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If The Civil War Never Happened


slate articleThe following is an excerpt from Laura Miller | July 13, 2016 | Slate.com |

In his The Last Policeman trilogy, Ben Winters imagined a detective practicing his profession in a world where the imminent extinction of humanity via an incoming asteroid makes law enforcement seem pointless. With his newest book, Underground Airlines, he invents another sort of existential detective—a manhunter for the U.S. Marshals—pushed to a different extreme. The narrator of the novel, who goes by the name Victor, tracks down runaway slaves in an alternate version of the United States in which the Civil War never occurred and four Southern states continue to support the ownership of human beings, or “Persons Bound to Labor,” as bureaucratic euphemism would have it. One thing that makes Victor a particularly effective operative is that he is black himself, and an escaped slave.

Victor is very, very good at his job, having sniffed out 209 escapees in the several years he’s worked under Mr. Bridge, a man he has never met and only communicates with via telephone. “I was feeling the pleasure of discovery, the pleasure of the job,” he observes after making the most of some sketchy leads. “That’s the problem with doing the devil’s work. It can be pretty satisfying, now and again.” But that very same case—a young man whose file contains several major irregularities—soon scrapes away the thin shell of indifference Victor has created to shield himself from what he does. Up come memories of his ghastly youth in a Carolina slaughterhouse plantation, along with the faces of every single person he’s helped the Feds to catch. Not that he has much choice in the matter; Mr. Bridge threatens to return him to the plantation if he doesn’t perform his duties, and a tracking device implanted in his spine makes his own escape impossible.

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