In the middle of a class discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby some years ago, a student raised his hand and asked, in essence: What are we supposed to make of the scene where Nick Carraway goes off with the gay guy? And I said, in essence: Wait, what gay guy? He pointed me to the scene that closes Chapter III. This is the chapter in which Nick accompanies Tom Buchanan and his mistress, Myrtle, to an apartment Tom keeps in Manhattan. Myrtle invites her sister and some neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. McKee, to join them, and they throw a raucous party that ends with Tom breaking Myrtle’s nose. Amid the blood and the screaming, Mr. McKee awakens from an alcoholic slumber: Then Mr. McKee turned and continued on out the door. Taking my hat from the chandelier, I followed. “Come to lunch some day,” he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator. “Where?” “Anywhere?” “Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy. “I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.” “All right,” I agreed. “I’ll be glad to.” …I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands. “Beauty and the Beast…Loneliness…Old Grocery Horse…Brook’n Bridge…” Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning Tribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train. I had, I’m embarrassed to say, never seen that passage before. Except that’s not true. I’d read the book half a dozen times since college, and taught it once, but I had somehow missed the fact that the narrator wanders off in a drunken stupor with a stranger and ends up in his bedroom. Whether my student knew it or not, he was tapping into a strain of scholarly inquiry into the sexual orientation of Nick Carraway that dates back at least to Keath Fraser’s 1979 essay “Another Reading of The Great Gatsby.” Fraser ultimately equivocated on the question of Nick’s sexuality, but in 1992, Edward Wasiolek argued in “The Sexual Drama of Nick and Gatsby” that the gay subtext in Gatsby is crystal clear: “I do not know how one can read the scene in McKee’s bedroom in any other way, especially when so many other facts about [Nick’s] behavior support such a conclusion.” In the decades since, suggestions that maybe, possibly, there’s more to Fitzgerald’s narrator than he’s letting on have given way to ever more self-assured, even faintly indignant, assertions of Nick’s queerness, with titles like The Atlantic’s 2013 article “The Great Gatsby Movie Needed to Be More Gay” or BookRiot’s 2017 piece “Nick Carraway Is Queer and in Love with Jay Gatsby.” Most queer readings of Gatsby begin with that scene with Mr. McKee and branch out from there to note that Nick’s love interest in the novel, Jordan Baker, is an athlete who carries herself “like a young cadet” and is most alluring to Nick when they play tennis and “a faint mustache of perspiration appear[s] on her upper lip.” When she and Nick break up at the end of the book, Jordan tells him she had thought he was “an honest, straightforward person,” to which he responds, “I’m thirty. I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor”—a line that rings differently if you read Nick as a closeted gay man. Of course, all of this shapes how we view the relationship between Nick and Gatsby. In a straight reading of the novel, Nick is merely an interested observer who helps facilitate Gatsby’s mad dream to rekindle his love affair with Daisy, now unhappily married to Tom Buchanan. That Gatsby, the one taught for generations in high school and college classrooms, is a classic tale about the American Dream and doomed love and the impossibility of turning back time. In that novel, Nick loves Gatsby, the erstwhile James Gatz of North Dakota, for his capacity to dream Jay Gatsby into being and for his willingness to risk it all for the love of a beautiful woman. In a queer reading of Gatsby, Nick doesn’t just love Gatsby, he’s in love with him. In some readings, the tragedy is that Gatsby doesn’t love him back. In others, Gatsby is as repressed as Nick, each chasing an unavailable woman to avoid admitting what he truly desires. “Nick chooses Jordan for some of the same reasons Gatsby chose Daisy,” writes Wasiolek in “The Sexual Drama of Nick and Gatsby.” “Daisy is Gatsby’s defense against women, and Jordan is Nick’s against women.” That last one, I’ll admit, is a touch too Freudian for me, but if Nick were gay and in love with Gatsby it sure would clear up some things—such as what exactly Nick sees in Gatsby, a social-climbing fabulist with gangster friends who moves heaven and earth for a woman Nick plainly sees as a ditz. It would also make sense of Nick’s emotionally sterile affair with Jordan. And, of course, if Nick is queer, his trip to Mr. McKee’s bedroom isn’t merely a mysterious interlude in a canonical book, but a secret key that opens the door onto one of America’s first great gay novels. [millions_ad] So then, is Nick gay? The short answer is we’ll never know. The only person who could say for sure is F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he’s been dead since 1940. But it’s worth noting that when he wrote Gatsby, Fitzgerald was the golden boy of American letters at a time of near-universal homophobia. Had readers picked up even a whiff of gay subtext in Gatsby, he risked losing everything: his career, his marriage, his reputation, his friends. But no one did see it, and, in fact, as Wasiolek notes, among the thousands of essays and critical studies of one of America’s most widely read novels no one noted the gay subtext in the McKee bedroom scene until Fraser wrote about it in 1979. So, making Nick a closeted gay man makes little emotional or artistic sense unless Fitzgerald was using Nick’s sexuality to explore in a deeply coded way his own guilt and shame over his unspoken desires—a theory that runs into the not inconsiderable hurdle that there is zero evidence that Fitzgerald was attracted to men. Yes, his wife Zelda did once accuse him of being in love with Ernest Hemingway, but at the time their marriage was unraveling and she was months from being hospitalized for schizophrenia. (Zelda also despised Hemingway, whom she reportedly saw as “a pansy with hair on his chest.” Hemingway, for his part, hated Zelda right back, times approximately a million.) But here’s the thing: If Fitzgerald had wanted to scratch a sexual itch badly enough to make him write coded gay characters into his books, he suffered no shortage of opportunities. For the last decade of his life, he lived apart from Zelda in European resort towns and in Hollywood, where he was surrounded by men living more or less openly gay lives. Yet not one credible story of Fitzgerald having sex with another man has turned up, either in his journals or in the famously gossipy movie colony. Instead, he had a few minor flings with female starlets before settling into stable relationship with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who was with him when he died. But okay, people are complicated. Maybe Fitzgerald had a secret life he was able keep under wraps his entire adult life despite the fact that he was falling-down drunk for much of that time, or perhaps he desired men, but was so disgusted by this need that he never acted upon it. There is, I think, a deeper reason to question a queer reading of The Great Gatsby: It doesn’t sound much like a novel F. Scott Fitzgerald, gay or straight, would write. Fitzgerald was a compulsively autobiographical writer who wrote his flaws into his work, unflinchingly and in plain English. When he drank, his characters drank along with him. When his marriage failed, his characters lost their wives, too. When he had a nervous breakdown, he wrote a searingly honest set of essays called “The Crack-Up” for Esquire. It strains credulity to suggest that if Fitzgerald were gay, he would expiate his guilt and shame by writing a veiled gay love plot nobody would notice for half a century. It’s just not how his artistic apparatus worked. As a writer, Fitzgerald wore remarkably few veils. For 20 years, he opened a vein and beauty flowed