The Last Town On Earth

Written by Thomas Mullen
Review by Sarah Bower

The year is 1918 and we are deep in the forests of WashingtonState among the townsfolk of Commonwealth, a logging town founded on progressive principles and a refuge for early feminists, union men and Wobblies, all victims of the violent imposition of capitalism in the newly industrialised United States. When the Spanish flu epidemic reaches their area, Commonwealth’s founding fathers decide to quarantine the town, a decision which will have far-reaching consequences and will lead to the virtual destruction of their utopia.

                Mullen’s debut novel is as upright, square-jawed and serious as the people he writes about and, alas, as wooden. He has a good story to tell, weaving together the flu epidemic, America’s entry into the First World War and its pioneering history of labour organisation. He has done his research thoroughly and developed his characters carefully. What he has failed to do is successfully embed his work in the fiction. Each character has a full back story, but, with the honourable exception of Philip Worthy, the novel’s main protagonist, this is given in a series of dedicated chapters rather than being revealed or concealed as the story dictates. The storytelling is unbalanced, with the many fight scenes being given in meticulous detail, while the accounts of the flu and its effects employ a limited and repetitive syntax, and the sexual awakenings of Philip and his friend, Graham Strong (oh yes, name and nature) are sketchy to the point of coyness.

                The cover blurb states that film rights have already been bought by Dreamworks. If I were you, I’d wait for the movie, in the hope that it will be imaginatively scripted, well cast and skilfully directed. Then we might be on to something.