In the Talking Heads song “(Nothing but) Flowers” David Byrne playfully laments a world overtaken by nature: “This used to be real estate,” he sings. “Now it’s only fields and trees.” That is pretty much the world that C.A. Fletcher (a pen name of Charlie Fletcher, author of the children’s fantasy Stoneheart and the adult magical thriller The Oversight) shows us in A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, though there is little playful about the post-apocalyptic world he imagines. Nature has reclaimed our planet, yes, but only because, 100 years before the book begins, most of humanity died off.
The reason for humanity’s decline is chalked up to a “soft apocalypse”—a modern day global event of unknown origin that rendered the vast majority of the population unable to reproduce. This spontaneous outbreak of mass infertility was eventually dubbed “The Gelding.” The human race slowly aged into near-oblivion, leaving only small pockets of fertile survivors—less than .0001% of the world’s population now remains, struggling to build families and survive in a rustic new world in which most technology has become ancient history.
All is relatively right in the world for young narrator Griz, a child of this new epoch. He and his family—mom, dad, a couple of sisters—live a somewhat self-contained lifestyle on a rocky island off the coast of Scotland, surviving thanks to a little farming, tending to sheep and horses, and the occasional forage off-island to “go a-Viking” for supplies. Their precarious but happy existence is through off kilter when a roguish traveler named Brand, full of stories and braggadocio about the outside world, makes landfall on their island. The visit does not end well, and by the time Brand sets sail again, he has claimed, among other things, possession of one of Griz’s two dogs.
But you just don’t separate a boy from his dog, apocalypse be damned.
That’s the setup for the main arc of this lightly fantastical tale. Griz heads out to parts unknown with his remaining dog Jip, hoping to track Brand (and his flamboyant red-sailed ship) across the sea to the lands beyond and reclaim his loyal pup. It’s a noble and headstrong act, but anyone who has ever experienced the immutable and undeniable human-dog bond will more than relate to the boy’s blind determination. It’s sweet, daring, and perhaps not completely thought out, as what’s left of the inhabited world—as sparsely populated as it is—can still be a dangerous place for a boy and his dog.
While the search for Jess the dog motivates Fletcher’s tale, there is much more going on in the story, and it is in these moments where the novel truly connects emotionally, above and beyond the universality of a master’s love for their dog. As our narrator, Griz recites/dictates/explains—often in bluntly honest terms—all he experiences in his post-Gelding world in a monologue spoken to a long-dead boy in an old photo he’d discovered on one of the family’s exploratory adventures long ago. The boy in the photo—taken well before things went south, apocalyptically speaking—provides a touching thematic bridge to a past Griz has never known. As the boy wanders the nature-reclaimed countryside, Fletcher shares, through the innocent eyes of his narrator, rich glimmers and glimpses of what once was, and what it has become.
Books, naturally, survived The Gelding, and Griz has devoured hundreds of classics. Those tales bleed into his perception of the real world, and the references to A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Hobbit serve as a sort of gently comforting breaking of the fourth wall, a sense that a piece of the beauty we’ve created will endure into the future, whatever sort of mess we make of it. One particularly monumental work of nonfiction figures seamlessly in and impacts massively the story’s final pages, delivering a resounding punch that moved me to near tears. It is a wonderful thing – it truly is.
Tales of the apocalypse are commonplace these days, a symptom of our national anxiety, but Fletcher has managed to infuse his with real heart; he had me at a boy searching for his pilfered pooch. Long before the I reached the final page, I knew the book was a likely contender for “year’s best” status, and I have found myself going back to Griz’s world in my mind on more than one occasion since, usually as I walk my dog around my quiet, as-yet-unapocalyptic neighborhood. This is a story both achingly familiar at its most basic levels and daringly questioning at its deepest, and it’s all driven by (and for) the love of a dog.
If that doesn’t do it for you, then perhaps you need to get a dog.
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