Underground Reading: The Rest Must Die by Richard Foster
Monday, August 22, 2011
Richard Foster's The Rest Must Die (1959) begins with Bob Foster, advertising executive, returning from a boozy lunch. He's busy dreaming up his new cigarette campaign on the walk back to the office when the air-raid siren goes off. Like the well-trained Cold War civilian that he is, Foster dives into the nearest shelter - a subway station.
The hundreds of New Yorkers in the station stand around awkwardly, waiting to return to their lives above ground. But (drumroll) this is not to be. One rumble after another means that something is happening on the surface - and then one man stumbles down, face burned, screaming about the mushroom clouds.
The book follows the surviving New Yorkers as they fashion a rough subterranean society underneath the radioactive remnants of their city. Initially, survival is a rough scramble for the basic necessities: food, water and shelter.
As those are sorted, the focus broadens to the group's social dynamics. Now that the world has changed, who is in control? Police officers and air-raid wardens try to keep order, but even the tiny civilisation in the subways has its malcontents. A few hardened criminals lead a breakaway group, a cop snaps and goes "bad" and, of course, there are the hundreds and hundreds of people who adjust to the new world (dis)order by turning, essentially, feral.
Fortunately, some men (and a rare few women) rise to the occasion. Bob is one of them. Despite losing his entire family to the bombs, he quickly puts himself in order and takes command. From the opening minutes, Bob is a voice of calm, rational thought. He's also one of the first to adjust to the concept that society-as-we-know-it is over, suggesting to the reigning police cabal that they destroy the alcohol, ration the food and horde the weapons.
Bob's role in the book is almost entirely functional. He very rarely takes a misstep and, instead, he blandly plows through the post-apocalyptic landscape, giving one good idea after another. He's a mouthpiece for Mr. Foster's own "common sense", an idea-of-the-day calendar for after the bombs fall. Of more interest, at least comparatively, are Connie Lomer and Herbert Sanders.
Connie is (surpise!) a high-end call girl. Her first few days under the surface are tense ones - she's recognized by a sleazy former client and fending off his advances swiftly becomes her new full-time job. Even after order is restored, the underground society is a dangerous one for women, with "rapings" occurring with some regularity. ("Rapings" is a very bizarre construction of the word, and not one I'm familiar with in mid-century fiction. My only guess is that Mr. Foster uses it in a misguided attempt to add to the "scientific" air of the book.) Connie, if you'll pardon the cliche, "finds herself" in the new world. She shrugs off the danger and, cloaked in some sort of emotional imperturbability, takes command of comforting the frailer women and their families. While Bob finds the group safe shelter in a department store basement, it is Connie that makes it feel "lived-in".
Herbert, the nebbish, middle-aged accountant, also rises to the challenge of the new world. Initially, he's a blinking, owl-eyed little man who can't remember names and scuttles from corner to corner. Herbert, however, is also a hobbyist when it comes to radiation (he's convinced that Air Force testing near his home may damage his wife of 22 years). He's carrying his new "ion chamber" when the destruction begins and rapidly becomes an invaluable resource to Bob and others. Herbert's never felt useful before, nor has he ever had a breath of real danger in his life.
Herbert is a strangely inspiring figure: the everyman to Bob's ubermensch. Herbert picks up a black eye while defending Connie from an overly-aggressive pursuer, a badge he wears with pride. His trivial knowledge ("I read a lot") helps the group survive. Before the end of the book, Herbert's (rather violently) renounced his previous life (including his poor, tolerant, annihilated wife) and hooked up with an attractive former-call-girl half his age. Not the most progressive of heroic transformations, but still the most intriguing one in the book. Bob is a plot device, Herbert is a daydream.
The Rest Must Die's post-apocalyptic society makes more sense viewed in the light of with Richard Morgan's concept of the Virilicide. Mr. Foster decries the soft "togetherness" of the civilised world ("it was once a good idea before it got taken up by the wrong people"), and blames much of the resulting anarchy on that softness. But when the going gets tough, a new, rough caste of alpha males is suddenly required for survival. Bob, who has never fired a gun, soon becomes a stone-cold killer, gunning down looters with his Sten gun. Herbert, once a shy pencil-pusher taps his inner manly-man and becomes the champion of the downtrodden. Other men can't make the change. They've adapted to become successful in the squishy-soft world of the office and the Rotary Club. Now, when faced with real problems, they're incapable of overcoming their newfound insignificance.
Sadly, The Rest Must Die lacks Mr. Morgan's insight or self-awareness. Whereas Mr. Morgan explores the concept of primal masculinity more even-handedly (and, in fact, from an adamantly feminist point of view), Mr. Foster's book takes the Virilicide at face value. When the shit hits the fan (or bombs hit Long Island), only the men that are Men and the women that are Women can preserve the species. Mr. Foster is at least inclusive enough to include a certain amount of intellectual masculinity (a rarity in the let's-kill-the-scientists-first mantra of the late 1950's). But, when it comes down to it, Mr. Foster sees post-apocalyptic survival paralleling the prehistoric: men in caves, women dragged about by their hair, he who makes fire leads the clan.