Countdown City is Ben H. Winters’s second book in the pre-apocalyptic trilogy that began with The Last Policeman. Hank Palace is no longer a cop in Concord, New Hampshire; police functions have been nationalized, but he still wants to help people and try to maintain order in the two and a half months that remain before Maia, a fifteen-kilometer-wide asteroid, hits the earth.
Hank’s old babysitter asks him to find her husband who disappeared a few days earlier. Missing persons are almost impossible to locate; many people are “going Bucket List,” leaving their lives to do things they’ve always wanted to do before the end comes. Others are joining doomsday cults. There is no internet, phone service or e-mail and in fact most of New Hampshire is now without electricity. The enhanced federal police presence seems to do nothing except be a presence, highly visible in their cop cars but not bothering to prevent or investigate crimes. Martha, the babysitter, insists that her husband Brett Cavatone would never leave her, and tells Hank that Brett has to come back “for his salvation.”
Hank has a support network with two other former cops. Culverson is his police rabbi, who mentored him and taught him the ropes, and McGully is a colleague. The three of them meet regularly at a local diner. As Hank delves into the investigation, Brett emerges as a more and more interesting character. He is a man with a strong moral compass and powerful charisma. Martha was sure Brett would never cheat on her, but Hank uncovers a mystery woman in Brett’s life, and it seems she might have been wrong. When he meets the other woman, though, he discovers she is only the tip of the iceberg that is Brett’s personal end-of-days plan.
From the scavenger who owns the contents of an entire Office Depot store (including precious bottled water) to the utopian experiment on the campus of the University of New Hampshire, Hank meets folks with a variety of schemes to hold the terrible truth at bay.
After a few minutes of walking, the noise of the drums and the singing have faded, and we are wandering through the campus, passing nondescript low-slung brick academic buildings — Geology Department, Kinesiology, Mathematics. After ten minutes or so we come out onto a plaza where there’s just a single drummer, tapping away all on his own, wearing sweatpants and a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey. The chiseled brick cornerstone says PERFORMING ARTS, and a sandwich board is propped up at the base of the wide steps, between the columns, advertising a lecture: “The Asteroid as Metaphor: Collision, Chaos and Perceptions of Doom.”
Hank’s own capacity for denial is stripped away in this book, first by his rebellious sister Nico but more thoroughly by what he discovers when he pursues Brett.
I lie in the rutted crater that was my home and consider my choices: calling my sister a fool for pursuing a one-in-a-million chance at survival while I’m the one who’s accepted a hundred percent chance of death.
The mystery of Brett’s disappearance is the primary story here, but, this much closer to the impact date, the effects of the catastrophe play a big role in this book. Hank has to work harder to maintain the commitment and basic decency that makes him a hero in a world without them. He is at odds with Nico, who has, in Hank’s opinion, a crackpot scheme to save the world, but that’s what Hank is trying to do, too, just on a smaller scale, one life at a time.
Because the premise is so interesting and the main character is so engaging, it is easy to overlook Winters’s prose. He has a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, managing to evoke the sense of desperation people are feeling in few words, and a good ear for the right word at the right time. When Hank studies a photograph of Brett, taken by Marta on a fishing trip, he thinks that Brett and the big-mouth bass have the same “skeptical and somber expression.” “Sober” would have been equally accurate there, but would not carry the hint of sadness that “somber” does, the sadness that pervades the book.
I am not hopeful that the asteroid Maia will suddenly change course in the third book, or that Nico’s group will succeed, so it seems strange to say that these books leave me feeling optimistic, but they do. The reason for that is Hank and his small circle of friends, who continue, in the face of terrible odds, to try to do the right thing.