the radio reporter
A former radio reporter, Elon is the wandering narrator and the first hint at Johnson’s heavy use of symbolism and mythology in the book. Like those whom he’s destined to meet, Elon (standing for new beginnings, communications with God, and wisdom) is unarmed in a mad world. He is deeply scarred by his personal failures that have contributed to the climate disaster. He asks many of the questions that a child born into this future might ask when told what life was like BEFORE. He tells two stories: one that strikes at a man’s deepest identity, the other a love story from another time.
The old man
The unnamed old man is the first of the book’s mysteries. The old man hunts, fishes and shares intriguing sketches that form only part of a life—Army brat, college student in New Mexico, fisherman off Cape Cod, farm worker after his motorcycle broke down in California. But these adventures leave years unaccounted for and a secret that explains the missing time. What is the old man hiding that is so terrible, that he has nearly obliterated himself, that he has no name? His story is just that: The story of his life, and the terrible secret he keeps.
the liquor store clerk
ASHER. Asher is the street-smart Florida man who has seen the darkest sides of humanity. Asher has driven a cab and worked as a clerk at a liquor store, where he survived armed hold ups. This has shaped his kill-or-be-killed code. He arrives with a fellow traveler—a woman named Amira, silent, but a much stronger survivor than she first appears. They are starving to death. His story is one of fortune gained and lost.
NIZAR. Nizar is from Syria. He survived the destruction of his homeland to find a new home in America. Now that home has been destroyed too. Though Christian, he maintains a Zen-like spirituality. His whole life he has been a stranger in a strange land, something the others are adjusting to in the ruins of America. He is a guitar-playing vegetarian. Through that guitar he speaks a universal language of longing. His story is the story of the guitar.
CLAIRE & ELISSA. There’s also the inseparable Claire and Elissa, a lesbian couple raised in the tough Midwest. Both have fired guns, and have had to survive in a murderous new landscape. Utterly devoted to each other, they have one secret that threatens to come between them. One believed in climate change the other didn’t. Claire tells a story of faith and a miracle. Elissa tells several stories from the comical and venal world of small-town politics.
HUNTER. Hunter is a troubled teenager, accustomed to settling scores with his fists and carrying the guilt that goes with it. He is fatherless and says he became separated from his mother in the chaos of the great migration from the climate-torn coasts to the Midwest. He is defined by his anger and his secret shame. He tells two stories that explain what really happened to him, and foreshadow the fate of them all.
JOHANNES. Johannes, a Californian, meets the narrator in a tense showdown as the two decide whether to trust one another in a landscape scattered with skeletons. Johannes has a gun. Elon realizes Johannes is just as lost and devastated as the others. Johannes does not tell a story, but he writes his in the key decision he makes.
AMIRA. Silent, strong Amira has witnessed the storms and riots. She breaks her long silence, with grace, telling a story of intense struggle and anger. Her combination of hidden strength and beauty, rekindles the kind of deep attachment Elon thought he’d lost hope of attaining in this desperate, post-apocalyptic world. Somehow, she makes even hope and love possible for the lonely, fearful narrator. The name Amira is of Hebrew origin and means princess. Are Amira and Elon the beginning of a new world, or have humans yet to pay the full price for squandering Earth’s gifts? Her story describes a teenager whose iron will is put to the test by her parents.