The story is told by Robert Earle, who used to be a software executive. Now he's a hand-tool using carpenter living in a town in upstate New York without Internet, TV, or newspapers. The electricity comes on every couple of weeks for a few minutes at a time. When that happens, nothing's on the radio but hysterical religious talk. Rumors of goings-on in the rest of the world are vague.
There's no fuel or rubber tires left for cars, and even if there were, the roads and bridges are shot. Earle can't afford a horse or donkey, so when he needs to buy carpentry supplies, he takes his hand cart to a compound on the outskirts of town called Karptown. It's a trailer park next to the dump that's been taken over by a dangerous gang of former bikers and motorheads who roam the neighborhoods salvaging scrap materials from abandoned houses and buildings.
The town is loosely run by a group of 15 men (no women) who half-heartedly try to maintain law and order, which is hard because no one wants to stand up to troublemakers like the folks at Karptown, who conduct occasional raids on people's homes.
The story kicks off when Earle (who lost his wife and daughter in the plague and hasn't seen his 19-year-old son since the boy took off a couple of years earlier to find out what's happened in the rest of the country) is elected mayor and joins a search party to look for a freight boat and its crew, which disappeared on its way to Albany. Their horse-mounted odyssey takes them on a tour through a post-apocalyptic world of insanity, greed, kindness, corruption, and ingenuity.
While life in Kunstler's world is lawless and harsh and populated with opportunistic characters that make Boss Tweed look like Glinda the Good, it's not without charms. Local communities are active and productive. Neighbors all know each other and look after one another. People grow and trade their own produce and livestock, and meals are tasty -- lots of buttery corn bread, eggs, chicken, vegetables, streaks, fish. They get together and play music a lot, and because people aren't stuck in their living rooms watching TV, they actually attend live performances.
As a budding urban homesteader, I found the way of life in World Made By Hand, fascinating. No one can predict the future, and I doubt our future will be much like the one depicted here, but I think its possible that Kunstler has come closer to showing us what's in store than anyone else. Buy World Made by Hand on Amazon
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects