Parasites Like Us by Adam Johnson. New York, Penguin Books. 2004. $14.00 (Trade Paperback)
Hank Hannah, a South Dakota anthropology professor, studies the prehistoric Clovis people, makers of the Clovis point, an arrowhead he believes was responsable for the extinction of 35 land mammals.
But Hannah's life is falling apart. Since the death of Hannah's step-mother, Hannah's father has been popping Viagra like there's no tomorrow, while Hannah can't connect with anyone, though he would really kinda sorta like to spend some time with one of his students, but he knows that's wrong. But how could something so wrong feel so right?
In the midst of this quandary, one of Hannah's students, who happens to live as though he were a Clovis, (no modern technology of any kind-including Doritoes, though his breath may occasionally smell strangely of cheese flavored snackfoods) has made an incredible anthropological find: a Clovis arrowhead, which leads him to a skeleton and a strange orb...
Unfortunately, before Hannah can study the find, he is thrown into jail for grave robbing, resisting arrest, assualt, etc. As if that weren't bad enough, a devestating epidemic has broken out and it looks like the world is finally ending. But Hannah, along with his students, is strangely unaffected. Now, if he can just escape from the trigger happy sherrif and the remaining townspeople and find the key to their immunity, humanity might survive.
I picked this book up in the bookstore at which I currently work. The comparisons to Vonnegut and my own past dabblings in Anthropological study made it seem like a good choice. The twist on the Armageddon story seemed especially intriguing.
And to read the summary I've just written, it still sounds interesting. Actually it sounds like a really fast paced story. It is very funny. The situations and characters are unfamiliar (that's a good thing), entertaining and at times border on zaniness.
The problem is that the book has no center. What exactly caused the epidemic? This is never really explained. We think it came from pigs, so all the pigs are destroyed. Then it's birds, so likewise, nix the birds. Early on, there is an implication that Hannah himself could have spread something through fleas. But it's never really explained. The epidemic starts after the Clovis skeleton is uncovered, so is that the cause? Without any authorial guidance, I'm just fumbling in the dark here. Nor does Hannah stop at any point and say, "Well, we don't really know what killed everyone, so you'll just have to chalk that up as a loss."
Parasites reads like a prequel for a story we've already read. Unfortunately, we haven't. The book is very intertaining and I enjoyed reading it; I just wish Johnson had had a better editor, a little guidance. Regardless, I will definately read his other work.