Post-apocalyptic/dystopian Britain is a very popular place at the moment. Plenty of authors have imagined the green an rolling lands of the UK emptied of people in the aftermath of some event and want to look at how society might rearrange itself as a result. Recently we have had the first two books in MR Carey’s Koli series, CA Fletcher’s A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, Robert Harris’ Second Sleep and a TV adaptation of Nick Clark Windo’s The Feed is on its way. Into this crowded literary landscape comes Thomas McMullan’s The Last Good Man.
The Last Good Man opens with a man stuck in a bog. Duncan Peck, hiding behind a rock, watches townsfolk, led by his cousin James Hale, pull the man from the bog, tie him up and take him away in a wheelbarrow. So far so strange. Peck arrives in the small, isolated village to find that Hale is the law and leads the violent punishment of the man whose crimes have been written on a giant wall outside the town. The wall, which started life as a public noticeboard, and still serves that purpose, is now the place where people air anonymous grievances:
GEOFF SHARPE DOESN’T CUT THE MEAT GOOD. I SAW GEOFF SHARPE STEALING SLIVERS. NOBODY LIKES GEOFF SHARPE. I HOPE GEOFF SHARPE DIES.
The wall and its consequences are like social media on steroids. The theory that holds in the town is that justice lies in the will of the collective. That if enough people write something on the wall it must be true and hence must be acted on. So that what started as a way of sharing information has become a tool of distrust and oppression.
Peck is taken aback by this arrangement and the centrality of his cousin in it, but he is too relieved to find a place of refuge to take issue with it. Brief mentions and flashbacks reveal some vague breakdown of order in the cities, starvation, fires and violence. So that the village with its tea shop and butcher seems to Peck to be the height of luxury. Until things start to go wrong. Peck gets deeper into the town’s ethos, accusations fly and the situation, for Peck at least, gets out of control.
The Last Good Man is so strange as to be almost a thought experiment. One way people are punished in the town is to carry pieces of furniture (a bookcase, an armoire) on their backs. The way the accusations on the wall work is a little arbitrary. And Peck and Hale’s shared history is really only every lightly sketched. So that the focus is on a reversion to an almost medieval form of crime and punishment but informed by a very 21st century mode of collective thinking. Which overall means that while The Last Good Man does not quite cohere it does, like many dystopias of this type, provide plenty of food for thought.