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edge staff writer


Water, water nowhere Thirst'

April 13, 2016
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Novel offers up an arid end of the world

The collapse of civilization is undeniably fascinating.

Whether we're looking at the dissolving remnants of our own once-great society or the growing pains of the new one that sprung up behind it, writers and readers alike have long had their imaginations set ablaze by post-apocalyptic possibilities. We're enthralled by the aftermath.

However, 'aftermath' means different things to different people.

Benjamin Warner's 'Thirst' (Bloomsbury, $26) takes a much more immediate look at what happens when cataclysm strikes and how fast.

Eddie Chapman has been stuck in a sweltering summer traffic jam for hours. There are accidents and injuries aplenty, but no emergency personnel are in sight. He decides to abandon his vehicle and make his way home on foot, but along the way, he notices that the trees alongside the stream are burnt and all of the water in the streambed is simplygone.

When he gets home, he discovers that there's no running water there, either. His pipes as well as the pipes of his neighbors have mysteriously run dry. As the July temperatures keep rising, Eddie and his wife Laura are left scrambling to find something anything to drink.

Before long, certain frightening realities arise. Not only do they not know what has happened to the water, but the combination of their exponentially growing thirst and the realization that no one is coming to help leads to a violent breakdown that is shocking in both its brutality and its swiftness.

There is perhaps no basic human need that we take for granted more than drinking water. It is one of our fundamental survival requirements, yet it is so ubiquitous that many in this country never even consider the possibility of its absence (though the concerns of certain communities such as Flint, Michigan and others in recent months have confronted us with a stark reminder).

What Warner does is force us to wonder what would we do? What would we do if such a fundamental need went from omnipresent to nonexistent almost instantly? How long would it take for the basic social order to break down, turning our friends and neighbors into suspected thieves and killers? How long would it take for trust to completely disappear?

Warner's answer not long at all.

The prose in 'Thirst' offers the same feeling of sweltering oppression as a triple-digit July day. As the narrative develops, so too does that sense of suffocation the reader is wrapped in the same overwhelming heat as Eddie and Laura. There are stretches when the tension is ratcheted up so high and written so evocatively that you'll occasionally find your tongue sticking to the roof of your mouth and you'll be seeking out a glass of something cold to drink.

In these moments, 'Thirst' actually makes you thirsty. Think about that.

While there are stretches in which the narrative seems to get bogged down a bit there are occasional moments of circular wandering even that feels appropriate to the slowly building chaotic confusion inherent to the circumstances. And when Warner really takes us inside the incremental deterioration of Eddie's empathetic compass and basic morality, the results are chilling despite the story's high heat.

It's easy to think that the end of the world will arrive big and boldly, leaving little doubt as to what is happening. But as 'Thirst' shows us, the notion that civilization can come apart thanks to something deceptively simple is just as frightening. Not aliens or zombies or foreign powers (at least, not as far as Warner ever tells us), but rather just the disappearance of something so taken for granted that we rarely if ever even consider the possibility of its absence.

In short, 'Thirst' is a tight, tense thriller that will leave you with a lingering appreciation for your kitchen faucet.

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