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Kevin Shay | The End As I Know It (Doubleday)

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endOur hero, Randall, is pathetic in the literary sense. We all know better. Every action is tinged with this awkwardness as we see him flail as an effigy of ourselves just seven years ago.






A confession: My parents most likely still have ketchup and canned goods stored in a cellar somewhere from Y2K. We had a wood stove, gold, and enough bad information for a State of the Union address. So reading The End as I Know It is not an altogether comfortable enterprise. Subtitled "A Novel of Millenial Anxiety," the novel recounts one zealot's unbalanced upswing into the new millennium, stumbling across the country to alert those closest to him of the impending disaster. Author Kevin Shay drafts the humorous take on the scenario, playing on the wink and nod dramatic irony of a not-so-distant past. Thing is, we know how this ends. Y2K felt like a bad joke, and here it is repeated. Our hero, Randall, is pathetic in the literary sense. We all know better. Every action is tinged with this awkwardness as we see him flail as an effigy of ourselves just seven years ago.

The End as I Know It teems with memorable vignettes. The paradox is that Shay does too good of a job creating a character that we are attached to for us to be completely comfortable watching him mocked. Each destination finds Randall overcome with failure. Overwrought passages recounting his outrage that these people just don't get it recur, again and again. While proselytizing an old college acquaintance at a pizza joint, he explodes into, "You fools, you absolute fools. Not one of you has the slightest idea what's about to come down on you. I want to get up and shake each of you by the shoulders, slap you into awareness. What are you all talking about? Wake up, for Christ's sake! Time is running out! And you wish you'd gotten ham and pineapple?" He imitates the time just enough to make it utterly ridiculous. He has momentary compassion on the character, but not on the culture that created him.

As with any historical fiction, the winner rewrites the past how they best see fit. What one side calls Y2K, another calls An Inconvenient Truth. We would be better off to mock neither, since they are actually quite close bedfellows. Shay is going against the first rule of writing workshops everywhere: write what you know. Shay is writing what he laughs at and misunderstands. The fear that was real is bent into paranoia, neuropathy. One of the fellow paranoiacs turns himself blue (literally, the color blue) by eating "colloidal silver" to combat an airborne mind control drug released by the military. The scene reads as a symptom of Shay's inability to resist the easy joke. I laughed throughout, but it was a hollow laughter.

Shay knows how to tell a story, to keep the reader engaged. He has a great ear for dialogue, picking up the idiosyncrasies of a dozen cultural subsets, but ultimately falters when attempting to bring these sentences into a Statement. The unavoidably cruel dramatic irony frames every image. The best he can do is keep us laughing to crowd out the flatness this concept novel necessarily incurs. The end comes with a dashed-off moral of reproof for all the doomsdayers: we lose out on life in the rush to end the world. By the end of the novel, Randall does not come to the conclusion that it is all a hoax, but that he should enjoy the world around him before it ends. Many more novels could be written about this strange time in our modern history. Let's hope one of them has something to say. | James McAnally

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