onto the page. None of this, of course, proves that Nick isn’t gay—that can’t be proven one way or the other—but I suspect the queer readings of Nick Carraway say more about the way we read now than they do about Nick or The Great Gatsby. We read with a perpetually queered eye, forever on the hunt for coded language or secret lives in characters. This is not in itself a bad thing. It layers our reading, opening our eyes to stories within stories that we missed before, but it can blind us, too, because once we know the code, we start to think all writers are in on it, when some of them might not be. Just because Fitzgerald wrote a scene that reads to us like a gay tryst doesn’t mean that Fitzgerald was gay and trying to send us a message in a bottle. Similarly, the fact that Nick meets a gay man and doesn’t run screaming doesn’t make Nick gay. Maybe it just means he’s tolerant and curious about people, whether they’re closeted gay men or bootleggers who want to turn back time. Let’s go back to that scene with Mr. McKee. No writer as attuned to wordplay and symbols as F. Scott Fitzgerald could have written that line about touching the elevator lever before a scene in which two men end up in a bedroom and not meant for a reader to catch the double-entendre. Whatever his sexual persuasion, Fitzgerald wasn’t an idiot. To us, reading with our queered eye, the double-entendre must be a veiled hint that Nick is gay, but that’s us now when the closeted gay man has become a stock character in film and literature. Fitzgerald’s original readers wouldn’t necessarily have come to the same conclusion. The savvier among them might have picked up that Mr. McKee is gay. It’s McKee, after all, who invites Nick for lunch and gets accused of touching the lever. It’s also McKee who’s in bed in his skivvies while Nick stands, outside the bed, listening to McKee drone on about his photo album. Of course, Nick does follow McKee from the party and accept his lunch invitation, but that’s Nick’s role in Gatsby: he follows people and agrees to things. Nick’s tolerance, his curiosity about people, isn’t just some minor character quirk. It’s key to Nick’s character and central to Fitzgerald’s narrative strategy. Over and over, Nick meets bizarre, interesting people and reserves judgment until they reveal themselves to him—and us. It’s right there on the first page of the novel, when Nick relates the advice his father gave him about keeping in mind that not everyone has had his advantages. “In consequence,” Nick explains, “I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.” Thus, when Gatsby’s friend, the gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, winds up a story about a mob hit by showing off his cufflinks fashioned from the “finest specimens of human molars,” Nick doesn’t back slowly out of the room and call the cops. He looks closer at the mobster’s cufflinks and exclaims, “Well! That’s a very interesting idea.” Later, when Gatsby arranges for Nick to set up a date with Daisy, a married woman Gatsby hasn’t seen since he was a poor boy about to be sent off to war, Nick doesn’t tell Gatsby gently and firmly that he’s out of his mind. No, he calls Daisy to set up the date. This, to my mind, is what a queer reading of Gatsby misses: Nick’s tolerance, his willingness to reserve judgment about things his world found frightening or wrong. Yes, it’s possible Fitzgerald was using the scene with Mr. McKee to speak in code of his own hidden desires, but more likely it’s a scene in which a straight man in 1920s America meets a closeted gay man—and listens to him. Likewise, maybe Nick’s love for Gatsby is queer, but more likely it’s queer in the nonsexual sense, meaning odd, uncanny. Maybe Nick really is who he says he is: a nice, decent, rather conventional bond salesman from the Midwest who knows he shouldn’t admire Jay Gatsby, but does anyway. Maybe he loves Gatsby, not because he wants to have sex with him, but because he wants to understand him, make sense of his queer and improbable dreams.
The first time she told the story of her recovery from alcohol addiction, Leslie Jamison recalls in her memoir The Recovering, an older man in the front row of the meeting where she was speaking started shouting: “This is boring!” Jamison is quick to assure us that the man was ill, “losing the parts of his mind that filtered and restrained his speech.” Still, diminished though he was, the man had been a pillar of the local recovery community, and even now “he often sounded like our collective id, saying all the things that never got said aloud in meetings.” And now he was saying, very loudly, that he was bored. The moment clearly shook her—it comes up twice in The Recovering—but perhaps she should have paid more attention to what the man was saying. Jamison, author of the 2014 essay collection The Empathy Exams, is an incisive stylist and has amassed an enormous amount of information and insight on what her subtitle calls “intoxication and its aftermath.” But her own recovery story, the spine on which she hangs reams of archival research and reportage, is—well, boring is a little harsh, but it’s not enough to carry a 500-page book. Jamison is what is known in sobriety circles as a “high-bottom drunk.” The daughter of a prominent health economist, she earned degrees from Harvard, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and Yale. Along the way, she started drinking. Then she started drinking a lot. In her mid-20s, while on break from her doctoral program, she stopped drinking. A few months later, she started again. Seven months after that, she stopped for good. She was 27 years old and had never been arrested, never lost a job to drinking, never landed in jail or a psych ward, never shot drugs, nor caused bodily harm to another person. To state the obvious: this isn’t a bad thing. Jamison is to be commended for seeking help before she tore up her life, and in truth, her story probably hews closer to the lived experience of most addicts than the lurid tales of junkies shooting up into their genitals that you find in pulpy memoirs and on reality TV. It also hews pretty closely to my own experience. I can’t claim Jamison’s Ivy League pedigree or her precocious literary success, but, like her, I quit drinking in my 20s, leaving a long trail of “nevers” and “not yets.” Even so, addiction, and the years it took me to recover from it, left a blast hole in my life I still grapple with to this day. So, for the first 100 pages or so, I cheered on The Recovering as a welcome corrective to the popular image of addiction as a gritty battle for the addict’s soul and recovery as a heroic feat of derring-do. Jamison offers up instead a quieter story of an addict whose life looks great on the outside—She’s in a doctoral program at Yale! She has a debut novel coming out!—but who, unbeknownst to those around her, is slipping deeper and deeper into despair. She sneaks white wine at a B&B where she works and picks endless low-grade fights with her boyfriend until, at a low point, she comes home already drunk and fills a cup with eight shots of whiskey and drinks until she can’t remember. “I hadn’t set off a bomb in the middle of my own life,” she writes. “It had just grown small and curdled. I lived with shame like another organ nestled inside me, swollen with banal regrets.” The Recovering shimmers throughout with lines like that, but 500 pages is a very long time to watch a woman suffer in silence. Perhaps sensing this, Jamison intercuts her story with archival research about other addicts, like singer Billie Holiday and poet John Berryman. Too often, though, stories of lifelong addicts like Holiday, who grew up black and poor and died literally handcuffed to a hospital bed, sit uneasily alongside that of a Harvard-educated novelist who sobered up her 20s without so much as a DWI. Jamison is, of course, wise to this. “I am precisely the kind of nice upper-middle-class white girl whose relationships to substances has been treated as benign or pitiable—a cause for concern, or a shrug, rather than a punishment,” she writes, adding: “My