Some books remind us how small we are or how transient life is and as a result make you want to find someone important to you and give them a hug. ‘Wanderers’ by Chuck Wendig also does this but you’ll make damn sure you wash your hands straight afterwards.
Jumping between a large cast of characters over most of a year, this sprawling epic details the end of the world and the people fighting against it, even if they don’t know how or sometimes why they’re involved.
It begins with an intriguing premise, that more and more seemingly unconnected people begin sleepwalking towards an unknown destination. They can’t be woken and trying to stop them results in messy consequences, so a ragtag group of ‘shepherds’ begin a pilgrimage across America while the world falls apart around their flock. However, the plot takes a series of abrupt turns that I won’t detail because figuring out where this is all going is a big part of the book’s appeal.
Many of these sudden shifts initially seem to have no relation to the story and it takes over 500 pages before everything coalesces into a single clear goal and antagonist, making this a book that takes a certain amount of patience and a willingness to invest in. While reading, I made a note that it took until page 149 for ‘Wanderers’ to really grab me. Before that, the story was interesting and creepy, but lacked stakes I could really invest in.
That said, if you stick with it then you’ll be treated to a complex, disturbingly well-researched and depressingly plausible tale of what the collapse of society might look like. There are only a few out and out bad guys, with everyone else revealing different facets of their personality and back story as they get squeezed until they break.
Speaking of breaking, it’s not a spoiler to say that not everyone makes it and, when they go, they often do so messily. I’d never read any of Chuck Wendig’s work before, but I’d describe his style as ‘visceral’. ‘Wanderers’ is jammed full of swearing, features occasional but bloody violence and a scene of male rape, but what really got to me where the lovingly detailed descriptions of the grotesque diseases that afflict humanity. After 800 pages of reading about infections and viruses, you’ll most likely have a very dim view of anyone who sneezes in public.
All this doom and gloom can make the book a little oppressive, something Wendig builds on with descriptive phrases like someone’s disappearance being ‘a big question mark stuck in their cheeks like a fish-hook’. That said, I found the desire to see where the hell the story was going easily pulled me through, along with wanting to see the horrible characters get their comeuppance and a kind of dark interest in watching the end of the world play out in a way too plausible manner.
All of which simultaneously makes ‘Wanderers’ both difficult and very easy to read. As something of a germaphobe, I found its more disturbing elements playing on my mind, but at no point was I going to give up on reading it. If that’s not a recommendation I don’t know what is.
(pub: Del Rey/Random House, 2019. 780 page hardback. Price: $28.99 (US), $38.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-399-18210-5)