Alan Heathcock’s novel, 40, takes place in an America battered by the effects of climate change, reeling from multiple pandemics, and threatened by a radical group of armed zealots determined to take over the government.
Not too long ago, you could have plausibly called this work dystopian. But now—in the midst of climate crisis and COVID-19, with the cloud of January 6 still hanging over the country—it’s uncomfortably close to realism. Heathcock’s book, his first since the brilliant story collection Volt, is terrifying, a sort of reverse cautionary tale about what happens when a society is determined to tear itself apart.
The novel follows Mazzy Goodwin, a young woman who has joined the U.S. Army not because of any abiding sense of patriotism, but because she’s out of options. Drought, earthquakes, and environmental devastation have decimated the part of California where she grew up, and she’s desperate “to get out of that fly-ridden town before I became just another fish gasping in the briny dust.”
It’s not just California that’s in dire straits. The world is racked by “conflicts across multiple continents, ongoing virus and climate riots, decades of racial violence and domestic terror.” America is also faced with a new threat: a cult called the Novae Terrae, who claim to want to “create a world devoid of suffering.” Under the leadership of the mysterious Jo Sam, however, they’re causing a whole lot of suffering themselves, stockpiling food while dusting the nation’s crops with herbicide, using seeding drones to create storms that flood the heartland.
Jo Sam is responsible for another kind of flood: a deluge of misinformation and propaganda that spread over the internet, claiming that “senators were throwing decadent orgies of sex and food” and “the president was ritualistically feasting on babies to gain nefarious favor from their blood.” (This is one of many moments in the book that might have seemed far-fetched even five years ago; now, thanks to Madison Cawthorn, representative from North Carolina, and QAnon, not so much.)
Mazzy is part of a west Texas army unit patrolling a town with a large Novae presence. After her base is attacked, she loses consciousness and awakens in a bomb crater to find that she’s grown wings. She flies to her California hometown, terrified that the Novae have struck there; her fears are confirmed when she finds her sister missing and her mother dead.
Her childhood best friend, Dewey, has managed to escape the onset, until together they encounter an actor, Raja, who encourages them to join him in throwing themselves at the mercy of the sect. Mazzy agrees, hoping she’ll be able to persuade the Novae to reunite her with her sister.
It doesn’t take long for the Novae to turn Mazzy into an instrument of propaganda, rebranding her as the angel Seraphine and using her to promote the goodness of their Los Angeles–based breakaway, Nation of 40. (While the origin of the name isn’t stated, the number has obvious biblical significance—think Moses on Mount Sinai, Jesus in the desert, and the Great Flood in Genesis.)
“How many people had I disappointed? How many people I loved now saw me as the enemy of America?” Mazzy wonders. But she’s single-minded in pursuit of her sister, even as she wonders if she’s become “a myth built to deliver the pious into obedience.” The conflict comes to a head in the final section of the book, which is developed with an impressively taut narrative tension.
Heathcock writes with an understated touch—at least as understated as a novel about a soldier who grows wings can be. This is in large part due to Mazzy, who narrates 40 with a straightforwardness that subverts the book’s fantastic elements. She’s a compelling character, introspective and marked with an inchoate unease. “Belief was often a symptom of desperation,” she admits. “I’d witnessed otherwise reasonable people manifest faith in unhinged claims due to their desperation. I was potently aware I didn’t want to fall into desperate belief. But how does one tamp the desperate want for answers enough to know your belief is sound in judgment?”
Any novel that takes on contemporary politics and religion runs the risk of being heavy-handed, but Heathcock for the most part avoids this trap. That’s not to say he doesn’t draw clear parallels between the Novae and present-day America, or Jo Sam and…well, you can figure it out. “How could this be their glorious leader?” Heathcock asks. “Why would anyone follow him? Or maybe that’s what made him compelling. Maybe people thought he was no different than them, no better, no smarter. Through his inadequacies, they felt seen and empowered.”
None of this would work with writing that’s anything less than excellent, and that’s where Heathcock shines. His prose is spare but elegant, and he conjures a biblical feel while still keeping a foot firmly planted in plainspoken realism. The novel’s ending is rendered beautifully: unsparing but filled with an anguished compassion.
This is a fascinating book, at times remarkable. It comes with a message that’s not quite reassuring and yet not quite hopeless. “The entire world was haunted because we were haunted,” Mazzy reflects. “Every story was now a ghost story.”•