The End of the World Running Club is a living proof that quality literature can survive and thrive, even if it starts without a publishing deal. Originally self-published, this book was later reprinted by Del Rey Books and eventually found its way to my reading den. But as much as I tried to be upbeat about this work, it left me lukewarm. Walker presents a very compelling apocalyptic scenario, but I found his characters to be flat and unlikeable, and the author eventually betrays my trust. The Internet is full of glowing reviews of the Running Club. This is not one of them.
The story starts in Edinburgh, Scotland. Ed Hill is a sub-average working husband and father who feels emotionally alienated from his family. He’s the cause of this, as he readily admits, when he goes on yet another drunken bender in front of the TV. He barely acknowledges his daughters and pays just marginally more attention to his wife. Then one morning the apocalypse strikes: a meteorite shower hits the Earth and devastates most of the northern hemisphere. In what I could easily imagine as a movie scene, before the rocks hit Ed ransacks a corner store and then defends his house from people who seek shelter from the catastrophe.
Ed and his family survive, and eventually join other survivors at a military base. There, in order to keep avoiding his family, he joins a group of scouts who scavenge the city for food. They have to be vigilant of feral children gangs who now dominate the city and are ready to kill the intruders. While on patrol, military transport helicopters swoop onto the base and pick everyone up to carry them over to a seaport in southern England, where an evacuation fleet waits. Ed and three other men, as well as three soldiers, are left behind.
The tiny group must decide what to do next, and ultimately choose to make their way to the fleet. There is a tight deadline, and the trek is 550 miles long. While utilizing vehicles from time to time, they spend most of their time running, against all odds, at 20-25 miles per day. On their way down, they meet all sorts of strange folks, fall into the hands or a local warlord (warlady in this case) who rules over a social housing estate, and eventually come in sight of the fleet.
Walker draws a very compelling post-apocalyptic Britain here. From the description of people burning in the initial deluge, through the depiction of a scarred and flooded landscape, to the societal changes, everything seems so realistic that I was riveted at the worldbuilding sections of the book. He made a wise choice of having the Earth hit by a meteor shower, and not an Earth-shattering event. This way, enough people survived that they became the biggest challenge for our protagonist. The landscape also tends to remain familiar, so the descriptions of impact craters and canyons dug out by the meteorites don’t require much imagination. As far as societal changes go, they are hitting very close to home. Living in a city with feral youths, I can easily imagine them taking over a devastated Edinburgh. The warlady who took over a social housing estate, as well as the depiction of the estate, is also very close to reality.
Unfortunately, I think Walker missed with his characters. They start out as very one-dimensional, and stay that way throughout the journey. Ed is a whiny asshole at the beginning, so he’s got the potential to change for the better. However, he keeps being the same whiny asshole throughout the book, and till the end I could not understand why the others put up with him. The rest of the group is the same: from a half-crazed old man, to the brave soldier who puts duty above else (the only likeable character, but gets killed off), all people seem like cardboard cutouts. Others, whom the protagonist meets on his trip, are interesting, but appear for such a short time that nobody expects any personal development of them.
In my eyes, however, the worst crime this book commits, is false advertising. I expected some serious running in a book that has this word in its title. Instead, we get a rather unrealistic trek through the landscape, where running is made out to be infused with mysticism, and not a real depiction of the activity. The characters spend some time riding various vehicles, but that wouldn’t put me off, if real running challenges were presented. As someone who averages over 1000 miles of running annually, I have a vague idea what it would take to average 20 miles per day for three weeks straight, especially for people who are not accustomed to running. What kind of caloric intake would it take to replenish their energy (about 5500 calories per day to keep their current weight, so if we’re generous we can cut them to 4000 and have them arrive really lean, but Walker feeds them less than 1000 calories daily). What kind of injuries they’d develop and how they’d cope with them. Instead, the running portion takes place in a haze – both mental and real – and we’re treated to something that just works when one sets his mind to it.
Without the running part, this would still be a conflicting book, which I’d describe as a bunch of people I don’t care for trekking through an apocalyptic world I very much like. Ultimately, if I don’t like the protagonist, I don’t care much about the story or book. The author has written a compelling book and had the courage to self-publish it. He has my admiration for this, and his success is hugely deserved. But The End of the World Running Club is simply not a book for me. Maybe someone else will enjoy it more when he picks my copy from the used books store.