Watershed, by Colin Dodds. April 2017. 350 pages. $15.99, paper.
A question of paternity. A mysterious billionaire of profound depravity. A part-time call girl whose mythic beauty is up for grabs. A washed up artist breeding snakes to make ends meet. A near-future America bloated with big government and digital media, teetering on the brink of its own tackiness, about as prestigious as a fart.
Colin Dodds is back with his latest novel, Watershed—a blistering page-turner with a soul, full of humor and anger, derision and insight. The tale picks up with the meeting of two unlikely lovers on a deserted, night-time highway in upstate New York: Norwood, a former sculptor who has dropped out of main-stream society and holed up with a group of technology adverse counterculturalists, and Raquel, a stunningly beautiful high-end furniture sales associate who dabbles in prostitution. Drawn together initially by a mutual appreciation of snakes—and the fact that Raquel needs a ride after being ejected, right at the moment of climax, from the private jet of her latest John (with a parachute, of course)—the two soon find themselves not unwillingly welded together. Raquel gets pregnant, and while the identity of the father remains in question, her last client, the enigmatic rich man Rudolph Ostanze, becomes convinced that the child is his, and will stop at nothing to bring the baby into his “happy home.”
Thus begins a madcap game of cat and mouse that ranges from the power centers of New York and Washington, D.C., to the wilds of Maspeth, Queens, and western Idaho. Ostanze unleashes his minions and deploys his billions to bend the fates of the impecunious youngsters to his will, all while indulging his deviant appetites, which somehow fit right into Dodd’s vision of America as it could be a few decades hence. Meanwhile, Norwood and Raquel pool their meager resources and tap their own shadowy network of off-the-grid dreamers and behind-the-scenes schemers in an attempt to carve out a modicum of freedom for their lives in a world engineered to keep them in line.
As with many near-future speculative fictions, Watershed takes certain aspects of contemporary society and pumps them up to levels of the grotesque. As the central story unfolds, we’re treated to an array of gonzo, though not entirely implausible, flourishes, including the ceremonial re-destruction of the World Trade Center, gun-toting Fish & Wildlife officers, and a hipster city in the wilderness. The internet and social media are particularly lampooned. The mainstream population—Raquel included—is hopelessly addicted to its algorithmically personalized media feeds, which keep people hooked every waking minute, invading their attention-deficit consciousnesses through elegantly designed cell phones, ubiquitous video walls, even the windshields of parked automobiles. Standing in opposition to this state of affairs is Norwood and his pals, the “Ludlites”—dirty hipsters who wear hand-drawn T-shirts, forgo the usage of any technology developed after the end of the twentieth century, and live in exclusionary enclaves where wireless signals have been blocked, cell phone towers destroyed, and illegal incandescent light bulbs are in flagrant usage.
Dodds does not present this conflict as a simple good-bad binary. Both of the polarities are given their own grilling. Norwood files his complaint against the digital world to a teenage counter girl at a pet store where he has gone to sell some baby pueblan milk snakes and make an information drop to a real estate scammer (more on that later). When the girl, who has an iris tattoo, asks Norwood if being a Ludlite is easier because he’s old, he fires back: “It’s easier because most of the so-called entertainment is repetitive bullshit, because your so-called friends on the network are too busy broadcasting themselves to do or become anything interesting. It’s easier because abundant information never has a chance to mean anything, because maybe we are better off at least pretending to be human beings, instead of small outlets in an inescapable global network.”
Later, as Norwood and Raquel, on the run from Ostanze, retreat deeper and deeper into the Ludlite world, they are confronted by some of the more troubling aspects of the alternative community’s piety and cultishness. There is the Ludlite girl who sneaks into the World Trade Center just before it is re-destroyed, ironically broadcasting her suicide on the internet as a protest against the callousness of a culture that would stage such a spectacle as the “September 11 National Day of Remembrance and Unity.” And then there is The Geometress, the Ludlite movement’s spiritual figurehead and founder of a Ludlite city in the countryside outside Moscow, Idaho, where Raquel and Norwood hole up for a time. Much like Ostanze, she takes an unnatural interest in Raquel and her baby. Her overbearing solicitousness gets to the point that the young lovers flee yet again, and just in the nick of time.
Watershed is a sequel of sorts to Dodds’ novel Windfall. That book was about a conspiracy to start a second American civil war, hatched by the disembodied spirits of ancient humans who possess the living and sow mischief. As Watershed progresses, the plot and characters—Ostanze is one of them—of the previous novel come to the fore. Wilhelmina, a transgender ex-cop and private intelligence operative who employs Norwood as a mule in the insider trading schemes they facilitate, eventually figures out that Ostanze is in fact Hurley, the ex-senator and alcohol lobbyist who, along with his possessing spirit, was the main player in the civil war scheme. This brings into the picture Seth, another shadow operative, a lawyer possessed by his own demonic spirit who was, along with Wilhelmina, Hurley’s main agent, until they betrayed him. Seth and Wilhelmina join forces with Raquel and Norwood to bring down their old nemesis. Thus, the hunter becomes the hunted, and we’re treated to one of the books more implausible moves in which Norwood uses his sculpting skills to create a trap for Ostanze/Hurley.
This invasion of the latter novel by the plot of its predecessor is perhaps Watershed’s greatest flaw. Series novels are of course nothing out of the ordinary, but in this case the reader who has not consumed the first book has to ingest an entirely different outlandish and Byzantine story in condensed form in order to get on with the one they’re currently invested in figuring out. But this is a minor quibble. After all, anyone interested in a book like Watershed will get a real kick out of Windfall. Read them both!
In Watershed, as in most all of his writings, Dodds masterfully blends the outlandish and the banal with a sensitivity and perceptiveness that cuts right to the heart of human experience. This is no work of fantasy. It’s a serious piece of social criticism, as enjoyable to read as it is nauseating in its diagnosis of our culture’s impending bankruptcy. Highly recommended.
Aaron Seward is the editor of Texas Architect magazine (txamagazine.org). Previously he was editor of The Architect’s Newspaper (archpaper.com). He attended Columbia College of the Arts in Chicago and The New School University in New York City, where he lived for eighteen years. In addition to the above publications, his journalism has appeared in Architect, Architectural Lighting, Curbed, Man of the World, and Popular Science, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas, and is at work on his first novel.