“Wanderers is a work of fiction,” reads the edition notice at the start of Chuck Wendig’s new novel. “Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.”
As boilerplate legal disclaimers go, okay! Sure! Except with Wanderers, it’s... kind of a lie? The good kind of lie. A lie that, like Wanderers, brings truth into the light.
It begins with a grabby hook: One June morning in Maker’s Bell, Pennsylvania, a girl starts sleepwalking. She doesn’t speak. She doesn’t respond. She leaves her farm, then her town, walking road after road, staring ahead, never deviating from a course only she can see. Others join her. Then more. Days pass. The group grows, and walks, and America watches—first curious, then concerned, then panicked. Their panic gets a touch stronger when a cop learns the hard way that if a sleepwalker is separated and held back, they explode in a burst of blood and bone.
Naturally, Reddit has some theories, as do the morons of Twitter and the Russians of Facebook. So does Creel, a dog-whistling right-winger who runs for president, cheered by the crowds at his rallies (“All that chanting,” one character thinks, “those signs, the rage that came off them in waves like heat rising from a sunbaked road”) as he lashes at sitting president Hunt, who’s stymied by the crisis. (Just as Creel is a barely disguised Trump, Hunt is an on-the-nose Clinton; for those who’ve wondered how some Trump voters would have reacted had Clinton taken the office she won, Wanderers has a dark answer.) Shana, the big sister of the first sleepwalker, walks alongside “the flock” as one of its “shepherds.” Medical investigator Benji utilizes Black Swan, a hyper-advanced AI, to try to learn what the hell’s happening. Small-town preacher Matthew is sucked into a festering underworld of paranoia and nationalism. And around them all, our climate changes. “Though civilization was making fast strides toward a renewable future,” knows Benji, “it was far, far too late.”
Just as Creel is a barely disguised Trump, Hunt is an on-the-nose Clinton; for those who’ve wondered how some Trump voters would have reacted had Clinton taken the office she won, Wanderers has a dark answer.
Wanderers is a few things: a tense mystery; an Outbreak-style medical thriller; a sprawling, Stephen King-esque epic. But mostly it’s a book about America right now—and much like America right now, it’s a potent blend of fear, confusion, and guarded, fragile hope.
It’s also a book that has a lot to say, so it’s a good thing Wendig is sharp and funny, with a live-wire imagination that sparks with his singular voice. Few writers are better at quick character sketches (“One day, he’d probably grow into all of it and would end up tall and dark and handsome, but right now he was a conglomeration of awkward parts put together awkwardly”), and even fewer can match his shocks of horrorshow violence (“He sat there for a moment, a wet, sputtering gurgle gargling out of his ruined face. Then he slumped forward, red stuff spilling out of him like slop out of a broken bucket”). And, of course, there’s his near-future, too-familiar America, from drowsy cornfields to a stubborn Vegas: “The Strip still burned effulgent, a gaudy neon beacon lit like a bug zapper, summoning anyone who wanted to pretend the world was not dying one day at a time.”
“Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental,” reads that edition notice. It’s a lie, and Wanderers is all the better for it.