In its brief concept description, the publisher described The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering by Jeffrey Rotter as “A Clockwork Orange with a Huck Finn heart.” Now that got my attention and also colored the way I looked at this near-future dystopian novel while reading it. In some ways, I think the publisher nailed it, and that description illustrates both the novel’s strength and possibly its weakness. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this twisted tale or I wouldn’t be reviewing it, much less offering a giveaway for a copy you can win. I’m just giving you a heads up that this one is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Read on to see if it appeals to you and, if it does, be sure to enter our giveaway!
The Van Zandt family lives in an America of the near future; a land where much has been forgotten, hidden, or has become forbidden. The Earth has regained its rightful place as the center of the universe, with the sun circling it, and is now believed to be surrounded by an impenetrable glass wall called the Night Glass. Those pretty things shining in the sky at night are just like tiny nightlights. Other planets? Seriously? You must be joking – never heard of them.
You guessed it. This planet, or at least the U.S., has devolved into its lowest common denominator, and ignorance and stupidity rule. Although it’s every man for himself, step one inch outside of some invisible line and you get sent to the Pens or worse.
The Van Zandt family’s home is a shambles of a tower-block dorm called the Gables in Floriday. There’s Papa Van Zandt, Umma, Faron, and Rowan, who’s the narrator of this story. Papa Van Zandt has a really nice side and a really violent side, and it doesn’t take much for something to flip him from sweet as pie to nasty as hell. That’s how he ended up in the Cuba Pens, the nearest pens to the Van Zandts’ Floriday dorm home.
“Pop’s boots thundered overhead as they dragged him down the steps. I heard him keen like a dray horse. He was a beast bred for strength and compliance who now strained at the bridle. I looked back to see a woman haul I Murder’s body out with a hook. He was the ham in the omelet, precisely that significant and exactly that dead…Pop would spend the night in a cell down in Georgietown. Next morning they would chain his legs to the rail of a gunboat and float him back to the Cuba Pens. So began our sorrow.”
“The sentence for slaying I Murder was fourteen years plus wage garnishment for another ten. We’d be in the tower blocks forever. If Pop did live long enough to win release, he’d toss a Stairdweller into the airshaft and get sent down again in no time.”
Faron and Rowan constantly got into small scrapes but one day they outdid themselves. Rowan loved to hop on the tour buses and ride along with the tourists. He dreamed of one day becoming a tour bus announcer. After riding along so many times, he knew the spiel by heart and was sure that becoming a tour announcer was not only the most wonderful job in Floriday but that it would be his ticket out of the horrible life he was living.
Faron decided to give Rowan his chance, mostly because he was sick of hearing about it, so he literally highjacked a busload of tourists so Rowan could try his hand at giving the tour spiel. Needless to say the authorities were not any more pleased with this development than the tourists onboard the bus. When Faron crashed the bus into one of the old closed-down Miamy Zoo’s exhibits, right in the middle of some wild animals who had survived, he and Rowan were carted off to the Bosom Industries House of Corrections in Hiya City once the cops could get to the bus without getting killed in the process. It looks like both of these young boys are going to get to join their dad in the Cuba pens, and Rowan’s dream is shattered.
But something very odd happens. Terry Nguyen shows up at Umma’s door. After talking to her about a new discovery and the Astronomer fairy tale, and getting her signature on all of the contracts and waivers, he not only gets the boys out of jail and takes them home but he springs Pop Van Zandt out of the Cuba Pens. What Umma agrees to is complete criminal record amnesty for her sons and husband if the whole family trains for and tests out the Orion spaceship found in an underground bunker in what used to be Cape Canaveral. If they don’t fulfill their contract, they go right back to prison.
“It did not ease her irritation when Terry turned the conversation to fairy tales. ‘You have heard of the Astronomers?’ though of course she had. Everyone had.
…to the rest of the world – to jellyfishers, crackers, finkies, and swells, to Bosom families and Consolidated alike – the stars are not real. Astronomy, if spoken of at all, is regarded as a delusional cult scarcely more respectable than Jesus Lovers. The Chiefs long back did the decent thing and decided to put both gangs out of business. The Jesus Lovers dug in; you still see their lower case t scratched on fence posts with a ten-dollar nail. But the Astronomers went off quietly and without leaving a trace or sign.”
“’Launchepad 39B,’ said Nguyen. ‘Take a good look. This is the last acre of Earth your feet are going to stand on.’
Umma spoke for the first time, her voice small enough to get Terry’s attention.
‘Are we a sacrifice?’ she said.
He pushed on through a bog of scrub palms and onto a dirt road. ‘Miss Van Zandt,’ Terry said. ‘Bear in mind that everything I tell you is a fairy tale. Or perhaps it isn’t.’
‘Did they ever make it through, though?’ By which she meant through the Night Glass.”
And so it begins. The Van Zandts and another family learn the secrets about the universe that no one else on the planet is allowed to know; that the fairy tales are true, that the Night Glass doesn’t exist, and that there’s a huge universe out there filled with other planets. Not only that but they are taught everything they’ll need to know to fly the Orion to Europa and possibly not just survive the trip but survive living there.
Their heads are soon bursting with knowledge they could never have imagined, knowledge that changes how at least some of them see their world. But what price will this knowledge have on them collectively and individually? Can they cope with this kind of dissonance from everything they’ve believed to be true? What kind of personal crises will each of them face and what will become of the Van Zandt family? Can they go through with what they’ve contracted to do? What will happen if they can’t?
Rowan is in some ways a fish out of water in his family, although Umma is like him in many ways. She’s smart and so is he. I’m not going to give you insight into Pop Van Zandt or Faron to avoid spoilers. I’m also only going to say that the other family training to go into space contains a daughter who becomes a love interest for at least one of the Van Zandt sons. I’m not saying more about that family to avoid spoilers.
The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering is a short novel that could almost fall within the realm of theater of the absurd. I found it to be very interesting as a character study and a what-if for the future. It’s a story about how a family as an entity and each of its members copes when their entire world is turned upside down. It does contain a lot of distorted words, place names, and jargon we use now that has been distorted by time and the descent into illiteracy. That said, I quickly became accustomed to those word changes, and then they didn’t even register as I read. I don’t think this novel is for everyone. I know other reviewers haven’t all been kind about it, which is exactly what happened when A Clockwork Orange came out. I found this novel to be a very interesting concept and a cautionary tale of what could easily happen to our world. If it sounds like a book you might be interested in, be sure to enter our giveaway below.
Can’t wait to read it?
The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering was published on April 7, 2015, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below, or in the right column for iBooks.
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One lucky reader will win an ARC (advance readers copy) of The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering by Jeffrey Rotter!
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