World’s End is set in New York’s Hudson Valley in three time periods: the late seventeenth century, when the Dutch had begun to give way to the English along the great river’s banks,; the 1940s, when anti-Communist sentiment was sweeping the country; and the late 1960s. With low humor and high seriousness, and in magical, almost hallucinatory prose, it follows the interwoven destinies of three families: a family of Indians, a family of lordly Dutch patrons and their descendants, and a family of yeomen, whose latter-day representative is Walter Van Brunt, a confused and callow twenty-two-year-old with a motorcycle and a 4-F draft deferment.
This is how World’s End begins: On the day he lost his right foot, Walter Van Brunt had been haunted, however haphazardly, by the ghosts of his past. It began in the morning, when he woke to the smell of potato pancakes, a smell that reminded him of his mother, dead of sorrow after the Peterskill riots of 1949, and it carried through the miserable lunch break he divided between nostalgic recollections of his paternal grandmother and a liverwurst sandwich that tasted of dead flesh and chemicals. Over the whine of the lathe that afternoon he was surprised by a walking dream of his grandfather, a morose, big-bellied man so covered with hair he could have been an ogre out of a children’s tale, and then just before five, he had a vague rippling vision of a leering Dutchman in surgarloaf hat and pantaloons.
Thus haunted by the burden of his heredity, woozy with pot, cheap wine, and sex, and reeling from an actual or imagined encounter with spectral beings in the “ghosts ships” moored in the Hudson below West Point, Walter has a literal collision with history. It precipitates his two journeys – Walter’s as he searches for his lost father, and ours, as we are drawn back through the centuries, and the secrets of the Van Brunt, the Van Warts, and the Mohonks are at last revealed. Why had Harmanus Van Brunt nearly gorged himself to death in the New World, and why had his son turned betrayer? What really happened in the 1948 riot in which the McCarthyite citizens of Peterskill turned on their socialist neighbors? Why did Walter’s father desert his friends, his son, and his wife, and where did he disappear to? What does it mean to be the last of your line? All this, and more, is the story of World’s End: a story haunted by the spirits of Washington Irving, Hawthorne, and Melville, a story about fathers and sons, about how people betray one another – most of all the ones they love – and about the ownership of the very land we live on.