A Dystopian Novel That Foreshadowed Our Present Moment

George Washington Bridge seen from Fort Lee, N.J. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Our officials lack moral strength, which is what disappeared from the world that D. Keith Mano evoked in his novel The Bridge.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE M en and women wearing masks shuffle wearily through the desolate ruins of a failed country. It’s not healthy or safe to be out, and public places are barren. Storefronts are boarded up. Encounters of any length with other human beings are few and far between, and often revolve around the transactional or coerced provision of food or sex. With no one carrying out municipal services of any kind, nature has begun to reclaim urban grids, and bridges, roads, tunnels, and buildings have fallen into disuse and disrepair. Police do not respond to emergencies. The government, or what’s left of it, is an aloof, hostile presence. Citizens have been conditioned to hate their heritage and culture, or what little remains; they’ve come to hate themselves. Believing in the value of what past generations have done, built, and achieved, and in the right of people to live as they have for generations, is not just out of fashion; it’s illegal.

The country has decided, in essence, that it simply doesn’t deserve to go on, that there’s nothing at all worth upholding and preserving, that it would be better if people killed one another off or died of disease, hunger, or despair.

Much of this vision is disturbingly familiar to Americans in 2020, even if a few of the particulars don’t yet apply at this point in time. Yet the fictional scenario described above is of a somewhat earlier vintage. How remarkable that a novelist way back in the early 1970s set forth a dystopian vision whose accuracy, whose sheer uncanny prescience, will amaze readers today.

That wordsmith is D. Keith Mano (1942–2016), a prolific writer, journalist, and National Review contributor, and the novel is The Bridge, a dark, gripping, brilliantly written book published in 1973 and now out of print but not hard to find a copy of online. The Bridge is the story of Dominick Priest, a denizen of the decaying East Coast of the United States who makes his way out of Manhattan and through parts of the tri-state area in the hope of meeting up with his pregnant wife.

He’ll need luck. A mysterious official body known as the Council has decided to end life as we know it. The country is in ruins following an official decree of the Council’s Emergency Committee on Respiration, passed on July 7, 2035, that people are too destructive of the natural and microbial environment to have any right to go on with their careers, relationships, and lives.

It’s not just pollution and forgetting to recycle that has led to this decree. Even the act of breathing, you see, destroys microscopic organisms in the air. Who are we to say that our accomplishments, our civilization, our lives, have more value than those microscopic beings? Relativism has won. To live, let alone take pride in living, in America is unthinkable and impermissible.

“We of the Council, convened in full, have decided that man in good conscience can no longer permit this wanton destruction of our fellow creatures, whose right to exist is fully as great as ours,” the decree states. “It is therefore decreed that men, in spontaneous free will and contrition, voluntarily accede to the termination of their species.” The operative word is contrition. Guilt is a force eating people from inside. Citizens are too cowed, too stricken with guilt, to mount any organized resistance to the Council’s diktat. Although not all have chosen to give up on life, everything is in ruins and life expectancy for citizens is low indeed.

Though writing in 1973, Mano adumbrates a lot of what we’re hearing these days from leftist mobs who want us to feel so guilty about our collective past that we’ll readily accede to the defacing and demolition of statues and monuments and to the contrition instilled by initiatives such as the New York Times’ 1619 Project. Using words that the authors of that project would no doubt approve, the official decree in The Bridge further states, “It is hoped, brethren, that you will donate your physical bodies to the earth in such a manner that the heinous crimes of murder and pollution committed by our race throughout history may in some small way find redress.”

Over the course of the narrative, Mano conveys the full breadth of his vision in broad strokes and in telling details. In the progressive world Mano describes, the values of the politically incorrect are anathema. Seemingly innocent activities that appeared fine until just recently are verboten. A plaque in a public place refers to “yankee stadium / Where in an age of brutality and ignorance, men presumed to compete against their brother men.”

The novel’s hero, Priest, we learn, has not given up his hunting knife even though keeping such an item is a criminal offense in this brave new world. Though illegal, the choice to retain a weapon serves Priest well as the narrative unfolds.