skin is the right color to permit my intoxication.” But awareness of privilege doesn’t blunt its protective force, and in the end the borrowed pathos of the stories of Holiday and Berryman and other writers like Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace never solves the core problem, which is that Jamison’s own story lacks the dramatic heft to bear the weight of analysis and research she piles upon it. [millions_ad] Much of this, I suspect, could be resolved by more ruthless editing. There is little in The Recovering that wouldn’t be twice as compelling in a book half as long. But I wonder, too, if in her effort to highlight the stories of addiction, Jamison shortchanges another essential element of recovery. Midway through the book, newly sober and stranded at a weeklong writing retreat in a converted tofu factory in small-town Iowa, Jamison stays up until five a.m. obsessively watching an obscure BBC miniseries to distract herself from drinking. The next morning, desperate, she finds a meeting at a nearby church, where there are only three other people, two of them leather-clad bikers passing through the area. When Jamison tells the group about staying up all night watching the BBC miniseries, “one of the bikers—a huge man with a snake tattooed around his neck—nodded so vigorously [she] was sure he’d say he’d seen that miniseries, too.” He hadn’t, of course, but as Jamison says, “he knew what it was like when craving tugged you like a puppet.” He knew what it was like. I’ve spent decades in church basements listening to people tell their stories, and I can’t say I recall the details of more than one or two. I’m a story person, but it wasn’t the stories that got me sober. It wasn’t anything anyone said, really. It was that for the first time in my life I felt heard, that when I said aloud completely insane things whole rooms full of people nodded along in perfect understanding. In an afterword, Jamison writes that she “wanted to write a book that worked like a meeting,” by which she means that she “needed to include the stories of others alongside [her] own.” That’s one way of describing how a meeting works, as a series of people telling their stories. I’ve certainly sat through my share of those, but the meetings that stuck with me, the ones that changed me, were the ones where someone cried out in pain and a room full of people listened. To my mind, that is the deeper secret to recovery, that force of constructive listening, the almost osmotic process of drawing the pain out of a human being in crisis and allowing it to settle, if only for an hour, in the body of the group. Jamison describes several moments of this kind in The Recovering, like that morning in the Iowa church basement and others later when she meets with a sponsor and begins helping people with less sobriety than herself, but each time she moves on to recount yet another argument with her boyfriend, yet another anecdote about John Berryman. What drew me to The Empathy Exams was the sense I had of Jamison as being a crackerjack listener, a woman willing to sit without judgment as people told her, for instance, about their experience with Morgellons disease, a crackpot-sounding syndrome in which people believe their bodies are being attacked from within by tiny fibers no one else can see. The Empathy Exams is a book-length feat of constructive listening, and I suppose I came to The Recovering hoping Jamison would do the same for a world I know well. Instead, I got a lot of stories about addicts. Some are absorbing, others less so, but let’s face it: ours is a culture awash in addicts’ stories. They fill whole shelves at the bookstore and amuse the millions on TV. What we need is what there has never been enough of: more, and better, listening.
It can be hard to keep track of who’s up and who’s down in our nation’s Gonzo Presidency. Just days ago, as I was finishing Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain, the book’s central figure, Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, Steve Bannon, was still rumored to have the president’s ear, phoning in to the Oval Office to give political advice even after his support of accused child molester Roy Moore gave Democrats a Senate seat in Alabama, the reddest of red states. But the day I began writing this, the president broke with his long-time consigliere, issuing a blistering public repudiation saying, among other things, “When [Bannon] was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.” At times like these, it can be hard to take the occupants of the White House seriously as anything other than smack-talking stars of a not-especially-convincing politically themed reality TV show. But we need to take Donald Trump and Steve Bannon very seriously because one of them is president of the United States and the other is the man who got him there. This is precisely the virtue of Green’s absorbing book: It takes Trump and Bannon seriously, not as the overgrown teenagers they seem so intent on playing on TV, but as two canny media manipulators who, together, won the most powerful political office in the world. As it happens, the source of the sudden blood enmity between the two men is yet another political tell-all book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff. That book has not yet been released as I write this, but going by the tabloid tone of the excerpts that have appeared in New York and The Hollywood Reporter, and the scabrously critical quotes from Bannon and others that have leaked elsewhere, Fire and Fury is likely to become the one Trump/Bannon book most people will read. This is unfortunate because while Green doesn’t quote Bannon accusing the president’s son of treason or offer juicy peeks at Trump’s efforts to keep the White House staff away from his toothbrush, Devil’s Bargain is the first thing I’ve read in the last year and a half that manages to make some sense of the human catastrophic weather event that is Steve Bannon. And make sense of him we must. Now that Trump has cut ties with him, Bannon may well fade from public consciousness as have many other one-time right-wing stars like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck before him. But that won’t change the fact that Bannon did more than anyone besides Trump himself to elect a politically naive reality TV star president of the United States. That, of course, isn’t how Trump sees it. In his incendiary public statement announcing his break from Bannon, Trump noted that Bannon joined the 2016 campaign only after Trump had won the Republican nomination, adding: “Steve had very little to do with our historic victory, which was delivered by the forgotten men and women of this country.” This, as is the case with so much the president says when he’s in a mood, is demonstrably untrue. Green persuasively argues that Bannon, who first met Trump in 2011, offered the future president two services without which Trump never could have won: first, “a fully formed, internally coherent worldview…about trade and foreign threats,” and, second, a turn-key ready “infrastructure of conservative organizations” that had spent decades attacking his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Indeed, at times reading Green’s book, one comes away with the gnawing sense that Trump did not so much win the 2016 election as happen to be the guy who benefitted when the darker forces on America’s right wing finally succeeded in destroying Hillary after failing to drive her husband from office in the 1990s. [millions_ad] Bannon, Green maintains, deserves credit for being at the center of this effort. Now, before we go too far down that road, it should be noted that Bannon is clearly the source of much of Devil’s Bargain and that, like everyone else in Trumpland, Bannon has a habit of taking credit for every least thing that happens, including the sun rising in the morning. But Green, a senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, has done some important journalistic spadework, including deep dives into the sources of Bannon’s political philosophy and the inner