As stated on Twitter, I recently picked up Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse an anthology of post-apocalyptic shorts. The series includes many notable authors, some of whom were recommended to me. With this series, I want to look at each story to get a better grasp on the plot, characters, and the apocalypse itself. This promises to be one of the few times The Rad-lands will be breaking away from specifically post-nuclear fiction.
“Salvage” is one of those stories that just makes me roll my lips and go “brrrrrtttt” until I run out of air. I had to read this story twice because the first run just didn’t stick with me. It’s purely subjective, but something about the prose or the way characters talk gave my internal narrator an uncomfortable southern drawl that made the words feel slow and sticky, similar to Willem Dafoe’s performance as Rat in Fantastic Mr. Fox. While hunting down illustrations for this piece, I noticed that discussion on this story is pretty scant. Frankly, I wasn’t surprised to find “Salvage” has a 2.5/5 average on Goodreads. That having been said, if you can get past the thick dialect and the lack of context for the surrounding world, I think you’ll find something worth salvaging from the murky depths of The Mormon Sea.
The set-up is pretty simple. Nuclear apocalypse wipes out almost everyone. The Mormon Church of Utah survived and sent out their tendrils to become a post-apocalyptic government while imposing their tenants as law. A teenage salvager named Deaver Teague drives a truck around the surrounding area in search of washing machines, computers, and other technological trinkets.
I found Deaver to be quite an interesting character as many of his actions and thoughts contain obvious contradictions and fallacies which he is seemingly blind to. As I understood it, Deaver is essentially an atheist who laughs at the Mormon traditions and sees the church as an authoritarian regime rather than traditional government. This is supported by Deaver noting that high ranking Mormons always take the seats of mayor and judge in new frontier towns, but that towns who still enjoy their coffee don’t tolerate this intrusive Mormon governing. A complete lack of belief places Deaver apart from the story’s other two characters, Lehi and Rain, who might not practice the Mormon traditions, but still respect them. Deaver however, openly mocks Mormons and their rituals at every opportunity.
The story takes place in communities encircling a place called The Mormon Sea, a massive body of water too salty to drink. Tips of skyscrapers and pre-war Mormon temples are as icebergs rising from the murky waters. While local legend says the drowned temples are haunted and holy, Deaver considers this superstition and launches an elaborate plan to rob the temples of Mormon gold.
Deaver’s character and monologue are based around a disrespect, not for Mormonism in particular, but of the pre-apocalyptic world in general. Several times throughout the story Deaver mentions that he only lives in the new world and implies that clinging to the old world is useless. This attitude is so extreme that Deaver believes the skyscraper tips rising from The Mormon Sea should be cut down. His mother-figure, Rain, insists that the skyscrapers are not a reminder of how far humanity has fallen, but a reminder of how tall it once stood. That single line carries a lot of weight in how we perceive post-apocalyptic worlds in general.
From the last two paragraphs, you might start to see why Deaver is such a flawed and outright contradictory character. Deaver’s goal throughout the story is to reject the past and live in the future, but his only plan for achieving this is to steal the Mormon gold of the past. The worst part is that Deaver doesn’t realize this contradiction, ever. Even when he learns there is no gold buried in the drowned temple, his response is something to the effect of “I came to find my hope, but I found yours.”
Deaver doesn’t progress as a character. He learns the truth about the haunted temple and the legends of gold, but the result of that discovery does not change his character or his outlook on life, at least not significantly. In the beginning, Deaver hauled salvage across the Utah wastes, biding his time until he could go on a diving expedition to steal the Mormon gold. At the end of the story, Deaver walks away from the communities around the Mormon Sea in hopes of starting a new life in the “New Soil Lands.” The problem then is that nothing has changed.
Deaver accepts that salvage will eventually dry up (but realistically it will take decades, if not centuries, depending upon how many survived outside of Utah). However, Deaver also wants to be rich and famous. Having his own salvaged ratrod isn’t good enough, he wants to open a factory that produces brand new cars. Deaver is like so many would-be entrepreneurs. He has the idea, but has no idea how to achieve it. He doesn’t even know where to start.
Deaver begins as an impatient huckster plotting his next get-rich-quick scheme. He ends furious at the Mormons and his friends, but largely unchanged. At the conclusion, Deaver mentions applying for a land grant on the New Soil Lands. While the occupation of farming on these lands may imply Deaver has learned patience (after all, a corn field doesn’t pop up in a day), there are two problems.
The first is that is a massive leap in both logic and the protagonist’s motivations when the New Soil Lands were only mentioned twice throughout the story. The second is that it’s made clear the best salvage and much of the electricity produced in and around The Mormon Sea go to the New Soil Lands.
Deaver is established as a character who hates living on the corpse of the old world, but when his heist to find his fortune by robbing the corpse of the old world fails, he decides to go to a place with a new world name that relies on building upon the ruins of the old world. Deaver begins by collecting raw salvage and ends by applying to a job relying on processed salvage. Yet it’s not an epiphany about the relationship between the old world and the new that causes him to do this, it’s only because his most recent get-rich-quick scheme failed.
So the question is, why does “Salvage” exist? Who is it for? The story isn’t a coming of age, a take on new traditions vs old traditions, or a guide for accepting your place in society. At the end of the story, Deaver feels sorry for the Mormons, believing they live in the past while he lives in the future. Again, nothing has changed.
Deaver learning the truth about the drowned temples did not further his character or help the reader understand Mormonism. Ultimately, this story feels like someone had a neat idea, wrote some acceptable characters to move the reader through the setting, but never developed that neat idea into a story. It’s not just a lack of character development, it’s a lack of closure and meaning.