To describe the happenings in the book as Priest’s adventures does not do justice to the relentless bleakness of Mano’s vision. One awful, shocking event follows another. The titular edifice is the George Washington Bridge, which Priest crosses in a harrowing scene early in the novel. It’s harrowing both because of the advanced decay of the bridge, which Mano conveys in elaborate technical detail, and because of Priest’s encounter with a distraught young man moving over the bridge in the opposite direction, from New Jersey to Manhattan. It’s clear that one of them probably won’t make it across.

This meeting of two desperate individuals who can barely communicate with each other is typical of the freak encounters that fill The Bridge. Citizens have mostly abandoned verbal communication in favor of a putatively more democratic kind of sign language. They converse with little pushes, nudges, and taps. More often than not, communication fails and people resort to violence.

Mano tops it off with a cruel piece of wacko satirical bizarrerie. A new custom is in place whereby citizens are supposed to touch each other’s genitals very lightly when they first meet. No outdated prudence about the body or sexual matters while the world as we know it is falling apart!

Reading The Bridge is an unforgettable experience. Priest has many more violent and disturbing encounters before he connects in the novel’s final third with a quasi-religious figure, Xavier Paul, who has much wisdom to impart. Their lengthy exchanges reach a level of philosophical profundity. To say more about the plot would spoil the novel. It is a fine literary achievement, written in a terse yet agile, dexterous, evocative prose recalling James Dickey’s Deliverance.

In passages such as this one, Mano nicely balances action and description:

It began to rain. Drizzle glossed the sheathing; particles of rust floated in a slick, superficial colloid. It lubricated the front of Priest’s insect suit. He tobogganed down the cable slant without effort, twenty feet at a time. Once, he skidded the full length of a single tubular sheath, stopped abruptly as the vine snagged below. Explosive drops pelted down. He could see whitecaps on the river; they seemed spread wings of gulls. . . . The rain continued; then the heavens seemed to inhale, a great diaphragm held taut.

The Bridge is above all a book about self-abnegation, the wish to repudiate who we are and where we’ve come from, the abandonment of moral courage, and the slow-motion suicide of a nation that wallows in such toxic emotions. Change a few details, and limit somewhat the scope of the devastation, and The Bridge is very much a novel about 2020. Reading it, I thought of the rioting, arson, and assaults on citizens taking place daily against a backdrop of sanctimony about the selfishness of failing to wear your mask or distance yourself — unless, of course, you want to go and join a BLM “protest,” in which case, knock yourself out. I thought of numerous reports of fireworks fully equivalent to a good part of a stick of dynamite going off in residential neighborhoods at all hours of the night, and one report of a toddler being severely injured. This writer has acquaintances who say they have called 911 only to be told that they should take the matter up with a nonemergency body that will, when contacted, advise them to do what they’ve already done and call 911 again. And I thought of weak, so-called community-oriented approaches to countering violent crime.

If the New York City police are not under official orders to stand down in the face of the devastation, they might as well be. What our officials and emergency services lack is the same thing that has disappeared from the world Mano evokes, and that quality is moral strength.

Perhaps the scenario evoked in The Bridge is too general in nature to belong to Mano or to any one writer. But anybody who reads Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road and Mano’s The Bridge, published 33 years earlier, will quickly see how much the later novel has in common with the earlier one. The two books are remarkably similar both in their general storyline — a survivor wanders through the ruins of a disaster-stricken America — as well as in their unremitting atmosphere of bleakness and despair. Though the catastrophe that leaves America in ruins in The Road is different in nature, The Road is the closest fictional analogue to The Bridge that this writer can think of.

Mano got there first, and he also beat another very fine writer, Ian MacMillan, to the punch. MacMillan’s 1981 novel Blakely’s Ark is the chronicle of a boy wandering through upstate New York in the midst of a pandemic not unlike the one we are struggling through now, but much deadlier. All the novels mentioned here are better by far, from a literary viewpoint, than Stephen King’s much more widely read 1978 magnum opus, The Stand, in which the remnants of post-epidemic America band together in two mutually antagonistic communities, one in Boulder and one in Las Vegas.

If The Stand is a novel about the need to find ways to incorporate difficult, immature, but gifted individuals into a society (Harold Lauder in Boulder and the Trashcan Man in Vegas), in order to harness those gifts for the greater good of the community, then The Bridge is about the consequences of failing to find moral strength and resolve.

Or, to put it another way, to stand up to a cancel culture that tells us to abandon any pride in who we are and what we’ve accomplished.

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