered to the rural Indiana home of Pastor Wyatt and his wife Tracy, in a place called Salvation City.
The kindly clergyman — who, Cole notes ambivalently, “always looks right into the face of the person he is talking to” — and his spouse are devout, fundamentalist Christians, and their peculiar lifestyle is frequently juxtaposed against Cole’s earlier years under the emotionally fraught relationship of his irreligious parents. In Salvation City, and I refer here both to the book and to the town, the question is raised as to what exactly constitutes a rescue from tragedy, if not throwing into doubt the very nature of tragedy itself.
For Cole’s mother, Serena, even those neighbors who had opened their doors for assistance, as the flu swept through cities and towns, were deserving of the utmost suspicion: “But they were Jesus freaks, his mother said, and she didn’t want to get involved with them. ‘I mean, these people are actually happy about this catastrophe. They think any day now they’re going to be sucked up to heaven.'” Her twin sister, Addy, in an attempt to reclaim Cole from his new home following Serena’s death, expresses much the same sentiments: “‘These fanatics will use religion to justify anything — especially the ones who believe in the imminent rapture. You do understand, don’t you? That’s what these monsters were counting on? The Messiah was supposed to show up before I did.'”
Cole sees things somewhat differently. As he contemplates looming adulthood (from the wide-eyed vantage point experienced uniquely by young teens) and his adoptive father claims divine guidance in trying to persuade him to stay, Cole wonders: why “didn’t Jesus send a message to him and Addy, too? Wouldn’t that have helped them all?”
Sigrid Nunez leaves many questions such as this one open-ended, a seeming mockery of faith that becomes less flippant upon closer observation. Salvation City dwells on choices and asks, implicitly, the important question of what makes a home. But, as often befalls works of fiction whose circumstances require a great leap of imagination, the elusive answers never seem as important as the author intended them to be, and an apathetic reader is the disappointing consequence.