machinery of his political and media operations, that lends credence to the pivotal role Bannon played in Trump’s improbable rise. Among the more fascinating nuggets Green has unearthed is the fact that, before he ran for president, Donald Trump, the TV star, was wildly popular among immigrants and African Americans. Starting from its debut season, when its breakout star was a black Howard University grad student named Omarosa Manigault, The Apprentice was not only unusually integrated for a prime-time American TV show, but presented minority contestants as striving, ambitious entrepreneurs. As a result, Green reports, “the audience that tuned into The Celebrity Apprentice was among the most liberal in all of prime-time television, owing in no small part to the large number of minority viewers Trump attracted.” It was this popularity among liberal-leaning minority audiences that Trump torched when he chose to enter the national arena by questioning Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Thus, it was in a certain way fortuitous for Trump that he was able to graft Bannon’s hard-right focus on traditional values and nationalist policies onto his own ever-shifting worldview. Even “the Wall,” Trump’s signature campaign pledge, turns out to have been “a trick, a mnemonic device,” according to Green, who quotes Trump staffer Sam Nunberg saying he and fellow campaign operative Roger Stone came up with the line about building a border wall in 2014 as a way “to make sure [Trump] talked about immigration.” But perhaps the most decisive gift Bannon offered Trump was access to a vast, well-financed machinery designed to take down Trump’s general election opponent, Hillary Clinton. In the early 2000s, Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who owes his personal fortune to, of all things, a stake in Seinfeld reruns he picked up in a deal, began making political documentaries. The films don’t seem to have made much of a ripple in of themselves, but they put Bannon in contact with fringe right-wing figures like David Bossie, president of the anti-Clinton group Citizens United, and reclusive hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who financed Bannon’s political and media operations. It was the Mercer-funded outfits, chief among them the feisty alt-right news site Breitbart News and the lesser known Government Accountability Institute, a Florida-based research group, that played the largest roles in the 2016 campaign. In Devil’s Bargain, Green outlines a two-pronged media strategy in which Breitbart administered daily doses of political provocation aimed at the alt-right masses while the research group played the long game of digging up just enough legitimate dirt on Clinton that the mainstream media would have to pick up the story. “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” Bannon tells Green. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re working as a support function.” This, it strikes me, is the true genius of Steve Bannon. His politics are a muddle of white-identity grievances and crackpot theories, his nose for political talent is dubious at best, and he has a singular gift for self-destruction. But the man understands systems. Peel away the revolutionary bluster and the three-day stubble and you have a Goldman Sachs banker engaging in a smart bit of media arbitrage. Bannon recognized that the mainstream media, despite its liberal lean, was willing to go after Clinton, but didn’t have the resources. So, leveraging the Mercers’ millions, he provided those resources for them, financing a team of data scientists who scoured the deep web for unreported donors to the Clinton Foundation who may have benefited financially from their relationship with the Clintons. They hit pay dirt in the form of a book called Clinton Cash, which sped to the bestsellers list and spawned multiple independent media investigations, including one that landed on the front page of The New York Times, setting off the first of a cascade of scandals that painted Clinton as incorrigibly corrupt. As I write this, The Washington Post is reporting that Rebekah Mercer, one of Bannon’s earliest and most prolific political patrons, has also broken with him and sided with President Trump. For now, Bannon remains in charge of Breitbart News, but he may be thrown under that bus before long, too, leaving the man the national press once portrayed as the mastermind of the Trump administration as little more than a national punchline. If that happens—and given the post-resignation track record of so many senior Trump aides, it would hardly be surprising—the currency of Devil’s Bargain will no doubt fade as well. That would be a shame because whatever you may think of Steve Bannon, he saw better than almost anyone else how to exploit the vulnerabilities in the modern media landscape to elect a man president. Many of those vulnerabilities still exist, and anyone who wants to elect the next Donald Trump—or to prevent his election—had better understand what Bannon saw.
When I was growing up in suburban California, whenever my high school baseball team had an away game in farm country north of San Francisco, as soon as we passed the first cow pasture some wiseass in the back of the bus would break out an imaginary banjo and start into the theme song from Deliverance. Dum-da-ling-ding-ding-ding-ding. Dum-da-ling-ding-ding-ding-ding. This was the 1980s, so we were too young to have seen the 1972 film, and I’m sure none of us had read the classic James Dickey novel on which it was based. Still, the infamous Dueling Banjos scene from the movie was by then such a part of American pop culture that the brief banjo riff had become, for kids like us, a kind of snarky shorthand for “rural” and “backward.” Each time, the joke would spread outward from the back of the bus until half the team was picking imaginary banjos, all of us cracking up at these inbred hillbillies who would within a few hours beat the tar out of us soft suburban boys at baseball. I thought of those long bus rides, and that banjo tune, when I recently picked up Deliverance for a book club I belong to. Weeks later, the tune is still in my head, but it has curdled into something far darker and more sinister in light of the brilliant, troubling novel that helped ingrain it into American culture. In the book, as in the movie, four bored suburban guys from an unnamed Southern city take a weekend canoeing trip down a remote stretch of wild river slated to be dammed to make way for a reservoir. One of them, an avid outdoorsman named Lewis—played by a beefed-up Burt Reynolds in the movie—knows a little about the backcountry, but the others can barely tell a canoe paddle from a slotted spoon. One of the more remarkable qualities of Deliverance is how much the experience of reading it mirrors that of a river trip gone horribly wrong. For the first 90 pages or so, the narrative floats merrily along as the four soft suburbanites set off on their journey into country they know nothing about on a river they have neither the skills nor the equipment to navigate. Dickey is a master at building suspense, and one feels it building, building, building, like the low roar of an upcoming rapids, as Lewis natters on about his survivalist fantasies and the narrator, Ed Gentry, a semi-successful ad man back in the city, dreams of killing his first deer with a bow and arrow. [millions_ad] When Deliverance was first published in 1970, before the dueling banjos and the unforgettable sight of flabby, naked Ned Beatty squealing like a pig had become cultural touchstones, readers could be forgiven for assuming that the menace the men face would come from nature—a wild bear attack, a torrential rainstorm that swamps their canoes. I am not that reader. I have seen the movie and I even read the book once before many years ago, yet still it startled me when, on page 94 of my ancient Dell paperback, two armed men step out of the forest and kidnap Ed and his flabby, hapless friend Bobby. Until that moment, Deliverance is a well written, if somewhat talky novel about four suburban idiots on a camping trip. From that moment on, the novel is a perfectly realized parable of Southern manhood in a time of great cultural change. For 94 pages, Dickey bangs the reader over the head with how suburban life, with its wall-to-wall carpeting and shopping malls, has emasculated these four sons of the South and the fantasy they’ve built for themselves about how a weekend in one of the last remaining pockets of Southern wildness will untame them. Then, in the blink of an eye, one of their number suffers the ultimate emasculation when he is raped at gunpoint by a pair of toothless hillbillies, and the four suburbanites return to a state of nature where they must kill or be killed. The novel’s themes of manhood and leadership and the will to survive at all costs, which Dickey has kept dammed up under endless pages of talk and rambling narrative observation, are released by the abrupt, shocking sight of a man being raped by another man—and for another taut, marvelously rendered 130 pages all the reader can do is hold on for dear life as Dickey shoots rapid after rapid in this wild, neo-Southern Gothic adventure tale. More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
