I've always been a huge fan of end-of-the-world, apocalyptic thrillers. I'd like to say that Stephen King's The Stand is responsible, but it's actually Isaac Asimov's The Last Man on Earth anthology that sticks in my head as my first exposure to the subject. In fact, I still have the tattered old paperback sitting on my shelf today!
Anyway, I've read a lot of apocalyptic tales over the years, some of which I've quite enjoyed, and others which have fallen flat. Generally, I find that I tend to be drawn more to the 'epic' stories, the massive doorstoppers that explore every aspect of the disaster. However, the stories that often work the best, the ones that resonate the strongest and stick with me the longest, are the more intimate tales.
That the niche into which Ray Gorham's 77 Days in September falls. It starts with an 'epic' feel, bouncing around between characters and settings, but only to establish the facts of what's happening . . . and to remove all doubt as to the scope of what's happened. The story really gets going with a plane crash that rivals just about anything on screen in terms of excitement and drama. It's set up nicely, making us care about the characters involved, and then is played out extremely well.
Once we get beyond the plane crash, however, our scope slowly begins to narrow until we really get to the heart of the novel - Kyle's long walk home (across a hostile, desolate America) and his wife's struggle to believe in his return (in a small town with its own hostilities). It's a story telling device that works particularly well, allowing us to follow that most intimate of tales, the struggle for one man's survival against the most overwhelming odds, while at the same time granting us some perspective on the overall situation, through a small-town microcosm of America.
Kyle and Jennifer are both well-developed characters, loving spouses who are suddenly confronted with a physical separation that mirrors their emotional distance of the last few years. Neither knows whether the other is truly alive, and both are faced with temptations throughout their ordeal. Even if Kyle does reveal a few personality flaws along the way, it's entirely unrealistic to expect anybody to be a candidate for sainthood after having spent months walking across the country. The subplot of Jennifer's stalker is, perhaps, a bit too typical of the genre, but it's handled well . . . and sets up a final resolution that really puts the emotional cap on the story.
If I had one complaint about the novel, it's the way in which the political sub-plot seems to just fade away. There's a significant focus early on around one US Senator that seemed to have some potential, but just when I thought she was being left behind like the other victims, she resurfaces for an oddly-placed scene, only to be forgotten again - this time for good. I would have liked to see more of her story, or else not go back to her at all that last time, but it's my only real quibble.
This was an exciting, fast-paced, nicely detailed story. Gorham never goes over-the-top in his descriptions of the horrors and the gore, which makes the darker elements all the more effective. He balances the emotions of the situation well, contrasting fear with courage, despair with hope, and animal lust with human love. The few human interactions Kyle encounters on his journey are nicely balanced as well, driving home the fact that the odds are truly against him, but also recognizing the fact that there are good people in any situation.