by Julie Ann Rea
The Wanderers starts slow, and a good part of its 800-page length elapses before the bulk of the the screaming and dying occur. For me, this made my consumption of The Wanderers different from other recent apocalyptic adventures. I began at the languid pace of a few chapters a day until full force of the peril facing the characters wormed its way into my brain, and the book threatened to take over my life because I couldn’t stop reading it.
The Wanderers begins with a young girl, Nessie, who is caught in something like a sleepwalking trance. She’s unable to wake up or stop walking, despite the efforts of her desperate sister and father. The sleepwalking girl is soon joined by others. Soon a crowd of sleepwalkers, or wanderers, develops. They are accompanied by shepherds, the loved ones of those who have fallen into the sleepwalking state. The wanderer flock and its shepherds begins on the East Coast of the U.S. and heads west.
A competing narrative is the advance of the plague of White Mask, a fungal disease that threatens humanity’s existence. Because White Mask advances slowly and The Wanderers tracks the spread of the disease from patient zero, it takes a while for the world to wake up to the fact that it is in serious trouble.
Because Chuck Wendig uses multiple points of view to describe how the events of a devasting pandemic affect the U.S., comparisons can be easily drawn between Stephen King’s The Stand and The Wanderers. For the most part, I think Mr. Wendig benefits by this comparison. His description of an American society in decline makes for some queasily scary reading. We don’t see much about how the rest of the world is dealing with White Mask, although we learn that it’s nothing good; alternatively, the unraveling of American society is described in painful detail. The political situation in The Wanderers is perhaps something akin to if Hillary Clinton had won the election in 2016 and a healthier, more vigorous, but just as poisonous Trump were running against her in 2020. Before White Mask makes its presence known, the country is spooked by the growing flock of wanderers, and it doesn’t take long for the Trump stand-in to make political hay out of the phenomenon of the wanderers in a way that hurts people; later, this man politically exploits the destruction caused by White Mask. The Trump stand-in and people who follow him are arguably The Wanderers’ analogue to Randall Flagg and his group in The Stand. However, The Wanderers‘ version of the bad people in a plague-devasted America make more sense in their motivation than the Walking Dude’s outfit in Colorado. Randall Flagg’s philosophy was never clear to me: the right-wing militia in The Wanderers operates from an ideology that exists in a veiled (or not-so-veiled) form in easily accessible right-wing outlets today.
Another way The Wanderers is like The Stand is that it follows several different narratives of people coping with the end of the world. Part of the joy of The Wanderers is it reads like a detective novel; the narrative strands fit together in unexpected yet completely justified ways. The full picture isn’t revealed until the very last chapter.
Finally, unlike in The Stand, there isn’t some sort of vague conflict of good versus evil playing itself out on the North American continent. Instead, people act in moral and immoral ways in the various narratives. The militia that ravages the country as it falls apart feeds on an amped-up version of the current evil in our political climate. The shepherds who follow the wanderers do what they can to keep their somnambulistic loved ones safe. The researchers at the CDC race to find an answer that will save the world.
What The Wanderers reminded me of as a reading experience was that quote by Hemmingway about going bankrupt first gradually and then suddenly. That’s how things come to pass in The Wanderers in terms of the end of the world. I dread that it anticipates the experience of life in the near-future. Wendig uses the analogy of a Jenga tower to describe a disintegrating civilization: a piece being removed here, there, the entire edifice becoming inexorably more unstable with each move. In The Wanderers, the edifice falls. The Jenga analogy feels like it applies as equally well to today’s society, one that doesn’t face the specific threats of The Wanderers but is losing other vital pieces. Looking at modern life this way gives one a sense of dizziness, a feeling that we are horribly close to the brink.
Thus, when it comes to the continuation of existing civilization, The Wanderers isn’t sci-fi comfort food like hordes of fast-moving, unstoppable zombies or an earth-shattering asteroid, something the reader/viewer can assure themselves isn’t an actually a threat. The Wanderers is a story of systemic collapse that feels like it could be at least a cousin to the fate that awaits us in the coming decade. Reader, you have been warned.