Total Oblivion, More or Less is a strange novel. In a lot of ways, in fact, it’s a novel about strangeness, and how ordinary people deal with it. Imagine Huck Finn’s raft drifting through a post-apocalypse American wasteland. Things have changed. The government has disappeared, geography itself seems to have been altered, somehow, technology doesn’t work, plague decimates the population, and bands of Goths and Scythians roam the landscape for plunder and mayhem.
In this case, Huck is a teen girl, Macy Palmer, fleeing St. Paul with her family for the faint, fleeting hope of safety on an island in the Gulf of Mexico. The novel is packed with action, mystery, and genuine suspense … to say nothing of an utterly fascinating (and deeply unsettling) new world. It’s a weird, wonderful, heart-breaking, and thought-provoking read. You’ll find surprising and laugh-out-loud humor, adventure, and, yes, even grounded, well-earned emotion. The result is an absolutely original and gripping read.
None of which, mind, is the real strength of the novel.
The comparison to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn goes deeper than the incidental detail of shared journeys down the Mississippi River. Ernest Hemmingway famously declared that all of American literature begins with Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s genius in Huckleberry Finn, undimmed even by the controversial ending, is his invention of an absolutely original character’s voice. Read any one line of Huck’s narration, and it’s utterly impossible to confuse him with, say, Natty Bumpo, Hester Prynne, or Hamlet. Huck is not an archetype or a stereotype. Huck’s voice, and his famous “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” declaration, make him a unique and fully realized individual. According to Hemmingway, at least, that focus on an individual voice was the birth of American literature, and what makes its tradition different from its European forefathers.
Macy Palmer is Huck Finn’s heir. The adventure, for all its gripping suspense and clever originality, isn’t what makes Total Oblivion, More or Less such a triumph. In Macy, Alan DeNiro has created a unique and compelling voice spoken by a compelling and all-too-real teen girl—one like the teens we all see at any Starbuck’s and every local mall. She is smart, clear-eyed, and mordantly sarcastic. She’s often petulant and resentful, but ultimately resilient and even heroic. Most of all, even when facing the loss of all she knows, she is intensely and acutely alive.
Maybe, as Hemmingway declares, the ending of Huckleberry Finn is faked. In the end Huck goes home again, full circle back to the starting point, and his monumental decisions and soul-deep changes don’t seem to matter much. Macy has no such luxury. There’s no going home for her, and the promises of safety are illusions. That makes her story heartbreaking and heroic, and offers us a unique and terrific read.