Our road to The Road begins in 1947, with Ward Moore's Greener Than You Think, an apocalyptic comic satire that just cries out for a movie adaptation by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Like Nathanael West’s A Cool Million, Greener Than You Think satirizes America’s rags to riches mythology of upward mobility, except in Moore’s book the protagonist does not end up a disassembled loser. He dooms the world while a door to door salesman and then proceeds to make himself the richest man alive.
The story’s narrator and central figure is the appropriately named Albert Weener, a fussy, positive-thinking mediocrity who sees himself as a great man of unrecognized genius. Weener, Moore tells us (somewhat superfluously) at the outset, is a stand-in for all of us: “You, Sir, Miss, or Madam - whatever your country or station - are Albert Weener. As I am Albert Weener.”
Weener starts out as an irritating salesman who is engaged to sell a new super Miracle Gro-like compound, the “Metamorphizer”. The Metamorphizer is a genetic engineering agent that enables certain species of plants to metabolize anything, and thus grow anywhere. It was invented by an amateur scientist, Josephine Spencer Francis, who like Weener has delusions of grandeur. She created the Metamorphizer to solve all the world’s problems through science: “no more famines in India or China; no more dustbowls; no more wars, depressions, hungry children.”
Weener takes the Metamorphizer, and instead of using it on wheat fields as Francis envisions, goes door to door offering to rehabilitate the dry, brown suburban lawns of Southern California. Only one person takes Weener up on his offer, which is enough to initiate the end of the world. Weener sprays some Metamorphizer on a lawn of near-dead Bermuda grass. That grass quickly spreads, growing in thick, tall tufts, eating up Los Angeles, the U.S. West Coast, and eventually the entire world.
All products of human ingenuity fail against the grass: lawn mowers, scythes, flame throwers, salt, petroleum, paratroopers, high explosives, and nuclear bombs. As the world heads to its doom, Weener’s living the good life. As the grass crisis begins, he’s hired on as a star newspaper reporter, not for his writing (which is abysmal), but because, as the guy who started the crisis, he has the inside scoop. Weener's newspaper career fades as he makes his way in the business world. A lucky stock buy lands him the ownership of Consolidated Pemmican and Allied Concentrates, a joke of a company that sells highly processed food ‘concentrates’. Weener rehabilitates the company as a war profiteer, when he underhandedly snags a contract to sell food concentrates to the military. Consolidated Pemmican and Allied Concentrates' corporate empire finally becomes the last major source of food on what’s left of the planet, but Weener hoards the food stocks, because as society collapses nobody can afford to pay anymore. The mass starvation, rampant crime, and general chaos are annoyances to Weener, who, ensconced in his posh estate and writing his memoirs, reflects on the decaying moral fiber of society, which contrasts his own pluck and determination, the traits that made him a successful businessman.
Capitalists aren’t the only targets of Moore’s satire. Nobody is spared - politicians, the military brass, suburbanites, intellectuals, the press, religious leaders, and scientists. In the face of a threat that could wipe out humanity, the world goes about it’s typical business until the very end.
That includes scientists. Francis, the scientist who invented the Metamorphizer, shows little concern or sense of urgency as she putters about, attempting to find some chemical to stop the progress of the grass. She doesn’t hurry, collaborate, or communicate, and shows little of the grand concern for humanity’s problems that allegedly drove her to create the Metamorphizer in the first place. (In the end, ironically, she has solved humanity's problems by eliminating humanity.) The scientist is a meddler, unleashing the destructive forces of nature without any concern about the consequences. Not that this matters, because all of the scientists in the book, along with all human technology, are completely impotent against the onslaught of the grass.
The book ends with the world uninhabitable, covered entirely with a thick tangle of stories-high Bermuda grass. Weener is out in the Atlantic on his yacht, finishing his memoirs, accompanied by Miss Francis (still working on a counteragent to the grass), his personal staff, a stock of food concentrate, and 50 nubile young women prepared to repopulate the world if they can somehow come upon habitable land.
Moore offers a bitter take on just about all of humanity, and while funny, his satire is so broad it's hard to read a serious social message behind it. (Although, just being funny can be enough, as South Park, which ridicules everyone, has proved.) Moore is most effective when he takes on the narcissistic, go-getter culture of positive thinking that supports the rag to riches mythology which still endures in America.
Greener Than You Think is one of the few comic End of the World novels, but no less effective than the more dismal books in the genre. The apocalypse is a surprisingly good setting for satire.
Next up: 1948, with Aldous Huxley's surrealistic, post-nuclear Ape and Essence.
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