Pole-dancing at Armageddon

Screw Robert Frost: He told us the world would end in either fire or ice, but Victor Gischler suggests a far more awesome possibility. In his latest novel, civilization — that tacit agreement among humans not to murder, sodomize, and deep-fry one another (too often) — comes to a bloody, screaming halt with a war between gun-packing strippers and Tennessee moonshiners.

Witness to it all is Mortimer Tate, an ersatz insurance salesman with unaccounted-for survival instincts. When he sensed Armageddon a-brewin’ and his wife filed for divorce, Mortimer hid out in a backwoods cabin with a stockpile of guns and vittles. Nine years later, he starts feeling nostalgic for the human race, and goes out searching for his sort-of wife. Exactly what’s happened to the world while Mort was eating beef jerky and beating off is only hinted at — terrorism, famine, epidemics — but it suffices to say there wasn’t a whole lot of rainbows and cuddling involved. Packs of cannibals roam the countryside, the U.S. government is reduced to arguments between obscure officials over who’s technically the president, and the closest thing to civilization is a chain of Joey Armageddon’s Sassy A-Go-Gos, a combination saloon, trading post, and whorehouse with its own currency and army.

Mort visits several of these clubs in his quest to ... well, even he’s not sure what he’s going to do when he finds his wife, who probably doesn’t want to see him and has found a new life stripping at a Joey’s on top of Lookout Mountain. Fortunately for him — not to mention readers of his story — Mort doesn’t have much time to think about things like motive with Gischler sadistically writing him through a series of hellish misadventures, from transsexual rape to zephyr warfare, barely giving our man enough time for a few shots of homemade whiskey before the next. We get the occasional glimpse into Mort’s half-empty head, but his traveling companions, a self-styled cowboy dubbed Buffalo Bill and a teenage hooker named Sheila, are pretty much one-dimensional characters — the guns they carry get bigger speaking parts. Hardly a chapter goes by, in fact, without somebody being shot, held at gunpoint, or shot and then held at gunpoint. The bullets-before-plotline structure gets tiresome after a while, and the constant cliffhangers quickly lose their suspense when it becomes apparent that Mort will survive them all through a combination of dumb luck and the superior gun-handling skills apparently acquired while peddling insurance policies.

Go-Go Girls is stopped just short of being a mindless summer read, though, by Gischler’s cynical but disturbingly believable grasp of human nature. Both the heroes and villains operate mainly out of self-preservation and fear of outsiders, instincts that are manipulated by shady competing economic factions struggling for power. Sound familiar? Between gunshots, the novel forces you to consider just how little stands between us and a post-apocalyptic world in which cars are used mainly as protective barricading, men will torture and kill for off-brand supermarket coffee, and pole dancing is a woman’s best career option. Maybe it’s time to stock up on beef jerky. •

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