Shellshocked Simon is shipped off to a psychiatric facility for children of the wealthy called the Float Anxiety Abatement Center. Here, Simon — still traumatized and heavily medicated — meets Louise Conklin (15, “with no eyebrows”) and a boy called the Prophet, as well as other ragtag teenagers who are unsure if they’re tipping toward living or dying. As his name suggests, the Prophet hears from God, and God has chosen Simon as the leader of their makeshift group.
Within days, the band of adolescents breaks out of the rehab-like facility in the suburbs of Chicago and begins its mission, traveling to Springfield, Mo., to West Texas, then to Palm Springs, Calif. At the same time, multiple plotlines gallop through Hawley’s narrative: Margot Nadir is being considered for the United States Supreme Court. Story, now 22, has gone missing. The reader learns about a malevolent Jeffrey Epstein-like character named the Wizard (or E. L. Mobley), a sex addict who kidnaps adolescents and impregnates them, and the Troll, Evan Himelman, who collects victims for his boss. One of the impregnated girls, Bathsheba DeWitt (or Katie), becomes part of the Prophet’s mission, with the goal of with the goal of setting her free from Mobley’s compound in West Texas.
Hawley’s fantasy thriller largely follows this unlikely band of teenagers who are out to save themselves and others from the prevailing forces of evil. The off-the-rails world of “Anthem” will certainly be recognizable to readers — from the vigilante warfare on the streets to the life-threatening environmental calamities occurring on a frequent basis to the troubling tectonics of the U.S. political landscape. A large cast of heroes and villains populate the narrative (to the point where it can be difficult to keep everyone straight). Given the number of characters, only a handful of interior lives — namely Simon Oliver’s and Louise Conklin’s — are developed with any nuance or complexity.
With the mission to save the impregnated Bathsheba from the Wizard, I was reminded of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Similar to that iconic George Miller film, Hawley’s novel is a vengeance story that hurtles at an accelerated velocity. (This isn’t too surprising, given the author’s successful career in television: Hawley has garnered multiple top awards for his popular series “Fargo” and will be the showrunner for a TV series based on the “Alien” movies, to debut in 2023.) Despite the breakneck speed of the narrative, there is an episodic rhythm to the pacing; one catastrophe piles on top of the other. Speaking to Hawley’s talents as a screenwriter, his dialogue brings the characters alive. Again and again, the exchanges are humorous, sad and revealing. “Fly, you fool,” Louise says to Simon as they flee the Float center together.