Skip to main content

Times of the Islands Magazine

You Are My Sunshine: An aging couple maintains their love in an increasingly crazy world

When the real world outside your door sometimes seems to be conjured up from the pages of a slightly dystopian novel, then maybe it can help your perspective by reading an actual slightly dystopian novel. The Sun Collective may be just the right antidote to the current state of the universe.

Written by National Book Award finalist Charles Baxter, this is the story of Harold and Alma Brettigan, an aging couple in Minneapolis who are trying to navigate an increasingly crazy world while maintaining their love and sanity. Their adult son, Tim, has gone missing, apparently by choice, and their tireless search for him leads them to an amorphous cult-like group of self-described do-gooders calling themselves the Sun Collective.

Or maybe they are not such do-gooders. Nobody can be sure. They may also be planning violence to draw attention to their “Survival Manifesto.” Copies of it are left in the Utopia Mall outside Minneapolis (which locals may recognize as the Mall of America)—“Bomb the power. Bomb the plate glass, bomb the store dummies, bomb the consumers, bomb the bankers, the businessmen, the hucksters, bomb the oligarchs, the thieves.”

In their search for Tim, whom they believe is part of the Sun Collective, Harold and Alma befriend a young couple who are members of the group: Christina, who is perpetually high on designer drugs, and Ludlow, who starts out as a peace-loving yoga student but devolves into what could be a domestic terrorist toward the end of the book. The yin to the older couple’s yang, Christina and Ludlow shake up the Brettigans’ world.

Simmering in the background of Harold and Alma’s lives is a fraught political environment not unlike the one Americans have experienced during the past four years. It is led by President Amos Alonzo Thorkelson, an unhinged but banal leader who writes bad poetry and releases a new poem each month, railing against various causes such as food stamps, for example.

Meanwhile, there are rumors of certain groups killing the homeless, and other groups killing the wealthy in mysterious ways. Throw in the frustrating search for the Brettigans’ missing son, a possible murder (or at least a reckless homicide), various encounters with ominous strangers, a pet cat and dog who seem to communicate with Alma, and the world painted by The Sun Collective seems more and more crazy—and disturbingly close to reality.

What Baxter excels at here is describing relationships, particularly that between Alma and Harold—contentious at times, often regretful over the passion they once had, but always loving. Watching a young couple dancing in the park, Harold is wistful, but Alma reassures him, “We were once beautiful too. Don’t forget that.”