Friday, February 25, 2022

Waiting For the End of the World, by R.B. Russell


PS Publishing, 2020
279 pp


"It did for those with the eyes to see..."

If your only connection with R.B. Russell is the truly great work he does along with his partner Rosalie Parker in publishing books at  Tartarus Press, you should also be aware that he is also an author and a pretty damn good one.   The last book I read by R.B. Russell was his short-story collection Ghosts, and when I finished that book one of my first thoughts was that I need to read more by this man.  Off to the online realm I went for more, and I picked up two Russell books, Death Makes Strangers of Us All and this one, Waiting for the End of the World.  After reading this book, I enjoyed it so much that this morning I bought his The Stones are Singing.  I mean, I knew after Ghosts that he could do great short stories, but maintaining cohesion and  tension well enough to last the length of  a  novel is another thing altogether.  Some writers just aren't able to bring it, but that's certainly not the case here.  

I will not go too much at all into detail about what happens here, and that is because this is the sort of book where you don't realize until toward the very end that you've been given signs along the way as to what's actually going on.  Even so, I didn't actually understand that until this morning when going through all of the pages I'd tabbed; suddenly all of my synapses were on fire as I made connection after connection.  At that point it became not just a good read, but an eye-opening, crazy good read.  

It all begins as our narrator Elliot Barton is sitting in a train in October of 2006, reflecting on things, including his partner Lana, the joy of sharing life with her at their house on Sapphire Street and his job. On that first page life seems great, and then comes the first clue that there may be some trouble in this paradise.  As he says,
"Above all, I can't believe that what I did so long ago has yet to catch up with me. What I have not told Lana is I live each day as though it is my last of freedom. When the post arrives, the telephone rings, or if there is a knock at the door, I am expecting the worst, even after ... I do the calculation ... eighteen years."

 In what he describes as an "unusually fatalistic mood," he thinks about the "few words" of a  phone message he'd heard after work  and how because of it "the first stone has been loosened from the foundations of our house on Sapphire Street."   Once home, and after a night of strange dreams, the next day Lana's off to her job and Elliot plays the remainder of the message, erasing it afterwards.  It seems that a friend from his school days, Vince Reynolds, wants to talk to him about something that happened in their past.  He continues to avoid Vince on the phone, but eventually speaks to him and learns that Vince is thinking of going to the police to confess and that he would like to get together to talk.  Vince has found religion and wishes to "atone" for his "sin," to "face any punishment;" strangely though, his version of events of that day are quite different than Elliot's.   Elliot, who now has had to tell Lana what it was all about, believes it's the beginning of the end of everything; he doesn't want Vince to do anything and travels to St. Michael's  retreat where Vince and his fellow members of the Children of the Cross are now living, along with none other than a man whom the Children of the Cross believe is Jesus Christ, who has come again "to shepherd his flock."  Elliot's aim: not to have Vince reconsider his plan, but to have him "change his mind and disappear from my life once again."   What Elliot doesn't realize is that his visit to St. Michael's will change everything in ways he could not possibly expect. 

While it may sound like the plot of a crime novel, Waiting for the End of the World is anything but.  Shortly after the beginning of the present timeline, the story begins to move back and forth through  time (and knowing what I know now I'm absolutely fighting with myself to not say anything more about that).  At each move there are added elements of context, suspense and tension that kept me turning pages, yet, as I said in my initial thoughts at goodreads, while reading I kept wondering to myself what all of this was leading to.  Let me just say that there came an OMG moment toward the end where I not only realized what was happening, but also when I realized that everything that had come before has suddenly taken on momentous significance. 

Among other fascinating topics, within Waiting for the End of the World  the reader will encounter themes of religious belief through history, cults and what it is about the need for a Messiah that drives people to  gather around a particular individual to take them through an apocalypse,  the importance of dreams and the idea that one particular event can unknowingly and unwittingly change the course of things.  It's an amazing book, and the writing is utterly fantastic, drawing you in slowly until there comes that above-mentioned moment when everything just explodes.  On top of everything else, I've also made note of all of the book titles that the author included in this one, and I was so pleased to see Machen's Hill of Dreams listed among them; I'm sure that its inclusion as well as that of Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh (and others) were not simply random choices.   

Very nicely done, and my advice for readers who at some point feel like you're wondering where this story  is headed is to just be patient and enjoy the ride,  but to be sure to pay attention along the way. In this book, things have a habit of turning up again when least expected.   This one I can certainly and very highly recommend.  Like all of my favorite books,  I can honestly and without reservation say that I've never read anything quite like it. 

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