The End as I Know It: A Novel of Millennial Anxiety
By Kevin Shay
Doubleday, 380 pp., $23.95
Puppeteer Randall Knight , the Y2K-obsessed anti hero of Kevin Shay's delightfully loopy novel, believes the world is coming to an end. The story begins in 1998 with Knight in the throes of a cross-country road trip with a single goal: He's trying to convince his skeptical friends and family to join him at a survivalist retreat, where they'll have canned food and protection from the looming millennial apocalypse.
To finance his trip, Knight performs puppet shows at elementary schools along his route. Shay's descriptions of these wacky, interactive performances are a comical tour de force. During one show at a Chicago-area school, Knight debuts a new puppet named Salmon Ella: "Ella is a large cotton-stuffed fish in a Coast Guard uniform. She wants everything to be 'shipshape' and is deeply scandalized whenever it isn't. A nautical Martha Stewart, basically. She takes the children to task for being out of uniform . . . and faints repeatedly at what a mess I've made of the stage."
After this puppet show, Knight meets an old friend named Damien who shares an apartment with his socialist buddies. When Knight inevitably brings up his obsession, Damien and the socialists dismiss him as a crackpot. Next Knight journeys to Denver, where he tries in vain to convince his Uncle Frank about the coming disaster. Unfortunately for the fanatical Knight, Uncle Frank's family is in the midst of a different obsession: They've all become Amway distributors. "Time to face facts," concludes Knight, "[t]he members of the Denver branch of my family have become multilevel marketers, pyramid schemers, Ponzi people." Shay skillfully mines this wonderfully quirky scenario for all its comic possibilities.
Needless to say, Knight's fanaticism alienates him from his friends and family. His father, a history professor at a Massachusetts college, won't talk to him. His mother copes with him by constantly changing the subject, ignoring all references to the coming apocalypse. When he visits his sister and brother-in-law (who works for CNN) in a Washington, D.C., suburb, the couple host an elegant party filled with media bigwigs and politicians. Knight has promised his anxious sister to keep his Y2K mania in check, but of course he fails.
Before the party, Knight creates and photocopies a brochure on all the doomsday prophesies about Y2K, an "amalgam of Christian end-time theology, Aquarian spirituality, and . . . prophesies from the likes of Nostradamus and Edgar Cayce." Knight proceeds to buttonhole the most influential people at the party, handing them his brochure and fulminating about the end of the world. When his outraged sister and brother-in-law attempt to stop him, Knight "leap[s] up onto the coffee table, and begin[s] to read aloud" from his brochure like a crazed sidewalk preacher.
Shay provides readers with one picaresque, laugh-out-loud funny scene after another, as Knight plummets deeper into the abyss of his obsession, cutting himself off from everyone. Knight moves in with an entire survivalist family in Texas, and even they think he's become unglued. Knight's own family attempts "an intervention," but he runs out of the room where they're all gathered. By book's end, an utterly alone Knight begins to re evaluate, to question the "joyless, single-minded weirdo I've turned into." Slowly, and with interludes of comic self-awareness, Knight begins to re-think.
With a year to go before the impending Y2K apocalypse, Randall Knight finally begins to find something to live for. Shay even dangles the possibility of love for his hero, in the form of a New York City artist named Paige who generously views Knight's obsession as an extension of his vulnerability. Shay's end-is-nigh novel successfully targets not just the funny bone, but the darkness of the human heart.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Quincy.