Apocalypse Pretty Soon
Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America by Alex Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org)
WW Norton & Company 254 pages. $23.95
Review By Jessica Branch (CitySearch Book Reviews)
Sure, you can jury-rig your laptop, hoard the Campbell's, and hide your money under your mattress, but don't kid yourself. When the big day comes, nothing's going to stop those four guys on horseback. Whether you're anticipating the millennium with the smugness of the saved, the trepidation of the true believer, or the indifference of the irreligious, it's getting closer every day, and there's nothing you can do about it.
At least, that's what most of us think. But Alex Heard, late of the New York Times Magazine and now a senior editor at Wired, has spent the last ten years investigating the millennial and utopian cults that beg to differ. Each, in its own way, has been preparing for the final moment since way before anyone had heard of Y2K. In "Apocalypse Pretty Soon," Heard chronicles his travels among these fringe-dwellers, from the high -tech traditionalists-who are trying to implement Biblical prophecy with modern animal husbandry by shipping Red Angus cattle to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem-to the forward-looking libertarians of the New Island Creation Consortium-who plan to build a new Atlantis a la Ayn Rand-to the Earth Changes, guilt-ridden ex-Yuppies convinced that a vengeful Earth is out to destroy the demon species-us.
The devoted eccentrics the author encounters are too diverse to summarize, but Heard's efforts to cover this sprawling territory are held together by the inquiring, ruminative, humane intelligence he brings to his explorations of these aliens among us. Nor is he shy about admitting to the reader the difficulties of investigating these often very secretive cults as an outsider-for example, when Heard photocopies Unarian files, he's confronted by an irate Unarian higher-up, Louis Spiegel (a.k.a. Antares), who interprets Heard's behavior as a reenactment of his past sins. This isn't the skeptic's distanced, formulaic debunking of faith-a style which, for all its virtue and not entirely misplaced sense of righteousness, leaves the faithful looking like the unwary victims of a predatory, heartless journalist. Rather, this is an inspired, engaging travelogue, with more than a little resemblance to "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," in which Heard (like Alice) never loses his critical faculties, but combines them with a wry humor, an insistent curiosity, and a sense of pure, uncondescending wonder at the vagaries of human belief.
As much a participatory cultural anthropologist as a journalist, Heard evaluates the men and women he meets both personally and professionally, attempting to understand their motives and their madness, their individuality and their place on the spectrum of millennialism. Sometimes that involves contemplating their potentially dangerous interactions with the mainstream, as when Heard anxiously speculates on the explosive potential of Ron Cole, the founder and only member of the Colorado 1st Light Infantry, whose mourning for David Koresh led him to try to instigate a national insurrection. But more often, Heard is interested in getting inside the worlds of end-time culture. Whether dire or goofy, these cults have an energy and a purpose that fascinate Heard, and his open and unfeigned interest in their members, not just as milennialists, but as people immersed in their own way of life gives the book its own energy and honesty.
And, perhaps most refreshing of all, though he maintains a light, casual tone and a firm grip on his sense of proportion, Heard doesn't make fun of these all-too-easy targets: He goes beyond the cheap laughs to search out what needs their beliefs answer. However insane their dogmas may seem, Heard takes all his subjects seriously, like the relatively benign Arthur Blessit, the born-again Christian who says that the Lord commanded him to carry a cross through every nation of the world. Heard realizes the strange, arbitrary nature of Blessit's divinely-imposed task, but also the very real danger he undergoes to accomplish it, writing that "The stories sound insane, but I don't think Blessitt was crazy at all. I think he was...burning brightly from within. I finally had the chance to meet him in late 1997, when he and his wife, Denise, passed through New York on their way back from a major lugging: into Afghanistan. With that one in the bag, he had six left, all of them tough-to-crack places like North Korea, the Sudan, Iraq-all very difficult, all very risky. The grim reality was that Blessit really could get killed doing this."
And this attitude characterizes Heard throughout the book; though he's more than willing to share his opinion of the value of his subjects' ideas, he respects their belief, their conviction, and their integrity, and we come to appreciate his generosity as much as his journalism. He even learns from them. The cults he studies aren't, after all, so appreciably different from, oh, say, normal people, like writers. The millennium elicits many reactions: one is reporting on it.
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