Michael Tolkin’s 1988 novel “The Player” delivered a biting satire of Hollywood greed, embodied by its main character, a studio executive played by Tim Robbins in the acclaimed Robert Altman film. In his new novel, the ingenious dystopian thriller “NK3,” Tolkin is back with a Los Angeles populated by mindless creatures who live for sex and drugs. Indeed, it’s a world in which almost everyone has lost their mind.

Might Tolkin again be having a bit of satirical fun as he inflicts each new horror upon the City of Angels?

“NK3” by Michael Tolkin (Atlantic Monthly)

At the outset, North Korean scientists develop a chemical called NK3 that can rob people of their memories. Their government intended to spray this diabolical poison only on their rivals to the south, but the scientists had misjudged its power and the new plague soon circled the globe. American newspapers at first report that hospitals are working to cure victims of a strange new malady. Then there are no more newspapers or television or airplanes flying or governments functioning. Only isolation, fear, anarchy and death.

Tolkin then flashes forward to Los Angeles in 2021, four years after the initial attack. No one there knows or cares about life elsewhere. Survival is challenge enough. Millions have died and thousands of survivors wander the streets in a daze. The city’s chief of police, still called Chief, has seized power. He and his loyal followers live inside a fortified 60-foot wall that encloses what were once West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and the UCLA campus. They operate a rehab center where doctors with flawed memories struggle to help others regain theirs. Most patients die; a few recover part of what they once knew. Chief himself was one of the first to be successfully treated.

Priority for treatment goes not to the rich or famous but to those who can help the city function. Any plumber or auto mechanic is deemed far more valuable than a lawyer or politician or movie executive. The occasional outsider who turns up with an undamaged mind is shot, lest he challenge Chief’s dominance. Most people, called Drifters, live outside the wall and are encouraged to keep busy with drunkenness and sex. Sometimes they’re used as unskilled labor; other times they’re herded onto buses and deposited in the desert to die.

Chief entertains his inner circle in his mansion high above the city: “At his orgies, Chief invited his favorites to the deck where — naked and drunk or stoned — they took turns on the telescopes.” He tells them, “This was the same sky we saw in the old times and the same sky our ancestors saw.” He creates a mythology wherein only his wisdom can make their world survive.

The author Michael Tolkin (Jacek Laskus)

Yet he faces dangers. A determined man named Hopper has ridden a bicycle from Las Vegas to find his wife, who is now Chief’s lover. Chief’s enemies control the Los Angeles airport and are seeking a pilot to help them escape, although no one knows where they might go or what they would find. And there is the nagging question of whether Los Angeles will run out of food. The Drifters are expendable but Chief knows that his closest aides will turn against him if faced with starvation.

The novel is clever entertainment about a disaster that won’t happen; we face many dangers but having our memories stolen by the North Koreans is not among them. After finishing “NK3” I entered a far more real, more painful dystopia when I reread Russell Hoban’s 1980 novel “Riddley Walker,” which portrays England in the distant future still struggling to emerge from nuclear devastation. It’s one of the great dystopian sagas, a masterful portrait of a ruined world that could be born tomorrow.

Reading the novel can at times be challenging because Riddley speaks a broken English that has evolved over many centuries of illiteracy, yet I sometimes found myself reading the book aloud, the better to savor its music and magic. In one memorable scene, Riddley enters the ruins of an ancient building and gazes upon the shining remains of a huge machine that once performed miracles he knows he will never comprehend. Tears stream down his face as he whispers:

“O what we ben! And what we come to!”

His lament still resonates.

Patrick Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post.


By Michael Tolkin

Atlantic Monthly. 300 pp. $25