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The Boston Phoenix Armageddon Living

Alex Heard hits the road and uncovers a bizarre underworld of millennial strivers

By Damon Smith

APRIL 5, 1999: 

APOCALYPSE PRETTY SOON: TRAVELS IN END-TIME AMERICA, by Alex Heard. W.W. Norton, 360 pages, $24.95.

Alex Heard's Apocalypse Pretty Soon introduces us to a cast of uniquely American outsiders. Among them is Arthur Blessit, a devout Christian "commanded" by Jesus Christ to haul an 80-pound cross through every nation of the world before the end of the millennium. He nearly meets his demise before a firing squad in Nicaragua, on a glacier near the summit of Mount McKinley, and beneath a herd of stampeding elephants in Tanzania, but he perseveres with cheery determination, wearing out his shoes every 500 miles. And then there is the unlikely tag team of Clyde Lott, a Pentecostal minister, and Rabbi Chaim Richman, an Orthodox Jew from Israel, who -- on the basis of scriptural prophecy -- inspect Red Angus cows, hoping for a sign of the impending apocalypse. Even secular millenarians and utopians get into the act, determined to push us ever faster toward our inexorable date with the year 2000.

Apocalypse Pretty Soon is a sometimes nightmarish, sometimes sobering, and consistently funny travelogue that reveals a lively and varied culture of end-timers flourishing in every corner of the United States. Heard, an editor at Wired magazine, spent years researching and getting to know a motley assortment of UFO cultists, right-wing militiamen, New Age environmentalists, off-world colonizers, fringe scientists, and others who share far-fetched chiliastic or utopian beliefs and the general assumption that the world is on the verge of cataclysmic change. Although the book fits squarely into the genre of narrative journalism, reading Apocalypse Pretty Soon is like watching a good road movie, complete with unexpected twists and turns, moments of suspense and hilarity, and the sudden appearance of deranged minor characters. And you couldn't ask for a more entertaining tour guide than Heard, whose antic voiceover, with its mixture of humor and insight, provides the fuel for a rather jaunty ride.

From the outset, Heard explains that he is interested primarily in millennial and utopian strivers "who are managing to function peacefully with their ideas," so for the most part he doesn't engage with anyone he perceives as truly dangerous. This prerequisite doesn't make his quest any less interesting, nor is he entirely successful in avoiding people whose apocalyptic fantasies are violent -- as his dark chapter on the contemporary militia movement attests. But he is invested in the idea that, for most millennialists, "the key to happiness is for redemption to shine forever on the horizon." Their "strange commitment to the strangest of beliefs," he writes, "was touching and inspiring in a way that taught me something."

Heard begins his odyssey at the headquarters of Unarius: Science of Life, a group formed in the mid-'50s by Ruth and Ernest Norman, self-fashioned archangels whose extraordinary claims of having led past lives in mythic civilizations and distant galaxies form the basis of a spiritual system that promises to cultivate wisdom in lowly earthlings. This mostly involves therapy sessions wherein members' present afflictions are attributed to dishonorable actions in past lives. For instance, one Unarian who seeks a reading from her brethren after she comes down with the flu tells Heard she learned she was once a cruel regent who was beheaded by an angry mob: " 'And that's where I got the coughing,' she said sweetly. 'From my severed head.' " Although Unarians bear some resemblance to the suicidal Heaven's Gate cult (they're expecting saucer-flying Space Brothers to arrive in 2001), they are, in Heard's estimation, a fairly innocuous bunch riddled with internecine strife.

Then there are the proponents of Earth Changes, a movement whose message Heard says is simple but starkly apocalyptic: "Mother Nature is tired of mankind's blighting presence, so she's planning to kill most of us off in the next few years by willing a rise in natural disasters, strife, and disease." The prophetic authority of this Rapture scenario is not Biblical, we soon learn, but comes from a strange farrago of Hopi mysticism, Nostradamus, and Edgar Cayce, with some crucial information occasionally channeled through Marian apparitions. Good-naturedly disparaging what he perceives as elitism, Heard notes that most of these environmental millenarians are wealthy, middle-class New Agers who seem more concerned with constructing survival pods and using the knowledge of the imminent Last Days as personal therapy than they are with alerting humankind to its pernicious abuse of the earth.

Much of the weirdness he explores leads him to Southern California, a teeming nidus of crackpot prophets and mad scientists whose eschatologies often point to redemption by means of science and technology: life-extension nuts who gobble vitamin concoctions and decry the tyranny of "deathist" thinking; cryonics enthusiasts hoping one day to grow fresh bodies for their stock of preserved heads; and a visionary named Brock d'Avignon who plans to build a floating micronation on the ocean as an escape from big-government meddling. On the opposite coast, Heard tangles with ambitious futurists hoping to colonize Mars or create "habitable ecospheres" in outer space; so far, they've managed only to form an organization dedicated to that cause.

As a researcher, Heard is thorough and brings a good deal of important historical information to the table. But he hasn't written a serious study so much as the narrative equivalent of an amusement-park ride, one in which he figures prominently as a foil and a wiseacre. Although eminently skeptical about the beliefs of the people he encounters, Heard isn't always automatically dismissive of their motivations (as perhaps he should be), even when it is clear he doesn't expect to be convinced of their righteousness, either. He approaches the task of learning about the American fascination with the end of the world like an amused anthropologist, and part of the charm of Apocalypse Pretty Soon is the story of his participation in the rites and rituals of the groups he surveys. Engaging and generous to a fault, Heard's book is a delightfully manic guide to a thriving fringe culture awaiting the end of an unsatisfactory world. It should be regarded for what it is -- a pleasant addition to the nightstand.

Damon Smith is a freelance writer living in Cambridge.

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