Reading The Country of Ice Cream Star(TCICS) I was reminded of two novels. The first is Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (review). It too depicts a post-apocalyptic world where a young, driven hero journeys from a parochial life into a much larger world and finds himself playing a much larger role than he had dreamed possible. In both books, the heroes retain an essential decency and innate moral resilience despite becoming wiser to how the world works. And both books are written in an invented dialect. In TCICS – as well as in Riddley Walker – the narrator’s English serves to bring her circumstances alive in a way that writing the novel in Standard English wouldn’t have. Everything Ice Cream sees, feels and does is brought into sharper focus because the reader has to experience it from a slightly skewed perspective. I can only describe the writing as “exuberant.” There’s an energy in it that makes reading it a pleasure.
The second book I’m reminded of is William Nolan’s Logan's Run. Here again we have a dystopian future. A true nightmare: a world run by teen-agers, where life ends at 21. In Logan’s Run, the death sentence is enforced by the Sandmen of Deep Sleep. In the world of Ice Cream Star, it’s plague that has carried off everyone over 21, and it continues to do so. Every child gets the “posies” around 18 or 19, and every child dies before their 21st year.
Ice Cream Sixteen Star is the oldest girl of a group of nomads – the Sengles – who are currently living near the ruins of Lowell, Mass., alongside more sedentary groups like the Lowells, the Christings and the Nat Mass Armies.
My mother and my grands and my great-grands been Sengle pure. Our people be a tarry night sort, and we skinny and long. My brother Driver climb a tree with only hands, because our bones so light, our muscles fortey strong. We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see. Other children go deranged and unpredictable for our love.
We Sengles be a wandering sort. We never grown nothing from anything, never had no tato patch nor cornfield. Be thieves, and brave to hunt. A Sengle hungry even when he eat, even when he rich, he still want to grab and rob, he hungry for something he ain’t never seen nor thought of. We was proud, we was ridiculous as wild animals, but we was bell and strong. (p. 3)
The delicate balance among the various groups is soon disrupted when the Sengles capture a “roo,” short for – as we learn – “Russian.” Pasha, apparently a deserter, tells Ice Cream that there’s a cure for the “posies” but it’s on the ships of an invading army down near Washington. Ice Cream determines to get that cure – both for the sake of her brother, who is showing signs of the disease, and for the sake of all her Sengles, in fact, for the sake of every child. And so begins her journey into a wider and more dangerous world than anything she’s seen. From New York – now known as Ciudad de las Marias, a catholic theocracy run by a gaggle of adolescent cardinals who would give the Renaissance Papacy a run for its money – to Quantico, where a band of “marines” holds on to the sacred grounds of the Mall, to confronting the invaders and wresting the cure from them (sort of).
Not to spoil it too much, but the ending is not a “happy” one. Not in the sense that Ice Cream and her allies save the day and bring a new, better way of life to the Nighted States. It’s messy, like life, and that’s what makes it so much more satisfying than otherwise. As Ice Cream writes at the conclusion:
And I know inside this final loss, I going to save this place. I be small in all this blackness world, this ship of drunken vampires, but through my hearten wounds, I living yet, and all my love the same. Nor death been ever arguments to me, I know my truth. I know ain’t evils in no life nor cruelties in no red hell can change the vally heart of Ice Cream Star. (p. 580)
TCICS compares favorably with Riddley Walker. I thoroughly enjoyed it and – after a long drought – can recommend something without reservation. This is a remarkable book, certainly the best new fiction I’ve read so far this year, and Ice Cream has joined my list of “favorite characters.”