Birmingham, 35 Miles
by James Braziel
Review by Alana Hurley
Bantam Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780553385021
Date: 26 February 2008 List Price $12.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
"The government's not going to save anybody." Braziel's novel Birmingham, 35 Miles asks what the government would do if a catastrophic ozone tear started reducing the southern United States to uninhabitable desert. The answer? The government would cope just as well as it did during the Dust Bowl and Hurricane Katrina: badly, late, and with a lot of casualties.
In 2044, the ozone splits over the southern states, reducing the land to desert unsafe to venture into during daylight. Braziel's narrator, Mat, and those too poor to afford exit visas are trapped by government troops and roadblocks from fleeing the south. Instead, they're paid by the government to mine useless clay rocks, living in abandoned houses and trailers along the drying river channels and digging by night. But Mat can get out -- his father's bought visas and his wife is desperate to leave the wasteland and join her mother in the "Saved World," the parts of the U.S. that have escaped the tear. What keeps him from leaving?
Braziel's time-jumping narrative ultimately renders the story too confusing to follow and trips up the development of Mat's character. The question of why he and his family don't leave is never really answered, and by the last quarter of the book, his vague refusals elicit more frustration than sympathy. Braziel's narrative eventually lapses into inertia, but given the subject of the book, it works well as a parallel to the paralysis of the narrator. The reader ends up feeling as trapped and suffocated in the story as Mat does in the burned-out mining towns.
Braziel falls short of being a futuristic Steinbeck or Faulkner; he lacks Faulkner's iron grip on the intricacies of language and Steinbeck's ability to create gut-wrenchingly real characters. But Birmingham works well as an indictment of the callous and short-sighted government Braziel envisions in his slowly apocalyptic world.