London — Jim Crace has mixed feelings about America.
The British novelist loves the United States - its varied landscapes, friendly people, boundless creativity. He hates its foreign policy.
In his latest novel, "The Pesthouse," Crace takes his revenge by reversing the tide of history.
Set in a bleak future after an unspecified apocalypse, the book follows a trickle of desperate Americans as they trek across a devastated country - its soil poisoned, its cities reduced to rubble and rust - toward the coast and boats that will take them to a better life in Europe.
Eastward-bound, the sore, straggling migrants are enacting the settlement of the United States in reverse. It is a quietly shocking image. American stories, Crace points out, usually travel east to west.
"You can think of thousands of examples in which the American narrative is westward bound," Crace says, from the fugitive Thelma and Louise to the Oklahoma farmers fleeing the dust bowl for California in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."
Even "Borat - he flees to California because he has a dream of a big-busted date with Pamela Anderson," Crace says.
Crace says that upending the traditional American narrative was his way of punishing the United States. Like many liberal Europeans, he feels the country has let him down since the election of President Bush in 2000.
"I wanted to find out the status of my love-hate relationship with America by writing a book about America," he says.
Crace's ninth novel, "The Pesthouse," charts the journey of two migrants, Franklin and Margaret. Franklin has been left behind by his brother after injuring his knee. Margaret has been quarantined in a remote hut - the pesthouse of the title - after developing a contagious and deadly disease, the flux.
As the two set out together in search of a better life, they develop an intimacy of sorts. Along the way, they meet weary travelers, violent bandits and a strange religious sect, the Finger Baptists, who view all metal as the devil's tool.
Readers of Crace will not be surprised to learn that bad things happen. Murder, violent abduction, the butchering of a horse are described with matter-of-fact unsqueamishness. This, after all, is the writer whose 1999 novel "Being Dead" opens with a murder and goes on to describe decomposition and putrefaction in clear-eyed, oddly beautiful, detail.
Crace's prose is tactile and down-to earth. Indeed, at times, it seems to be settling into the earth. "The Pesthouse" is full of earth, water, wood, stone, rust and flesh.
Editor Nan A. Talese, who is publishing "The Pesthouse" and Crace's next two books on her imprint at Doubleday, calls him "an absolutely exquisite writer."
"I don't know how he understands darkness without being depressing," she said. "The lyricism of his language and his extraordinary compassion combine to make subjects that might seem too dark not seem that way at all."
In person, Crace is the least depressing writer imaginable. A former journalist, the balding, youthful 61-year-old fizzes with enthusiasm for his work. He comes equipped for an interview in his agent's London office with props, including pictures of a tumbledown quarantine hut in the Scilly Isles off the southwest tip of England - once the final home to disease-doomed migrants - that sowed the seed for the novel.
"I believe in teaching aids," he says, reaching into a plastic bag and extracting a twisted, rusted bolt to illustrate the impermanence of technology.
Crace says it's natural that he is drawn to images of distress and decay.
"Fiction loves distress stories more than it loves success stories," he says. "It prefers divorce to long marriages; it prefers illness to good health. Literature is about humankind in dismay. My books are full of strident noises and ugly sounds and dark corners. And they are full of spells and putrefaction. I don't feel disgust at these things.
"I will go along a beach and see a dead seagull and pick it up, because I'm interested in seagulls. It isn't a fascination with disgust, though I do see how people looking at me might think that's what it is. It's just being unsqueamish about the natural world, and feeling celebratory about the natural world - but not just the pretty robins."
Crace insists he is an optimist, and that "The Pesthouse" is, at heart, a surprisingly gentle love story.
"I'm an optimist because I find optimism in very dark places," he says. "But I also know that very few people believe me when I say that."
Imposing an agenda
Crace, whose books typically sell better in the United States than in Britain, predicts some Americans will not appreciate a foreigner painting such a dreary picture of their country. The post-apocalyptic landscape of "The Pesthouse" is similar to that of Cormac McCarthy's bleak best-seller "The Road" - but at least McCarthy is American.
His working title for the novel was "This Used to Be America." In a Freudian slip-up, Amazon.com for weeks listed the unpublished book on its Web site as "Useless America."
In fact, says Crace, that's not a bad title for the polemical novel of anger and disappointment he set out to write. He had in mind "a punitive book" that would "make the American westward dream a failed one in which everyone is heading east and trying to get back to Europe."
But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he says he felt "self-conscious" about that love-hate relationship.
"I don't know whether I pulled my punches or the narrative itself made me pull my punches," he says. "It was almost as if the nonexistent book, 'Useless America,' was the book that my 17-year-old political activist self would have written. It would have been critical of America and it would have been a polemic."
"The Pesthouse" isn't a polemic, and its ending will surprise some readers as much as it did Crace.
As they near the end of their journey, Franklin and Margaret find it harder than they had anticipated to leave behind America and its dream of freedom.
"In the end, the book got away. The book itself ended up imposing its own agenda rather than the agenda I was trying to impose on it," says Crace. It became "a book about hope and a book about optimism, rather than a book about pessimism.
"And even though my attitude about American foreign policy hasn't changed, my belief in the American dream - my addiction to the American dream - has been underscored rather than undermined."