“Countdown City” continues on from “The Last Policeman” where we were introduced to Hank Palace, a beat cop hastily promoted to detective, a job he loves and pursues with the obsessional focus of the borderline autistic, but which his lack of insight into people and their motivations makes him ill-equipped to do. Hank gets the job because the world is ending. An asteroid is going to kill most of the people on the planet. Hank keeps the job because he sees no reason to let people get away with murder just because the people they killed were going to die anyway.
At the start of “Countdown City” the world has moved on. Everyone knows where and when the asteroid will strike. The question is, what do they do in the seventy or so days until then.
Hank has been released from his job. The city doesn’t need detectives anymore, just armed police on every corner to discourage riots and looting. When the woman who used to babysit him and his sister asks Hank to find her missing husband, he embarks on the task like a knight on a quest.
Hank’s quest takes him to strange places and gives us a ring-side seat to observe how different groups of people face the end of their world. Hank faces it with dignity and integrity and slowly dawning understanding of the scale of the change.
“Countdown City” is not a very exciting book. It’s too realistic for that. Excitement is replaced by controlled despair, desperate hedonism, creative denial and a slow but inexorable ending of everything for everyone.
What kept me turning the pages was Hank Palace. He is a strange man: honest, loyal, law-abiding and almost totally lost in the world he lives in. There were times I wanted to scream at him and slap him and make him wake up and face reality, except I think I prefer his reality to mine. In his place, I believe I would just stop. Hank creates purpose and meaning for himself and does his best to help others. If this makes him Quixotic then I guess that shows that Don Quixote was a nicer man than I am.
“Countdown City” is a slow, hypnotic read. If you can surrender yourself to the pace of the story and to Hank’s world view, you’ll enjoy this book.