If you’ve ever wondered how a novel gets made, from the first glimmerings in the author’s imagination to what readers say about it in their book clubs, Clayton Childress’s Under the Cover is the book for you. Childress, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, has performed a remarkable feat of investigative reporting, interviewing dozens of writers, editors, and readers, and even embedding himself for a time as an intern at an indie publishing house, to follow the tortuous path of Cornelia Nixon’s 2009 historical novel Jarrettsville from inspiration to publication and beyond. Unfortunately, because Childress is a social scientist and Under the Cover is part of the Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology series, readers have to drill through layers of academic framing and insider jargon to find the nuggets Childress has mined from his years of research. This is a shame because, whatever his gifts as a sociologist, Childress is a first-rate shoe-leather reporter. He begins by getting inside Nixon’s head, tracing the origins of Jarrettsville back to a family story about a Maryland ancestor, Martha Jane Cairns, who fell in love with a Union soldier shortly after the Civil War, became pregnant with his child, and then, after he left her, shot him dead in broad daylight as he marched in a parade. In these early sections, Childress occasionally gets sidetracked by his academic training, as when he suggests that “in Nixon’s writing group, recompense operates largely within an economy of time and artistic attention, a gift exchange of sorts,” as if trading story drafts were a lit-world equivalent of the exchange of shell necklaces among Trobriand Islanders. But he does a superb job of showing how Nixon’s decade-long struggle to write and publish Jarrettsville transformed a raw family story into a published book. Nixon spent five long years researching and writing a draft of the novel, then called Martha’s Version, which she sent to 22 publishing houses, all of which rejected it. Childress, ever the social scientist, breaks out the positive and negative comments in Nixon’s rejection letters into a handy bar chart showing that while editors liked Nixon’s treatment of the time period and the issue of race, they felt the plot was too slow and the major characters needed work. Anyone who has ever sent out a novel for publication has created their own mental version of Childress’s soul-crushing little bar chart, and like Nixon, has pored over it looking for the signal in the noise of conflicting editorial feedback. To her credit, Nixon figured out what was wrong and overhauled the book, adding a long section from the perspective of Martha Cairns’s doomed lover. Or, as Childress puts it: “Nixon took the editors’ explanations from the field of production, and first alone and then with guidance from her social circle used them to redraft Martha’s Version into Jarrettsville.” Much of Under the Cover is written in this curiously anthropological tone, as if Childress were explaining how to eat a bowl of cereal to a race of aliens who had never seen a spoon. What is even more curious, though, is that, amid all the jargon, Childress nails the great secret of publishing, which is that it is a business fueled by special brand of infectious enthusiasm. (This might be the place to mention that Childress quotes, at some length, from a Millions piece of mine, "'A Right Fit': Navigating the World of Literary Agents".) In his chapters on Counterpoint Press, where Childress worked as an intern while it was publishing Jarrettsville, he documents how Nixon’s book passed from her agent, to her editor, to her publisher’s sales force, to buyers at major bookstores, rising and falling in value as each person in the chain fell in love with the book or didn’t. Of course, each of these people are busy professionals who can’t possibly read every page of every book that crosses their desks, so much of the time they were falling in love, or not falling in love, with the idea of Nixon’s novel. Since each person in the chain was being paid to hype a full slate of books to the next person in line, any sign of unfeigned enthusiasm—a kind comment by a proofreader, a review of half the book from a sales rep—rippled through the system, carrying the book along in its wake. In the case of Jarrettsville, the book rode this tide of readerly goodwill straight onto the high-traffic front tables at Borders, the now-shuttered bookstore chain, where it foundered, in large part due to a single bad review in The New York Times. Childress gets this deeply human element of publishing exactly right, so it’s disheartening to see it explained in sentences like this one: While most sociologists, following the theory of Bourdieu, bifurcate the literary field into artistically and commercially driven poles, it is at the organizational level within the field of production in which art and commerce are harmonized as a requisite feature of being in the business of promoting and selling books. Translated into plain English, Childress is saying that despite what people think, publishing isn’t a war between art and commerce, but a business that thrives by blending these two things. This is a core insight of his book, and he’s right, but he’s buried his point in a sentence that seems almost scientifically designed to be impenetrable to non-specialist readers. First, there’s that single-name reference to Bourdieu, tossed in without context as if the late French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu were a cultural phenomenon like Madonna or Beyoncé, so instantly recognizable that you only need the one name to know who he is and be fully up on his theories. And if you weren’t scared off by the mononymic French dude, the rest of the sentence will stop you cold, with its weakly focused main clause (“it is at…”), awkwardly placed introductory prepositional phrases (“at the organizational level within the field of production”), passive voice (“are harmonized”), insular terms of art (“the field of production”), and ornate Latinate phrases (“bifurcate,” “requisite”). I've been teaching writing at the university level for more than 20 years and I can assure you no one writes like that naturally. You have to train people to write sentences like this, and when they regress and start making sense again, you have to ensure that their livelihoods depend on being consistently incomprehensible outside a narrow set of like-minded colleagues. Therein, to my mind, lies a small, perhaps unavoidable tragedy of how knowledge is produced and promulgated in our society. Childress was able to do such a fine job researching American publishing in part because he was heavily subsidized, first as a doctoral student at the state-supported University of California at Santa Barbara, and later as a junior professor at a research university partially funded by (Canadian) tax dollars. When he began Under the Cover, Childress explains in an afterword, he was a grad student looking for a subject, and now, many years later, he is a tenured professor at the University of Toronto, no doubt thanks in large part to the publication of Under the Cover. So the deal worked out well for Childress, and it has worked out well for cultural sociologists and their students, who now have a new text to study in their classes. But for other readers who might be interested in the subject matter of Childress’s book, particularly writers and people considering a career in publishing, it’s more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Childress has given us a deeply reported insider’s look at how the sausage gets made in contemporary publishing. On the other hand, he has built such high walls of academic verbiage and doctrinal framing around his work that only a few hardy souls outside his area of specialty will ever succeed in climbing them.
