Nightmares, dreams and killer flamingos
In Jarret Keene’s thriller, humanity outlasts power-trippers
A Gen Xer, Jarret Keene grew up playing with action figures — G.I. Joe, Star Wars characters, Scarlet Spider.
They were armed and aggressive, and they were heroes, he said, and led children to exercise their imaginations. He read comic books, too, back in the day when ads for .22-caliber rifles and “raising chinchillas for fun and profit” appeared on their back pages.
“The tie-in stuff related to the characters was amazing,” Keene added. “The vinyl records, the lunch boxes. Now everything seems diffuse.”
We don’t relate to shared experiences or each other as we once did. No question.
Keene, who earned a doctorate in creative writing at Florida State University, is doing what he can to combat unsettling trends, both personally and via a character of his own creation, Lash, the heroine in his debut post-apocalyptic novel, Hammer of the Dogs, scheduled for publication on Sept. 12.
As an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Keene seeks to ignite a passion for reading in students who grew up in front of screens. He departs, within limits, the traditional canon by teaching books that students enjoy reading.
“Reading a Jane Austen novel and discussing whether it reinforces gender stereotypes? It’s important, but there is other stuff that students need to know how to do,” Keene said. “I think the death of fun and joy is precisely the reason why students are turning away from the humanities and going towards STEM.”
In writing Hammer of the Dogs, set in what is left of Las Vegas after the bombs drop and America ends, Keene aimed to give students a fun book, one characterized by a “bright darkness.” He brought a chapter a week to his Introduction to Creative Writing class as a way to introduce students to the process and work of writing a book.
“This wasn’t a trunk novel,” Keene said. This was a messy work in progress,” one that he completed with a certain sense of urgency.
Riding his bicycle down the deserted Las Vegas strip toward the familiar Welcome to Las Vegas sign during the height of the COVID pandemic, Keene entertained thoughts that the end might be near and resolved to finish his book before he got scooped by reality.
The book succeeds on several levels: as a thriller; as social commentary on issues including the hoarding and concentration of wealth and resources; as a jab at corporate religion; as a humorous work that unites disparate elements like Zippo lighters and warbots; and as a vehicle for Lash, replete with her exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics and possessed of the strength of both man and machine.
“Lash is my idea of an ideal Barbie,” Keene said. “She fights back. I saw the Barbie movie and it’s fine, but it’s not Lash. Lash is like Ripley from the Alien movies or Sarah Connor in ‘The Terminator.’”
The surviving world has devolved into a competition between warlords seeking to gain complete control over the wounded landscape they inhabit. Lash, lacking an alternative, takes refuge at an academy presided over by an evangelist wannabe known as Prof and housed in the Luxor Resort.
The world outside the academy is a toxic wasteland, where emaciated survivors struggle to get by on rations of cactus. The Prof takes advantage. Kids are easily conscripted and made students to be schooled in robotics and drone-making. Most become fodder with only a few surviving to Lash’s age. She is possessed of extraordinary skills and instincts and emerges as a leader unafraid to confront enemy forces led by Richter, whom she has been led to believe is a sadistic killer who gets off on knocking off students.
When she meets Richter, however, Lash finds him both repugnant — and irresistible. She falls for him before she proves to be the superior warrior. And she learns that he is answerable to a woman, Mrs. Westphal, who like Prof, seeks absolute power and who surrounds herself with a flock of attack flamingos. (Keene arrived at the flamingo idea having once encountered an aggressive emu at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge during his FSU days.)
Ultimately, Lash and friends vanquish both warlords, but not before she learns that Prof has tried to fulfill his own Cyborg Savior prophecy by implanting in her a “mechanism for transubstantiation, a cybernetic link to the dronesphere.”
“I made you into a god,” Prof tells Lash.
But Lash chooses otherwise and, in that, there is hope that the desert might bloom again. The darkness has been made bright.
Upon publication on Sept. 12, Hammer of the Dogs (University of Las Vegas Press, 2023) will be available for purchase at the Midtown Reader, 1123 Thomasville Road, Tallahassee; midtownreader.com.
View an exciting trailer about the book: