First published in 1986
Howie Ryder's father taught him that "stock" are animals that happen to look like humans, animals that can neither speak nor reason, nothing more than a food source raised for slaughter, a gift from God after the War destroyed the unclean animals upon which men once fed. Through Darkest America is a dystopian novel modeled after a western, with humans playing the role of cattle. It also echoes a Civil War story as the Loyalist army clashes with the Rebel army, leaving Howie caught in the middle. For the most part, however, Through Darkest America is a coming-of-age novel.
After Howie's parents are killed -- reprisal for his father's expression of anti-government sentiments -- Howie takes up a bow and vows revenge. He is alone (his sister having been selected for Silver Island, a supposedly idyllic community that embodies the ideals of a rebuilding nation) until he takes up with an opportunist named Pardo, an arms dealer who seems to be supplying competing armies. Against this background, Neal Barrett delivers an entertaining action story populated by well-drawn characters.
I'm not sure why writers of post-apocalyptic fiction so often imagine that language after an apocalyptic event will leave everyone speaking like Festus on Gunsmoke. Language would surely change (it always does), but it would evolve into something new. Still, Barrett wrote Through Darkest America as a classic western, complete with cattle drives and horse thieves and women of pleasure, so it's forgivable (if not particularly credible) that his characters speak as they do.
The epilog answers a critical question that I feared would go unanswered while tying the story together with a powerful conclusion. Howie is ultimately a tragic figure, surviving unimaginably painful ordeals while managing to hold onto his humanity -- at least to the extent that anyone could do so in the dystopian future that Barrett imagines. The ending of Through Darkest America sets up, and left me looking forward to reading, its sequel, Dawn's Uncertain Light.