For better and usually much worse, fictional runaway teenage girls end up on ships bound for the colonies, the big city of offices and/or brothels, behind enemy lines, or never far from an estate with a wealthy young landowner. Ruth is the Florida native taking refuge in an upstate New York commune in John Oliver Hodges’ neo-Gothic coming-of-age novella, War of the Crazies. Though set in 1989, the situations this 19-year-old beauty finds herself in recall those of her literary ancestresses: growing up too fast, local men and boys falling hard for her, the hysterical obsessive of love (Silva, who prefers “meditation over medication”), and a serious household accident.
That Hodges grew up in a commune gives War of the Crazies a hard, convincing edge. His fictional collective farm is dirty and unsafe. This brings to mind other dysfunctional rather than utopic alternative lifestyles such as Fruitlands, where the Alcotts didn’t last a year. Novo, the collective’s founder/leader, is not benevolent but is a dictator who sings German war songs. Neighbors don’t have a problem with his politics—what they don’t like is the “hippie farm’s” dilapidated condition and that Noyo and his followers pick through landfills for food and supplies. Silva’s behavior in public, such as when she taunts the cashier at the Super-K for no reason other than “exercising her right to be mean,” doesn’t help.
It is not much of a stretch to categorize the 1980s as a socially lethargic, narcissistic, indulgent decade—read up on Iran/Contra, the British Coal Mining Strike, and the list of Academy Award “Best Pictures” 1980-1990 for confirmation. What the author is implying is that denying reality is as bad as taking a Ronald Reagan poster and nailing it through “the eyeballs, the kneecaps, foot bones, and between the legs.” While good for letting out frustration with “the man,” it is also meaningless.
Hodges also successfully creates Ruth’s character without revealing much detail. His narrative is strong enough that all readers need to know is that she is in trouble and is not having an easy time adjusting to life on the farm. While her future is undetermined, she seems to be coming into her own:
The box of shoes was a box of mismatched shoes. Ruth unbound her feet, and tried on a nylon boot with a zipper, which fit her all the way up to the knee. That was her left leg, her shin now shod with a sleek brown protective slickness. Her other foot she fitted with a steel-toed factory-worker’s shoe. With her new armor she leapt onto the trampoline and bounced over more boxes of stuff and junk and climbed up to the airplane wing. She crouched through the window frame and inched along the lip of the barn and lowered herself down the antenna to the ground. Once back on at the trail Ruth ran, and the black cape flew behind her.
It is the sanest member of the commune who knows Ruth best and provides Crazies’ comic relief. Mike is a horror writer working on a zombie novel whose undead resemble the farm’s residents. His relationship with Ruth is platonic, yet his zombies “strip off” her alter ego Jan’s clothes “very greedily.” She escapes her captors by running “naked into the forest, stumbling and bleeding.”
There is also a zombie named Edward. Technically, he is based on the ill-tempered, sex-crazed Skorpis, but he also fits the description of another Edward. While War of the Crazies may take place in the Eighties; making fun of Twilight is timeless:
Edward sleeps away from the other zombies and keeps to himself, except for when he goes up and steals off with bones the others have left. It seems kind of dorky, but the way I have Edward now is he survives by eating the road kill out on the highway.
The zombie backstory is only one of several in War of the Crazies. It parallels the story of these unhappy people along with those they encounter. Collectively, they are no better than the zombies. The difference is that zombies can’t change, while the reader holds out hope that the book’s characters can.