I’m always game for a book with an apocalyptic premise, as is the case with Benjamin Warner’s 2016 novel, Thirst. The premise is that Eddie and his wife, Laura, are stuck in a suburban neighborhood, a few miles just outside of a major city, with no electricity, running water, and seemingly no help on the way. But it’s not only that … there is also something unexplained going on because nearby streambeds have turned to ash, as if some fire washed through every possible body of water in the vicinity.
Eddie is not much in the way of being a likeable character. He bosses Laura around, withholds information (like about the ashen streambed), and worse yet, he steals a jug of water from an elderly woman in the neighborhood and stashes it in the woods for later. Laura, for her part, mostly exists as a passive, sleeping wife for the first three-thirds of the book.
The suburban neighborhood they are in breaks down fairly quickly, going from the general sentiment being, “Help will be on the way; this happened in 2008, and it was fine within six days.” Well, within less than six days, neighbors are stealing water from each other, hoarding water, and quite literally dying of thirst (and hunger because of the aforementioned issue with electricity). And with thirst, hunger, and desperation comes the usual pitfall of humanity: Turning on each other. Eddie gets into a scuffle with a gentleman he thinks is trying to con him out of his water by claiming it’s for a sick kid; later, Eddie stabs the man to death, arguably inadvertently and/or in self-defense. But he then hides the body.
Eddie and Laura also befriend the family across the street, Mike Sr., Pam, and Mike Jr. Eventually, though, Mike dies of thirst, Pam shoots herself, and Mike Sr. seeks Eddie and Laura out for revenge, primarily because he knows they absconded with his water jug.
As the story develops, Eddie and Laura devolve further into dehydration (grossly drinking their own pee, for example, which, don’t do that!), dreariness, headaches, and so on, Laura reveals to her husband (emphasis because I don’t see how this only now came out!) that she was previously pregnant at the age of 15 and had the kid, but the kid was killed in a tragic car accident. Which itself is a set-up for Laura to tell Eddie she’s pregnant now. I feel like the pregnancy angle is overdone in post-apocalyptic stories to up the stakes. As far as I can tell, it also didn’t lead anywhere here.
Nonetheless, the last third of the book is largely, I believe, Warner trying to capture the hallucinatory effects Eddie and Laura are experiencing from the lack of water and food, and he does a commendable job of doing it, even if it can be hard to follow exactly what is occurring. The gist of it is that in a bid to get away from dangerous water hoarders, Eddie and Laura end up in an ash pit, and Eddie kills her in his hallucinatory state. Then, he emerges from the ash with the thought of journeying to her parents’ house because they have well water. Along the way, he thinks he’s with a little boy he saw earlier in the book covered in ash. I think we’re supposed to understand the boy to be something of a mirage.
At the end of the book, Eddie reaches a group of “survivors,” if you will, who have figured out how to turn salt water into drinkable water, and they further explain that they think whatever caused other bodies of water to vanish left the salt water alone because of its saltiness.
Overall, I would put Thirst up there with those B-level horror films I loved seeking out at Blockbuster. They’re a fun evening watch, without being overly taxing, and not exactly something I’d go out of my way to recommend. But also, not a time-waster! Just fun, which in a way, is a recommendation.
Plus, whatever I think of some of the plot holes I could identify, or the weakness of the dialogue in parts, I always appreciate even one good sentence within a book (not saying there aren’t more than one good sentences within) that resonates with me. Laura, in her descent into hallucination, is acting suicidal and nihilistic. She ruminates on a bit of moss she sees, “Everything is set up to fit inside everything else. It just makes me so sad, sometimes, to see it.”
She then implores Eddie to come over and see it. He doesn’t want to feel it, being the jerk he’s been the entire book. But she responds, “It’s perfect and it doesn’t even try. Nothing else has to try.”
That is some great existential crisis rumination based on a little thing of moss. I dig it.