World’s End begins at the end of a workday in 1968 with the twenty-two-year-old Walter Van Brunt drinking beer at the Throbbing Elbow, a local bar, accompanied by wild-haired Hector Mantequilla and the sexy Mardi. From there, the book moves to explore the history of Van Brunt’s family, which begins at a Hudson Valley trading post three centuries earlier, as well as the history of Walter’s boss, Depeyster Van Wart.
The book moves back and forth in history, but themes emerge that apply to any era: the struggle of fathers to make a better life for their sons; the perils of disengagement with the world; power and its mutations, and the nature of treachery; the inability of the powerful to feel empathy or remorse; the rage of the powerless; and the failure to live up to impossible standards.
Two pivotal events occur in the course of the novel, one actual, one fictional. The first is the Peekskill riots of 1949, when angry locals attacked outsiders who came from the city to hear a Paul Robeson concert; the other is an attempt to sabotage the Arcadia, a fictional countercultural shop moored in the Hudson River. Representatives of both families play key roles in both events. Over and over in the course of history, the Van Brunts encounter horrible physical disasters, many involving the loss of limbs. Harmanus Van Brunt dies after going mad as a result of witnessing the amputation of his son’s leg. Lightning strikes his home while his wife and son are inside. Wouter Van Brunt betrays his cousins and allows them to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Walter Van Brunt loses both feet in a motorcycle accident. The characters exploit, betray, and repeatedly fail one another as they either try desperately to control their lives or numbly give over that control to fate.
In the book, Boyle demonstrates that he is much more than a satirist; his prose is drunk on language and beautifully crafted, while the multigenerational cast of characters is complex and credible, portrayed against a vivid historical background. The sheer number of characters requires a three-page list at the beginning of the novel in order to explicate them. Boyle demythologizes sentimental images of early American history while showing, through their demasking, the actual injustices that have taken place throughout American society from the colonial era to the modern era.