Duncan's Colony

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Between the Southwestern desert and the sea, eight people await nuclear holocaust. They have not chosen one another but have been chosen by Duncan, the colony’s organizer, from among the thousands who replied to newspaper ad. “How odd,” one of the colonists muses, “to advertise Survival as though it were a new cereal.” Not all have been chosen, for Carillo, a Vietnam veteran and now a revolutionary, simply wandered in from hiding in the desert. As Michele writes, the colonists are like the wise men of old; they watch the stars and dream, “not of the rise of a new kingdom, but of the fall of the old.” They think not of a life to come, but of their lives as they were.

Michele tells the greater part of the story. Duncan has selected Michele, who is a poet, to tell their collective story (“every apocalypse must have its scribe”), but Michele has used writing only to kill time while her husband worked. She had dedicated herself to her husband Mark, who has now willingly allowed her to leave him to go to the colony, where she fears she will die alone. Free now of her husband, Michele nevertheless finds herself yielding to another man’s assertion of “the old order of things”: she becomes Pinosh’s lover.

Another of the women in the colony, Andrea, has accompanied her husband to the colony, though, after twenty-three years of marriage, they had applied for an annulment and find neither pleasure nor comfort in each other. Andrea, fat and eager to please, has made no real choices in her life, and she has failed at the one fulfillment she really sought: to have a child. At the colony, she plays elaborate charades to avoid being, or appearing to be, rejected. She can bear the indifference of the men but fears the desire of the women to share their activities with her.

The third woman, Klara Kleist, seems to Michele to be “serene and meditative as a Dalai Lama” and at least eighty, but Klara is in her sixties, and, despite the honors she has won for her social activism, she knows that she has failed: “She saw that she could not uproot this society, she had become a part of it.” Born in Russia, Klara and her sister became radicals early. They came to the United States at the end of World War I, and here they continued to study, to work, and to support the unions. A second marriage brought Klara wealth if not happiness; she recognizes that “because we prospered in America we forgot the dream.”

Klara wonders at one point if a woman could survive alone. If God had made woman first, would she have needed Adam? “Or would she have connived with the serpent and eaten apples joyously forever?” Like Andrea and Michele, Klara is a victim, at least in part, of her gender: “the weight of wealth and the burden of being a woman were too much.” Still, Klara has what these other women do not; she recalls a moment—“only enchantment”—when her teacher in Russia kissed her. Because it was “only enchantment, it need not ever change,” and Klara realizes that life has been “too beautiful, too poignant, too mystifying, too painful, too beautiful” and “Another life would be more than we were meant to bear.”

Of the females in the colony, only Jennifer, age fourteen, seems able to take hold of her life and live it. Even when Jennifer becomes Carillo’s lover and pregnant with his child, she makes her own choices. She resents the idea of the other colonists having a meeting to decide whether she would have to leave the colony to have her baby.

Klara’s death, apparently of a heart attack, draws the colonists closer together, although Duncan’s perverse and frustrated religiosity has come to be like devil-worship, complete with snakes. Nevertheless, Michele reports that it was “as if by this death we had recorded for history the fact that we were indeed Eden’s first family.”

The method of presenting Duncan’s Colony in segments with different points of view enables Petesch to advance her story of the communal society while revealing her concern for the individual and largely isolate human psyches who constitute its social fabric. The book, however, does far more: moving easily from first-person to third-person narrative, Petesch tells, or allows her characters to tell, their entire life stories. So varied are the colonists that their stories provide a virtual social history of the twentieth century. As the characters reveal themselves and one another, they body forth a largely failed culture: the United States during the Vietnam War.

Six sections focus upon Michele, and three upon Jennifer. Although Klara dies at the midway point, two sections focus upon her. Andrea merits one section, and her husband Malcolm none at all. The Vietnam veteran, Carillo, merits two long sections, both told in the third person. By way of contrast, Duncan gets but one section—in the first person—ostensibly for inclusion in the time-capsule Malcolm plans to leave as a record of Duncan’s Colony.

Neither Malcolm, the colony’s engineer and scientist, nor Pinosh, the colony’s entertainer, gets a chapter of his own. From the first page onward, Malcolm defies Duncan by listening to shortwave radio daily, and when Duncan surprises him with the radio on, the two men fight. Malcolm later declares that he would kill all of Duncan’s snakes if he had the opportunity. Malcolm is practical and pragmatic; he observes and records. He grows mushrooms and repairs equipment, and shortly after Klara’s death, he packs up his costly camera and equipment and abandons the colony.

Pinosh, on the other hand, is whimsical, always playing a role. He picks Michele as his lover and justifies his choice with audacious honesty; he would have to fight Carillo for Jennifer, and Klara is too old, leaving only the obese Andrea and Michele. He does not mention to Michele the possibility of choosing Duncan as his lover, though in his chapter, Duncan admits that Pinosh is his “temptation in the desert.”

Sections presenting Malcolm’s and Pinosh’s points of view would lessen the dramatic impact of the novel. Regardless of what one thinks of...

(The entire section is 2522 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Library Journal. CVII, June 1, 1982, p. 1114.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXI, May 7, 1982, p. 77.

Times Literary Supplement. October 15, 1982, p. 1142.