If I could teleport myself to any moment in American literary history, I would set my controls for the crisp fall day in November 1856 when Henry David Thoreau met Walt Whitman at Whitman’s family home a few blocks from the Brooklyn Naval Yard. The year before, Whitman had published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and sent a copy to Thoreau’s mentor, the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson responded with a glowing fan letter, saying, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Whitman, being Whitman, slapped the great man’s words on the spine of the second edition of his poems, simultaneously pissing off the Sage of Concord and pioneering the book blurb. This was the context of Thoreau’s meeting with Whitman on November 10, 1856. As we learn in Laura Dassow Walls’s excellent new biography Henry David Thoreau: A Life, when Thoreau was in his early 20s, Emerson had anointed him as the next great American poet, showering Thoreau with praise and helping him get his poems published. Now 39, Thoreau had long ago given up poetry for essays, but he wanted to meet Emerson’s latest enthusiasm for himself. Things got off to a rough start when Whitman declared, in his casually messianic way, that he represented America and Thoreau responded that he “did not think much of America or of politics & so on—which may have been somewhat of a damper to him.” Thoreau also was put off by the fact that Whitman hadn’t made his bed and left the chamber pot out for all to see. But when Whitman gave Thoreau a copy of his second edition—the one with Emerson’s blurb on the spine—Thoreau loved it, though he was troubled by its sensuality. “He does not celebrate love at all,” he wrote. “It is as if the beasts spoke.” It is a testament to the power of Walls’s biography, which is on a fast track to definitive status, that she pushes the reader look beyond the obvious Puritan squeamishness of this observation to see how, for a man like Thoreau, who spent his happiest hours tramping in the woods feeding his hunger for contact with raw nature, a poet’s ability to channel the beasts of the field could also be seen as a rare gift. But the connection between the two men went deeper than that. Whitman was lusty and brash where Thoreau was solitary and contemplative, but in many ways they had led similar lives. Both threw over conventional careers, Whitman as a newspaper editor, Thoreau as a Harvard-educated school teacher, to focus on their writing, much of which they ended up publishing themselves. More than anything, though, they were alike in their indifference to their differentness. Whitman, bohemian and essentially jobless, spent whole days riding the omnibus up and down Broadway declaiming Homer at the top of his lungs. Thoreau had lived for two years in a house he built himself near Walden Pond where he wrote essays, planted beans, and spent weeks in the dead of winter obsessively measuring the pond’s width, length, and depth. So it’s hardly surprising that when he returned home from his visit to Brooklyn, Thoreau carried his copy of Leaves of Grass, in Emerson’s words, “like a red flag, defiantly.” Thoreau heard in Whitman’s poetry what he was striving to capture in his own work: a true, unadorned American voice. “Though rude & sometimes ineffectual,” he wrote of Whitman’s book, “it is a great primitive poem—an alarum or trumpet-note ringing through the American camp.” It is a commonplace of writing workshops that writers must first “find their voice,” but today’s writers have it easy, needing only to find a voice authentic to themselves as individuals. The task was trickier for American writers of Thoreau and Whitman’s generation, who came of age in the early 19th century. Writers of the so-called American Renaissance of the 1850s, which include Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, along with Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, had to locate within themselves a voice authentic not only to them personally, but to an entire nation. For writers like Thoreau and Whitman, both born in the 1810s, the American Revolution was very much a part of living memory. But while their grandfathers had helped overthrow British tyranny, the literary world they inherited still saw British and European literature as the model for all but the most frivolous popular writing. You can hear this influence in even the work of that most distinctly American author, Edgar Allan Poe, who set many of his most famous tales in Europe, and in his poems employed a rhyme scheme and classical rhetoric (“Quoth the Raven,” etc.) wholly foreign to the American ear. In his 1844 essay “The Poet,” Emerson called on American writers to cast off shopworn tropes of the past and strive to capture the spirit of their raw, still-forming nation. Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boats, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres. Whitman heard a version of this essay as a lecture in Brooklyn, and Leaves of Grass was in many ways an answer to Emerson’s call. But so, too, was Thoreau’s Walden and Melville’s sea tales and Hawthorne’s Puritan-era romances and Emily Dickinson’s verses. To an uncanny degree, each of these foundational American writers followed a similar path, stepping off the conventional career track early in their lives to draw inward and look more directly at the world. Whitman quit newspaper work and spent years bumming around New York, taking odd jobs and declaiming poetry on city buses. Melville put out to sea and lived among the natives of the Marquesas Islands. Hawthorne spent 12 reclusive years in his parents’ home studying colonial history and writing fiction. Dickinson, who came along a few years later, retreated into her parents’ home, where she spent much of the next four decades scribbling poems on scraps of paper. And of course, Thoreau built a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond with enough room for a bed and a desk and three chairs—“one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society.” One of the pleasures of Walls’s Thoreau is seeing how Thoreau’s stubborn refusal to lead an ordinary life turned a bright, but otherwise rather ordinary young man into a great and original artist. The story of Thoreau quitting his first teaching job because he wouldn’t strike his students is the stuff of legend. Less well known is his long, largely unsuccessful struggle to carve out a more conventional career as a writer. For a time, Thoreau wrote poetry while helping out in his family’s pencil business and, later, launching a small private school with his brother John. When that school folded, Thoreau moved to Staten Island where he tutored the son of Emerson’s brother and tried to break into the bustling New York literary market. Thoreau’s year and a half in Staten Island, the longest he ever lived away from Concord after college, was a slow-moving disaster. “I have not set my traps, yet, but I am getting the bait ready,” he wrote home in a letter shortly after he arrived in New York. But just four months later, he had to admit that “my bait will not tempt the rats; they are