The Last Good Man, Thomas McMullan (Bloomsbury 978-1-526-60924-3, £12.99, 313pp, hc) November 2020.
Did you know there’s a Wikipedia entry on Online Shaming with more than 140 references and what feels like an endless (though I’m sure not complete) list of examples? I didn’t; though, given the way Twitter and social media more broadly have made the act of “dog-piling” so much easier, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. While I’m personally not a fan of shaming anyone, I do appreciate that there are instances where calling out the actions of the vile and wicked, particularly those in a position of influence and power, is the right thing to do. But what about when the person isn’t famous or influential, and their crime is mundane, such as having an affair or not wearing a mask during a pandemic – is it right then? This is the question central to Thomas McMullan’s debut, The Last Good Man, where the residents of a village in a post-apocalyptic world have settled on an unconventional method of enforcing discipline.
We’re first introduced to Duncan Peck, armed with a gun, after he’s made the dangerous journey to the outskirts of a small village near Dartmoor. The first thing he witnesses before he enters the town is a group of men and women gagging and binding the legs of an injured man they’ve dragged from the peaty bog. They are led by a familiar face, Peck’s estranged cousin James Hale, the same James Hale who, after years of radio silence, invites Peck to visit the place he now calls home. Keeping his distance from theposse and their quarry as they head toward town, Peck spies a wall, a vast edifice, “the shape of a landscape painting, at least the size of a large barn,” marked with messages such as those you might find on a community notice board – “A pair of glasses have been found outside the church hall, left lens smashed” – but also nasty accusations of crimes committed, painted in large, red letters:
GEOFF SHARPE DOESN’T CUT THE MEAT GOOD. I SAW GEOFF SHARPE STEALING SLIVERS. NOBODY LIKES GEOFF SHARPE. I HOPE GEOFF SHARPE DIES.
Geoff Sharpe is, of course, the man pulled from the mire whom Peck saw gagged and bound and who will shortly be tied to scaffolding where, before the enraptured gaze of the entire village, James Hale will break one of his legs. This is how law and order is doled out in the town. Each night the townspeople paint their accusations on the wall, and the next morning, without any thought given to due process, James Hale metes out punishment. If the sin is relatively minor, the accused will be “burdened,” that is, forced to walk around the village with a piece of furniture strapped to their back. But if they do a runner, then Hale and his “chasers” will hunt down the individual and, just like Geoff Sharpe, they will be bound to scaffolding or put in stocks, their shame and guilt on public display.
It’s a terrific conceit, one that’s both unsettling – the wall’s looming presence, casting judgement over the village – and strange – the first (and subsequent) times we encounter a person with a table or a chest of drawers tethered to their body. There’s also a pervasive sense of foreboding fuelled by the certainty that one of the main characters will end up with their names on the wall, whether that be Peck, the stranger who has come to town; or Hale, who is having an affair with his next-door neighbour Charlotte; or Charlotte’s husband, Peter, who is awkward, clumsy, and terrible at his job. When weaved together, the atmosphere of paranoia, and the anonymous acts of spite illustrate the addictive and infectious power of hate. And just like those who try to stop a social media pile-on, Peck’s belated effort to bring people together, to encourage forgiveness and contrition, has only minimal effect.
As much as I enjoyed the novel’s trappings, I do have a couple of gripes with The Last Good Man. Particularly, there were times when I found McMullan’s prose to be a little too measured and polished, the rough edges sanded away. The story could also have been snappier, as once the novelty of the worldbuilding wears off the narrative flags until an explosive turning point (no spoilers) midway through the book. Despite these reservations, there’s a lot to like about McMullan’s debut; he elegantly crafts a society where humiliation seems less a deterrent and more a form of cruel entertainment, post-apocalyptic bread and circuses.
This review and more like it in the January 2021 issue of Locus.
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