This is the story of a dysfunctional family living in various parts of the United States that must learn to survive in a world nearly destroyed and greatly altered by the eruption of a supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park. Colin Ferguson is a hard-nosed detective whose wife of thirty years, Louise, has abandoned him for her much younger aerobics instructor, Teo. Colin never had the slightest notion that Louise had been unhappy or that there were any problems in their marriage although Louise had been lonely and unfulfilled for decades. Her departure caught him completely unaware while he was still reeling from not making captain. His stubborn refusal to play politics had cost him that promotion. Although we are encouraged to see Colin as a strong, reliable and honorable man with a penchant for puns, he is also emotionally stunted and stuck in his own high opinion of himself, his self proclaimed superior intellect and his own sense of morality. Colin Ferguson is very judgmental and calls it as he sees it but the problem is that he is blind to views other than his own.
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As the story opens, Colin has taken a vacation at Yellowstone National Park hoping to clear his head but instead ends up on a bender at Motel 6. During a drunken hike he notices a woman has crawled over the barricades and is kneeling on a ledge. In his best official policeman voice he orders her to cease and desist only to find that she is Kelly Birnbaum, a geology grad student with permission to be there. Just then there is a small earthquake which Colin calls a 4.0. Kelly verifies his call on her portable seismograph and is instantly attracted to this drunken, belligerent, unshaven man almost twice her age because he got it right. They exchange phone numbers and over the course of the next year they conduct a long distance affair with Kelly living in Berkeley and Colin in San Atanasio (a fictional suburb of L.A.). Kelly fills Colin in on the imminent danger of the supervolcano eruption. Although Colin sounds the alarm to friends and family almost everyone believes Colin has gone soft in the head due to his new girlfriend.
The book shifts the point of view and storyline from character to character within each chapter. Although Colin is the main character the other major players include his opinionated, judgmental, college drop out daughter (degree? I don't need no stinkin' degree) Vanessa; his youngest son and professional college student, Marshall; and his oldest son Rob, member of the less than successful indie cult band Squirt Frog and the Evolving Tadpoles. Vanessa's ex-live-in lover Bryce, who is finishing his PhD in Hellenistic poetry (and has remained Colin's best friend), Louise, Kelly and Colin's partner Gabe Sanchez complete the character list.
Vanessa springs the news to her family that she is moving to Denver to follow (uninvited) her new lover Hagop, a Persian rug merchant who is the same age as her father. No one is happy abut her move. Vanessa completely disregards Colin's warning that Denver is too close to Yellowstone, Louise's concern about Vanessa's finances and Bryce's lonely misery as she gives up her apartment, packs up her cat and all of her worldly goods to drive to Denver. At the same time, Kelly leaves for Yellowstone to join a team of grad student geologists surveying the supervolcano and is interviewed by CNN. Rob and his band leave for a tour beginning in Missoula ending in New York. Bryce meets a graduate student named Susan who fills the void in his body if not his heart. All the while Colin and Gabe are involved in a long term investigation of the South Bay Strangler, a criminal who rapes and murders elderly women all over the L.A. area leaving absolutely no clues. They do have DNA evidence but it does not show up in any database leaving Colin to make the conjecture that the strangler must be an upstanding member of the community who has never run afoul of the law.
In Denver, Vanessa realizes too late that Hagop was only using her for sex and had moved to Denver to escape her. She is unhappy with her job and her cat Pickles doesn't like the new small apartment. However, Vanessa is too stubborn to admit she made a mistake. The South Bay Strangler strikes again in San Atanasio, Marshall switches his major to creative writing in an attempt to squeeze out a few more terms before he is compelled to graduate. Rob's band is mentioned in the New Yorker. Louise gets an office job at a Japanese ramen noodle factory. A volcano erupts while Kelly is at Yellowstone followed by a 7.0 earthquake. As the team attempts to evacuate, more earthquakes follow
stranding them overnight. The next morning they are picked up by helicopters but as they land 200 miles away, Kelly's worst fears suddenly erupt into reality.
