I decided to check out The Last Town on Earth after reading almost nothing but critical acclaim for it. Though this is Mullen’s debut novel, everyone seems to be falling all over themselves to sing its thematic and rhetorical praises. Coincidentally, I happened to read it immediately after Max Brooks’ World War Z, which was also about in infection.
The Last Town on Earth is historical fiction, insofar as it seeks to chronicle not only the deadly “Spanish Influenza” epidemic of 1918, but also the occasional practice of western towns (this takes place in Washington) of sealing themselves off so as not to catch the infection. Mullen wants the book to operate on several levels: it’s a medical thriller of sorts, a character drama, a political allegory for today, and a look at the socialist experiments of the era.
I have to say it: I wasn’t impressed. It’s not just because I generally don’t read a lot of historical fiction, though that may admittedly color my views on the book. No, it’s because I just don’t feel as though Mullen is a very good writer. For a period piece, I don’t get any sort of distinct sense that it’s set in 1918 (I realize this may be on purpose, but I doubt it): the characters seem to think, talk, and act like modern Americans—it’s almost anachronistic. Mullen’s language is plain and plodding, adding little with his narration: it’s dry, repetitive, and completely flat.
It’s also because I find most of Mullen’s characters to be horribly clichéd. He attempts to tell the story by flitting from character to character… little vignettes of Phillip, the crippled adopted son of the town’s owner—or of Graham, the stoic millworker with the cloudy past, who will go to any lengths to protect his family—or of Flora, the chatty proprietor of the town’s general store. Some of his characterization comes to fruition, and some is merely wasted pages. One gets the sense that Mullen is working at something grand, and yet the books ends with very little having been done, said, or accomplished. I could divine no larger point being made—only promising to be made.
There was definitely a good story to be told here: maybe Mullen’s still too green, or maybe he tried to do too much at one time, or maybe there’s some incredible genius here that I’m missing (it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heartily disagreed with popular opinion: I find Maya Angelou, for instance, to be horribly overrated—basically a hack), but I have to go against the grain of all the critical acclaim this book has gotten: it’s just not that good.