too well fed.” To Emerson, he joked ruefully, “Only the Ladies Companion pays…but I could not write anything companionable.” This was the Thoreau who went into the woods, a 20-something Harvard grad who had tried teaching, tutoring, tinkering, and freelance writing, and ended up back where he began, in his hometown helping out in his parents’ pencil business. But he wasn’t a failure, exactly. By the time he moved to Walden Pond, on July 4, 1845, he had gathered an impressive array of literary benefactors, including Emerson, Hawthorne, and Horace Greeley, the founder and editor of the New-York Tribune, who served as an informal literary agent for Thoreau the rest of his life. Perhaps more importantly, Thoreau had hit on a successful working method. It began with daily immersion in nature, mostly through walking, which Thoreau did the way other people read the news, and with much the same purpose. He walked everywhere, and everywhere he walked he noticed: What wildflowers were out? On what date had the pond iced over? Why was it that when a farmer cut down a pine forest oak saplings sprouted, but when an oak forest was cut down pine saplings sprung up? He recorded these observations and questions in his journal, which he had started, at Emerson’s urging, shortly after he finished college and continued until he could literally no longer hold a pen, amassing some two million words. He shaped this raw material into essays, which he tested out in lectures he delivered to his neighbors in Concord as well as to audiences across New England. The best of these lectures he reshaped yet again into articles or book chapters, which he then published. The cabin at Walden was crucial to all this, putting him in close, daily contact with his principal subject—nature—while giving him a rent-free “room of his own” where he could transform the raw data of his journal entries into lectures and essays, and, after yet another round of sifting and shaping, into books. At the same time, as Walls puts it, Thoreau’s “two years, two months, and two days living at Walden Pond became and would forever remain an iconic work of performance art”—one which, when boiled down to a single, lightly fictionalized year, gave him the narrative spine for his most famous book. In his short time at the pond, Walls notes, Thoreau began work on the great bulk of the material he is famous for today, including a first draft of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a nearly finished draft of Walden, and a rough draft of his essay “Ktaadn,” about his first visit to Mt. Ktaadn, which would figure in his posthumously published book The Maine Woods. The flailing young New York freelancer who couldn’t dream up anything companionable enough for The Lady’s Companion had found his voice. That voice, by turns cocky and self-serious, erudite and homespun, spiritual and blasphemous, rings out from every page of Walden: “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” “Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.” It’s there, too, in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”—“I cock my hat as I please indoors or out”—and in the iconic opening line of Melville’s Moby-Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” From there, the American sound changed and grew as the country itself grew. The writers of this first American Renaissance were all white men from the Northeast. As the nation spread westward, writers like Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce added a tart dose of western humor to American literature and Southern writers like William Faulkner pulled and stretched the English language like taffy. Women writers like Edith Wharton and Willa Cather joined the choir, as did black writers of the Harlem Renaissance like Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Each generation since — the great Jewish novelists of the 1950s, the Black Arts Movement poets of the 1960s, the Dirty Realists of the 1980s — has shaped and refined how America sounds to the world, but that distinctly American voice, now so familiar we only hear it when a writer finds a new way to use it, can be traced directly back to Thoreau and Whitman and the other writers of the 1850s, who broke away from their European influences and created a truly American literature. What’s interesting is how they found it. The writers of the American Renaissance were extraordinarily well-read, but they arrived at their unique sound not principally through reading, but through deep immersion in the world. To one degree or another, they each stopped what they were doing and listened, and what they heard coming back was the sound of a new country.
Novelist Julia Fierro has an eye for spoiled paradises. In her first novel, Cutting Teeth, a satirical look at parenting customs in Brownstone Brooklyn, a group of angst-ridden, citified parents spend a fraught Labor Day Weekend in a shabby Long Island beach house ironically named Eden. Fierro's second novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, a darker, more ambitious book, is set on Avalon Island, an idyllic islet off the coast of Long Island beset by an infestation of gypsy moths and, more troublingly, by toxic waste from an aviation plant that may be poisoning the local water supply. The Gypsy Moth Summer, which came out in June, is at heart a tale of two women: Maddie LaRosa, whose family straddles the class divide between tony East Avalon and working-class West Avalon; and Leslie Marshall, scion of the town’s most prominent family, who returns to the island with her African-American husband, Jules, and their two biracial children. Maddie falls in love with Leslie’s son Brooks, upsetting the delicate balance of race, class, and deeply held secrets that have held Avalon together while poisoning its culture—and its children. Fierro and I recently exchanged emails about the real-life inspirations for her novel, the intersection of race and class in America, and the growing toxic plume spreading underneath her native Long Island. The Millions: Writers often start a book with a line of prose or a visual image. Was that the case for you with The Gypsy Moth Summer? What started you writing this story? What sustained you once you got started? Julia Fierro: The Gypsy Moth Summer's first seed, so to speak, was planted many years ago with the character of the Colonel, based on my maternal grandfather who was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. Like the Colonel in the novel, my grandpa was a tough son-of-gun and inspected our bedrooms wearing his white military gloves once a year (we got a dollar if we passed and a talking-to if we failed), but my grandfather was not as tyrannical as the Colonel in The Gypsy Moth Summer. In my first creative writing class at college, I wrote a sketch of the Colonel who, two decades later, became the patriarch of Avalon Island in The Gypsy Moth Summer. That sketch sat ignored for years until I was a graduate student at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. I tried to turn the sketch into a story titled "The Gypsy Moth Summer." I rewrote that story many times over the next decade—from the Colonel's perspective, from teen Maddie's perspective, even, I am ashamed to admit, from the caterpillars' omniscient point-of-view (I'm laughing at myself). Eventually, I realized this was no story but the opening chapter of a novel. After my first novel, Cutting Teeth, was published, I looked at that pile of pages (hundreds of pages of various opening chapters all for the same book) and tried again. This time, all those details and characters, and, most importantly, the story, fell into place. It would be easy to look at all those pages as a waste of time, but I was fully informed when I sat down and wrote the novel. TM: You speak of the Colonel, and of your granddad on whom he is based, as tyrannical, but as a reader, I found him more pathetic than frightening. He's slipping into dementia, he yells at the TV every time Bill Clinton appears, and his worldview seems almost comically out of date. I read him as a symbol of the