When The Water Stops

In ‘Dry’, A California In Crisis Seems Awfully Close To Reality

Dystopias center on bleak futures, often set decades after a catastrophic uprising or event has triggered the breakdown of society.

But they’re all the more eerie when the breakdown is happening plausibly in the current day, with literary renderings of situations that feel like they might be happening next month, not years down the road.

Neal Shusterman has done both kinds of novels, but his newest book for young adults, Dry–written with his son, screenwriter Jarrod Shusterman–falls squarely in the latter category. Set in comfortable (at story’s opening) beach-adjacent suburbs in Shusterman’s  home state of California, Dry imagines a sudden Tap-Out, a government-invented catchphrase for a total shutdown of residential water services.

Anyone who’s lived through a hurricane, a boil-water order (ahem, Austin) or Flint, Michigan, can imagine the initial reactions. High schooler Alyssa, her younger brother Garrett and their uncle zip off to Costco to grab some bottled water, only to be met with long lines. Some try to book tickets to visit family out of state, but they discover flights are fully booked for days. Television news is full of anodyne reassurances from officials that water will be restored soon and that residents should simply conserve.

It’d be a pretty boring book if that’s what really happened next, of course, so before too long Alyssa and Garrett join forces with Kelton, the teen son of the survivalists next door. Kelton’s parents presented as prepper whack jobs until their supplies, tools and 35-gallon water tank became currency in rapidly splintering suburbia.

“How long have you been preparing for the apocalypse?” queries Jacqui, the fourth member of their young band of survivors.

“A while,” Kelton says. “The end of the world is our family hobby.”

The quartet add on one more member on this Mad Max-meets-McMansion tale, which veers from makeshift shelters in Target parking lots to deserted gated communities to the California forest where Kelton’s family “bug-out” shelter is hidden.

The Shustermans–Neal won the National Book Award for–Challenger Deep–expertly chart the devolution of society once the taps run dry. From the gallows humor at the start of the book to the increasing desperation as the story continues over the course of two weeks, you feel how quickly animal urges trump reason and rule. There’s looting, $40 markups on provisions, and soldiers roaming the streets.

More ominous still (though Dry ends on a positive note) is how close the fictional story mirrors real news of climate change, from the aforementioned water shortages to the forest fires that continue to plague California and other areas. No need to fast forward when the present is this nerve-wracking.


(Simon & Schuster, October 2, 2018)

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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