Review: Devolution by Max Brooks

Max Brooks had a massive bestseller on his hands back in 2006 when he wrote that War and Peace of zombie novels, World War Z. The book's title was later used in a Brad Pitt movie that otherwise had virtually nothing in common with the book other than hordes of shambling undead, but millions of people have read the book and thrilled to the approach Brooks took: a staccato series of you-are-there reporting vignettes describing a rising threat to every living thing on Earth.

Devolution, his new book, is much more localized, and his narrative approach is fittingly more personal. Instead of a world-wide zombie pandemic, we have a small locality on the flank of Mount Rainier in beautiful Washington State—that may or may not be experiencing a problem with killer sasquatch. And in the place of a series of journalistic and military dispatches, we have the increasingly frantic pages of a diary.

The diary-keeper is Kate Holland, an idealistic young woman who makes her way to smooth-talking visionary Tony Durant's secluded ecological community of Greenloop, nestled in the Mount Rainier greenery. Brooks includes interviews with Durant, an Elon Musk-style genius with an ecologically glowing rationale for every aspect of Greenloop, right down to constructing the bamboo buildings (“Not only is it one of the most versatile and renewable building materials ever, but it also helps sequester carbon”). The back-to-nature exposition-dumps in these opening sections are fairly well-integrated, but even readers new to Brooks will know they're in for something more dramatic than state-of-the-art composting techniques.

The first time Kate spots an enormous hairy man-like creature lurking around Greenloop, questions start: what is it? How many more are there? What are their intentions?

As tensions rise in Kate's diary entries, another catastrophe brews. Mount Rainier is building toward a major eruption (in reality, the mountain hasn't blown in well over a century, although since it's part of the so-called “Ring of Fire,” a major eruption is always a possibility). When Greenloop is cut off from the outside world, a fight for survival ensues between a group of desperate humans and an alarmingly organized group of not-quite-humans. As in Brooks’ previous novel, readers get a day-by-day boots-on-the-ground narrative of a community under assault. They watch idealistic Kate and some of her colleagues gradually transform from the civilized, eco-perfect versions of themselves that originally brought them to Greenloop into something far more primitive. On many levels, the book’s title is aptly chosen.

It's an absolutely crackerjack set-up, and if you don't think Max Brooks can make an enthralling summer read out of it, you're not familiar with this author. Devolution isn't as strong a novel as World War Z.; Its faux-documentary trappings (interviews, transcripts, Kate's increasingly unbelievable diary) drag at times, and some of the characters sharing Greenloop with Kate seem like Hollywood stereotypes merely waiting to be picked off in violent plot twists. The weirdly convincing geek sincerity that carried Brooks so effectively through the world-convulsing events of a planetary zombie apocalypse sometimes seems to desert him when he's dealing with such a smaller scale. But it's nevertheless an incredibly effective page-turner, helped immeasurably by the fact that Brooks is at heart a cinematic thinker. Virtually every scene leaps straight into the mind's eye fully formed.

A key aspect of all this is the smooth blending of the fiction of Greenloop's siege and the nonfiction Bigfoot lore of the last century. Devolution is the trivia-savvy Bigfoot novel all aficionados have been dreaming of for years.

Brooks’ characters relate a whole raft of science and pseudoscience on the subject, and he works in plenty of references to real-world sasquatch experts like Jeff Meldrum. Those experts have long faced the danger of doing any kind of serious fieldwork on sasquatch; despite the enormous amount of anecdotal testimony and forensic artifacts (including those famous footprints), the specialists risk ridicule and professional dismissal. As one character puts it, “Public skepticism dissuades qualified experts from searching for physical evidence, and lack of physical evidence only fuels public skepticism.”

The novel itself also reflects and refracts fascinating folklore that has surrounded Mount Rainier's sister volcano Mount Saint Helens since the early 20th century. In 1924 a team of gold prospectors from the woods of Mount Saint Helens claimed their camp had been attacked by a group of creatures we now would call Bigfoot. In 1980, when Mount Saint Helens erupted, there were persistent rumors that the US Army evacuated a small population of sasquatch in the wake of the devastation. The whole area has been saturated in sightings and speculation for decades and still is. Brooks chose his setting perfectly; virtually every little situational detail is a bread crumb cannily thrown to the cognoscenti.

Brooks blurs and blends these and other chunks of the Bigfoot legend into a fantastic fun novel, and he has the sense to leave the book's ending dramatically open-ended. Whether you're a skeptic or a true believer, Devolution will make you jump at the next nighttime twig-snap you hear.

Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Christian Science Monitor.