Book Review: Unamerica by Cody Goodfellow

“Compelling characters (both main and supporting), a unique and well-realised setting, and disturbingly descriptive visions, and you have a gripping novel that lives up to the hype.”

 

Cody Goodfellow first made waves in the fiction world with Radiant Dawn, his first novel, which he self-published in 2000. From there, he continued to expand his work from Lovecraftian horror to crime to bizarro to splatterpunk (including many successful collaborations with John Skipp) in work such as Spore (with Skipp, Leisure Books, 2010), Repo Shark (Broken River Books, 2014), and Sleazeland (Eraserhead Press, 2018) as well as many others. His first two collections, Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars (Swallowdown Press, 2009) and All-Monster Action! (King Shot Press, 2018) each won a Wonderland Book Award. His latest novel is suitably, perhaps comfortably, difficult to label with any one genre title, something that will appeal to existing Goodfellow fans and open-minded readers alike.

The story begins with an American, Nolan Hatch, trying to cross the US-Mexico border while dodging border security checks. Unsuccessful, and discovered to be transporting a new drug that supposedly allows the user to commune with “God”, he is thrown into the underground complex known to its inhabitants as Unamerica. What follows is a truly unique—and at times all too real—examination of everything that is wrong with America and the western world.

Goodfellow blends a number of genres—science fiction, crime, horror, fantasy—and skews them through a bizarro lens to create a compelling story. Hatch isn’t alone for long in his new surroundings; he almost immediately comes to the attention of low-level criminal Jaime Blasco, who acts as his guide around the social experiment that is Unamerica. Everything is free to the occupants as they are used as guinea pigs for the corporate leaders of America to test new products, ideas, drugs. It isn’t long before the newcomer makes a name for himself thanks to the strange reactions to his new drug of choice. But he keeps his cards close to his chest and refuses to divulge the origin of the drug, knowing to do so would render him surplus to requirements.

As a backdrop to the main narrative, a preacher takes on the unexpected role of prophet and saviour with seemingly supernatural abilities. As his power grows and the number of followers rises, he soon finds himself at odds with the established order in the underground world, and the over-ground world in general. A battle will be fought for the souls of society’s outcasts on the streets of Unamerica. But will it stop there? How far will those in power allow it to go and will they be able to stop it from spreading to the “civilised” world?

The book poses many questions that are equally relevant in our world today. Does that hint at Goodfellow’s prescient nature? Did he see where the country and civilised world in general were headed over the past decade? Whatever the answer may be, he forces the reader to consider wealth inequality, consumerism and capitalism, the mistreatment of minorities, and the idea of religion and faith. But he isn’t heavy-handed. He never sacrifices story for a sermon, instead trusting the reader to come to their own conclusions while taking us on a mostly entertaining, oftentimes psychedelic, ride.

And it is a dark ride; from the barbaric lack of empathy exhibited by both leaders and inhabitants of Unamerica alike, to the casual use of violence between the different gangs and corrupt militia, to the often-terrifying visions experienced by those subjected to doses of the drug supposedly supplied by Hatch. Light moments are few and far between, but some of Hatch’s inner dialogue is darkly comic, as is his relationship with Jaime.

For a book that was begun a few years ago, it is unsettling just how accurate some of his descriptions and depictions of human nature are, as well as the state of the developed world. With every passing day we feel a step closer to the chaos and lawlessness that eventually befalls Unamerica. It certainly adds a layer of authenticity to Goodfellow’s rich storytelling. Throw in compelling characters (both main and supporting), a unique and well-realised setting, and disturbingly descriptive visions, and you have a gripping novel that lives up to the hype.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: King Shot Press
Paperback: 448 pp
Release Date: 7 June 2019

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