I found this to be a particularly powerful and disturbing novel, not just because of the future America it presents but because of the brave but broken man at the centre of the story who is an embodiment of this future America’s problems and its possibilities.
‘The Sound Of Distant Engines’ presents a horribly plausible three-generations-from-now future America in which long-running foreign wars have morphed into a Christian crusade against the Muslim world. This is partly enabled by American access to sniper and drone technology that allows them to kill at a distance, keeping American casualties low while still providing visible boots on the ground who can be the human face of America’s righteous victories. At home, the same dynamics have led to a strong alignment between Church and State which has made the espousal of Christian Fundamentalist values as THE mark of patriotism. ‘One Nation Under God’ has been extended to the conclusion that, as there is only one God, anyone not worshipping the one God has chosen to place themselves outside of the one Nation and must bear the consequences.
This is not a high concept political allegory. It is a low-key but tense, very personal book about a man approaching the end of his life who finds himself haunted by his past and out of sympathy with his present and who is pushed into action when the Church that he despises brings pressure on him and his family to become a symbol for recruiting the young into the war effort.
Our hero is an old man, a former sniper who, thanks to a single dramatic photograph, became the symbol of America’s fight against Islam when he served. He isn’t a radical man. What he most wants is to be left alone so that he can restore classic muscle cars, which have become virtually illegal in an age of eco-conscious electric vehicles. He is not a stable man. When the PTSD hits, the ghosts from his previous kills, some intended, some accidental. visit him to display their wounds and feed his guilt. He is not a man who is at ease with his family or his community or with the choices he made along the way. He is a man who takes responsibility for himself and who will not bow to pressure.
The course of action that he picks is brave but doomed and unintentionally makes him a symbol for a movement he does not want to lead and could not define.
As I watched him travel his path to its inevitable conclusion, I kept seeing Clint Eastwood in his seventies, laconic, determined and not quite in tune with the world that he is helping to change.
The language of the book is thought-provoking and resonated with my own thinking even though my politics are far away from those of this ex-soldier.
My favourite quote is something said by the woman he loved but did not marry. She is also old and her expression of helplessness in the face of unwanted change resonated with me:
Too much has happened—changed. You can feel it, like rot. I don’t see a lot of pleasure in getting older. It seems like everything good is behind us.
The ending of the book manages to be both iconic and plausible. If someone has the good sense to make this into a movie, the final scene would be instant meme-fodder.
I’m sorry only to have discovered Robert Dunn’s work via his obituary. I’d have like to have written to him and told him that his book touched me. The best I can do now is read the rest of what he wrote.
A note for the unconvinced
If Dunn’s future America sounds far-fetched to you, take a look at this speech by Michael Flynn
“If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God.”Michael Flynn 2021-11-13
Or this speech by the then President Trump to American Evangelicals.