The team makes a mad dash for Missoula. The president declares a state of emergency for Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. In Denver, Vanessa is sent home from work. On her way home she sees the enormous cloud of smoke and ash in Yellowstone, four hundred and thirty miles away. On the radio the news report warns that Denver will be covered in ashfall and the eruption will result in global climate change. She hides out with Pickles in her apartment just as the electricity goes out. Colin realizes the implications for L.A. before anyone else and he and Gabe secure gasoline supplies for their department. Bryce, returning to L.A. from a conference in Chicago, finds himself on a flight that has to try to outrun the ashfall and smoke. The pilot lands in Branch Oak Lake in Nebraska and Bryce is stranded there.
Rob and his band roll into Maine as the supervolcano erupts. They hear it but don't see any other evidence. Vanessa awakens the next morning to a city covered in ash. Fighting her own terror she grabs Pickles and makes a run for it in her elderly Toyota, all the while complaining about the grammar of the news anchors (a running commentary in this book). Kelly is stuck with her team staying in a one bedroom apartment in Missoula which got a covering of ash and an influx of refugees but otherwise seems unscathed. However, there is no way out. Colin calls in a favor and a police chief picks her up in a humvee and delivers her to Colin.
Meanwhile, at UC Santa Barbara, Marshall is enjoying his favorite pastimes, dope and sex, while watching the bizarre sunsets that have resulted from the eruption. The weather turns nasty in Maine and Rob realizes he is stuck there for now as the snow piles up without signs of stopping. Back in San Atanasio, Kelly explains to Colin how dire the situation actually is and worries that she is now obsolete since the supervolcano won't erupt again for at least another half a million years. Stuck in a motel with no money coming in Rob's band strikes out for Greenville, Maine in the midst of an unseasonable blizzard. In Nebraska, Bryce learns that the ashfall will cause hypertropic pulmonary osteodystrophy or Marie's disease and will kill millions and so dons a surgical mask and worries about Vanessa.
Vanessa's car finally gives out in Garden City, Kansas and she is forced to enter a ridiculously overcrowded Red Cross shelter at the high school. She is not allowed to have her cat so she turns him loose hoping someone will take him in but knows there is little hope. She sleeps on the floor and eats MREs and grows more and more angry. In L.A., Louise finds the grocery stores are almost empty. It begins to rain and doesn't stop. Accidents abound. In Santa Barbara, Marshall attends his first writing class and is assigned to submit a story to sell. Surprisingly enough, he sells his first story for $327.00 and gets high to celebrate. Kelly goes with her team on a flight over the new caldera at Yellowstone.
Back in Kansas, Vanessa is transferred to Camp Constitution, one of hundreds of refugee camps that FEMA is setting up. It's a nightmarish, miserable situation but she is able to charge her phone and let her family know she is still alive. Rob and his band become stranded in the tiny town of Guilford, Maine. Taking advantage of the United States preoccupation with the devastation, Iran and Israel attack each other with nuclear warheads.
Bryce catches a flight back to L.A. and sees the country is covered in gray ash. Millions of people have been killed, states have been destroyed, there are millions of refugees, the economy is shot, the crops have all failed, decades or centuries of frigid weather is predicted and Marie's disease is predicted to kill millions more across the country.
Kelly and Colin decide to get married. Colin phones Louise to tell her the news. Louise has her own news. She is pregnant with Teo's baby. Teo tells her to get an abortion but she wants to think about it. Teo abandons her leaving only a note. A baby at age fifty wasn't in Louise's plans but she decides to have it just to spite Teo. She informs Colin who agrees to help support her whenever he can. Kelly hopes Louise will abort. The doctor also encourages her to abort because of her advanced age. Bryce completes his dissertation but can't find a job as a professor. He takes an office job writing grants instead. There are very few jobs of any kind anywhere. The South Bay Strangler strikes again, another old lady is raped and murdered leaving Colin and Gabe frustrated with no leads.
In Guilford, Rob and his band mates begin learning how to survive in the snow country and are becoming attached to the local people. At Camp Constitution, Vanessa is dealing with bedbugs, MREs, donated used polyester clothes, long lines, screaming children, outdoor toilets, no showers, freezing weather, and incompetent administrators. The suicide rate is phenomenal. She trades sexual favors to get what she needs. Back in San Atanasio, Colin marries Kelly in a Jewish ceremony to please her parents. On their wedding night L.A. is hit with a blizzard and the newlyweds are stranded in a motel. When Colin returns to work, the strangler has struck again. Gabe tells Colin he is jealous because Colin got to see Yellowstone and now it is gone forever.