Book Review: Max Brooks’ Devolution
There’s a hierarchy to monsters.
Whether you look at it through the lens of how many movies a particular critter gets, or how many costumes they sell at Halloween, it’s plain to see that some are just more popular than others. At the top you’ve got classics like Vampires and Werewolves, and even some new additions like the shambling, Romero-style Zombie, and so on, and so forth. Bigfoot, however, is fairly low on this list. Like, in a ranking of horror icons, I’d put Bigfoot somewhere below “Giant Spider” and maybe above “Evil Dentist.” Bigfoot’s relative horror-obscurity didn’t stop Max Brooks from writing a book about it, however! In fact, I kind of wonder if that was part of the appeal, as Brooks could tread new ground in Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre.
Max Brooks, son of legendary comedian Mel Brooks, first came on the scene with his Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, both of which were key works in the early-2000’s zombie boom. That boom could honestly be a whole blog post of its own, but I digress. I figured it’d be interesting to see what Brooks would do with Sasquatch myth, given that not many people are writing about Bigfoot these days.
Devolution is set in Greenloop, a tiny planned “Eco community” somewhere in the Washington wilderness. It’s populated by a handful of useless West Coast stereotypes: the vegan couple, the tech-bro millionaire and his supermodel girlfriend, the arrogant professor (who’s explicitly described as looking like George R.R. Martin in a different hat), and so on. When Greenloop is cut off from the outside world by a volcanic eruption, Greenloop’s residents find themselves woefully unprepared for the disaster. And that’s before the starving, man-eating Bigfoots show up.
Like he did in World War Z, Max Brooks plays around with false documents in Devolution. Most of the book takes the form of journal entries by a woman named Katie, Greenloop’s newest resident. These journal entries are interspersed by snippets and interviews from other sources in order to provide more context about the disaster and/or Bigfoot lore. It’s honestly not as wide-ranging as World War Z, but again, the book is focused on a single town as opposed to a global undead plague.
Another thing Devolution shares with World War Z is a heavy-handed neo-luddite streak. World War Z definitely had a “Norman Rockwell, with Shotguns” ideal driving it forward, and Devolution is the same way. The residents of Greenloop have no guns, no tools, and no food, despite being hours away from civilization. Brooks hammers this point home over and over again– which becomes really tiresome, really quick. Nearly half the novel goes by without a single Sasquatch sighting. It feels like an old 80’s slasher movie, only instead of skinny dipping and smoking pot, the only “crime” the kids are guilty of is not having a case of MRE’s and a bolt action rifle stashed at the back of the closet. The real kicker is, Brooks kind of forgets about the starvation-horror once the evil Bigfoots show up. On the one hand (the one foot?) the book gets a bit more interesting once people start getting eaten, but on the other, Brooks wastes a lot of opportunities with themes he’s already played with. Like, the irony of a vegan couple who get reduced to cannibalism is right there, y’know?
Again, Devolution picks up in the second half, once the monsters show up. The Bigfoots are appropriately horrible– they’re basically a pack of giant chimpanzees. And as anybody who’s studied zoology can tell you, chimps are awful. One by one, Greenloop’s residents get eaten, until the survivors band together with makeshift weapons to fight them off. Honestly standard horror movie stuff. Though I suppose I should also note Mostar, the standout character. She’s a little old Bosnian lady who’s tough as nails, and soon takes charge of Greenloop’s defense. She’s super fun and entertaining, and possibly the most original thing about the book?
In any case, Devolution was … okay. It’s got a snappy, rollicking pace; I was able to finish the book in just two days. Which honestly is something I haven’t done in awhile. Still, Devolution has a lot of chaff that could have been cut. As the Mt. Ranier eruption that isolates Greenloop also causes widespread civil unrest in Seattle, in a perfect storm of apocalyptic proportions … which honestly isn’t necessary for the small scale of the book. Honestly, all you need is “oh no, a snowstorm has blocked the road and knocked over the phone line!” to isolate your characters, and then you can get on to the good stuff. But then again, if Brooks went that route, the reader wouldn’t get to feel superior for stocking up on dry goods at CostCo.
I suppose if you’re looking for something pulpy and gory, there are worse books to read than Devolution. Even still, if you want to skip ahead to when the actual Bigfoots start wreaking havoc, you’re honestly not going to miss much.