St. Paul author Alan DeNiro's debut novel is a truly wild ride that begins on Pike Island, wends its way through turmoil, chaos and anarchy down the Mississippi River to Nueva Roma -- a new city near New Orleans -- and back up to Lou, the present-day St. Louis. Our narrator is 16-year-old Macy Palmer, a mature, independent girl who travels with her parents, older sister and younger brother on a journey fraught with danger -- danger from fellow travelers on the Prairie Chicken (a commercial ship), from people they encounter en route, and from the plague, delivered mostly by wasp stings.
The setting is the unspecified not-so-distant future after a bizarre and oddly conceived social apocalypse of a sort: Scythians from ancient Europe have suddenly invaded, on horseback, the Mississippi River environs controlled by the Imperial Empire. Society has fallen apart, there is no oil to speak of (the Prairie Chicken merely floats downstream), weapons are usually swords and knives, and life is not even close to normal as we know it (for example, there's a talking dog who also happens to be Macy's new younger brother).
Macy and her understandably unstable family -- what family could be functional after all this? -- have fled a Minnesota refugee camp (the actual site of a 19th-century Dakota internment camp) on their way to Lou, where her astronomer father is to begin a promised university teaching position that no one really believes exists. Tragedy strikes, Macy's mother gets the plague but nonetheless gives birth to William (the aforementioned talking dog). Older sister Sophia is restless, and literally jumps ship, but later plays a key motivational role for Macy; and Ciaran, Macy's 14-year-old brother (a boy, not a dog), always an alienating rebel within the family, expediently aligns himself first with Imperial soldiers and later with Scythian warriors, resulting in harrowing consequences.
If it weren't for its outright absurdity, "Total Oblivion" might come off as a slightly tamer, brighter version of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," although there's no cannibalism here. "Total Oblivion" is more akin to Gerald Vizenor's odd but elegant and surreal "Darkness in St. Louis Bearheart," in which a procession of American Indians dealt with similar bleakness, also tinged with irony and humor. "Total Oblivion, More or Less" is not a perfect book, especially in how Macy, a loving daughter, seems little touched by loss and death, even at her own hand. But DeNiro's novel moves the reader along at a lively and crazy pace, engaging interest in Macy and her fate while making subtle references to the sad past and giving frightening glimpses of a scarier future.
Jim Carmin reviews fiction and other books for the Oregonian, and poetry for Solar Mirage; he lives in Portland.