Life goes on in Charlie DeMott Wildey's apocalyptic novel 'Lightning Bolt' 

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Ten years ago, a group of quirky, self-possessed 20-somethings formed the Rochester-based comedy collective Goo House. The group only performed in earnest for a year, presenting a series of bizarre variety shows filled with sketches, stand-up comics, live music, and appearances by a singular performance artist who called himself ‘Puddles the Cat Comedian.’

But several of its members have made notable contributions to the culture at-large: cartoonist and comedian Mikey Heller went on to write for the animated sitcom “We Bare Bears” on Cartoon Network; comedian Colin Burgess, the creator of Puddles, has appeared in videos for Comedy Central, IFC, and Adult Swim, among others; and humorist Lucas Gardner authored two novels and has been a frequent contributing writer for The New Yorker and McSweeney’s.

The novel-writing bug has now bitten Gardner’s fellow Goo House alum Charlie DeMott Wildey, who recently returned to Rochester from Ithaca and released his debut novel “Lightning Bolt” via Buffalo-based NFB Publishing in May 2023.

Even as a member of Goo House, Wildey always considered himself a storyteller at heart, and his subtle, slowly unfolding approach to humor comes to the fore in the book.

Overhead, above the rooftops surveillance drones surveilled. Wyatt pulled the stool towards the window and leaned on the counter to see as much of the sky as he could. As he sat, the wind meandered around just right to reveal a glimpse of the blue of the sky, something that happened so rarely that it felt like a little treat. Scooting around, visible above the shog, were satellites hanging in the sky where you'd think they'd ought to fall right down. Most were dormant or dead, belonging to now defunct companies or governments, and they just kept drifting around and around until they bumped into something.

“Lightning Bolt" can best be described as an apocalyptic story for people who don’t dig typical doomsday scenarios that frequently feature zombies, cannibals or some combination of the two. Alternatively, the new novel advances the bleak-yet-profound premise that life doesn’t stop just because the world has ended.

Set vaguely in the future, Wildey’s cleverly conceived plot follows the everyday exploits of a bodega employee and aspiring writer named Wyatt in a garbage-strewn, pollution-addled metropolis formerly known as New York City. Early on, the protagonist reads a poetry book while sipping a beer at work, and it’s impossible not to sense Wildey critiquing his own writing:

Some of it was pretty good. A few of the pieces tried too hard and some of them were a little more earnest than Wyatt usually liked to read…[he] found the writing to be a bit clumsy but the insight was clearly rendered.

As a self-assessment, it’s an accurate one, if overly critical. While the novel’s environmental angle is heavy-handed, it isn’t off the mark. Despite the grim physical world depicted in “Lightning Bolt,” Wyatt and his friends still manage to indulge in hipster pastimes such as listening to obscure music on 7-inch vinyl records, producing original plays and DIY zines, and frequenting coffee shops and bars — with one such establishment conspicuously named Tap and Mallet.

Even as the plot gets weird and surreal, it never seems implausible. Wildey’s characters are well-meaning and endearing, and the more fantastical elements are grounded in their surprisingly banal lives. Despite the irreparably contaminated environment, poverty and homelessness, looming police brutality, and the lack of a social safety net, life goes on in “Lightning Bolt.” The future post-apocalypse depicted in Wildey’s novel is both an eerily honest reflection of our present reality and an entertaining cautionary tale.

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
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