broader rot that you seem to be saying existed at the heart of the Reagan-Bush-era U.S. war machine, which in the novel is producing bombs that kill American women and children by spreading carcinogenic toxins. Was that your intention? JF: I was raised by two devout Roman Catholics, and although I'm an atheist now (the doubt which makes me a decent fiction writer makes me a bad believer), and I don't necessarily believe in "karma" (if only the universe was so just), I wanted to write about an island's sins catching up with its sinners. It was my intention to expose what you call "the rot" at the heart of an island whose bread-and-butter is the making of killing machines. But I thought of it as a poison, similar to the real-life toxic plume that is growing under Long Island. The Gypsy Moth Summer's Grudder Aviation is loosely based on Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, a major producer of military aircraft from 1929 to 1994, when it was acquired by Northrop. Grumman was a half hour east from where I grew up. Many of my cousins, aunts and uncles lived near the factory, and several of my school teachers. The breast cancer rate in this area is triple that of New York State. Throughout my childhood, at any time, I knew multiple people who had cancer—family members, neighbors, teachers, even school friends. Most survived with treatment. I knew I wanted to address the cancer rates on an island that, like Long Island, gets its drinking water from wells. I grew up on an idyllic islet (like Avalon) but my parents forbade us from drinking well water. We made weekly trips to my grandparents' home "in town" where they received water from the town supply. We filled plastic gallon bottles—my father called it "Holy Water." When I first began researching cancer on Long Island, I read about the toxic plume under the island stretching south to southeast—4.5 miles long by 3.5 miles wide. This plume is growing. Its origin is the now-closed Grumman Aviation factory in Bethpage. Why didn’t I know about this plume of Trichloroethylene, classified as a human carcinogen by the EPA, that had been growing, thriving, under the island I’d believed so beautiful? Why hadn't I been paying better attention? TM: Wow. So, many of your friends and family from near where you grew up have had cancer? What's happening in the real-life counterpart of the fictional town of Avalon? Have people turned against the factory? JF: Avalon Island is an amalgamation of different parts of Long Island. The east side of Avalon Island is modeled on the wealthier towns of Cold Spring Harbor, Laurel Hollow, and Lloyd Neck. When I was eight, my parents moved from a working class town mid-island to a wealthier town on the North Shore. They found a house that had been abandoned by its previous owners. My father fixed up the house as best as he could. My parents moved so my brother and I could attend the prestigious public school. They wanted us to grow up around wealthy kids in the hope, I imagine, that pedigree would rub off. They worked multiple jobs to pay the astronomical taxes. The west side of Avalon Island, where the fictional Grudder factory churns out aircraft, is based on towns further east, like Bethpage, former home to Grumman and most affected by the toxic plume. Why hasn’t the toxic plume and its connection to Grumman been covered in national news? Perhaps it is due to geographic isolation. Or is it an issue of class? The pollution affects working class and middle class towns stuck between the tony western towns of Nassau County closer to the city and the summer vacation areas out east in the Hamptons. Still, the demographics of these towns are mixed—there are working-class families, but also white collar professionals. Perhaps, the answer is the close ties Grumman has to the military. It wasn't until 2012 that the issue was fully covered in the press and only in 2016 did Governor Andrew Cuomo order the Navy and Northrop Grumman to provide the state and a local water district access to test for toxicity. The resulting numbers are abysmal—drinking water at risk for 250,000 people; clean-up costs "between $269 million and $587 million," which could take "up to 100 years to clean." When my younger brother graduated from high school, my parents moved further east—closer to the pollution but with a fraction of the taxes. They noticed immediately the unusual number of people with cancer. Out of 50 homes on their road, 10 had one or more family members who had cancer, had died from it, or who were in recovery or in treatment. TM: Some writers find it hard—and risky—to write characters from outside their own culture and experience. In the case of Jules, he's male, black, and from a working-class background. Then there are his biracial kids, who are figuring out their own place in the world. Did you ever find it tricky to write these characters? What experiences did you draw on as you were writing their chapters? JF: Writing outside my perspective often feels far more rewarding. Maybe this is why I write fiction. I find myself feeling more comfortable writing from a male point-of-view, and I imagine it’s the distance that allows me to escape into another person's consciousness. Jules is the character I care most for in the novel. Perhaps, because I felt a great responsibility to do his story justice, aware that his story is not my own. It’s essential for writers writing outside their narrow perspective to be mindful that it is a great privilege to do so, and he or she must be open to and accepting of criticism. Writing and reading is how I practice my humanity and to write (and/or read) only within my limited experience seems counterproductive, and cowardly. I read many memoirs by African-American writers, specifically books focusing on the experiences of young black men, like Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped and the recent essay anthology she edited, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race; Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir The Beautiful Struggle; D. Watkins’s The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America. I reread books that had shattered, and then rearranged, my limited perspective as a young reader, the most important books in a reader’s life—Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, Sula, and Beloved; and James Baldwin’s nonfiction, especially his book of letters, The Fire Next Time. TM: One of the central relationships in the novel is the marriage between, Leslie Marshall, the white daughter of one of the factory's founding families, and Jules. Why did you decide to add that layer of racial and class complexity to the novel? JF: I do not think one can, or should, write about class without also writing about race and the intersection of the two. The Gypsy Moth Summer is very much an "anti-revenge" revenge story and I knew Jules had to be black in order for both sides of Avalon Island, the wealthy white easterners and the working class white westerners, to unite in their need to make him the scapegoat for their own crimes, ultimately absolving themselves (only in their bigoted minds) of their racism, and their responsibility for the terrible tragedies of that summer. As the child of an immigrant, I’ll always be interested in the competition among Americans to advance in status. There is a vast difference in privilege in my life versus that of my father who spent the first 18 years of his life in poverty in Southern Italy. He was eight years old when the Allies liberated his region from the Germans and he hid with his village in a cave for weeks as the bombs fell. Only recently, after becoming a mother, was I able to accept the reality of his early life. The poverty, the disease (they had no access to healthcare—his sister died at four because of a cut on her foot), the lack of education. No running water or electricity. My life is so privileged in comparison—it often feels as if there are two or three generations between my experience and my father’s. Yet, because my parents moved us to an affluent area for the good schools, I often felt like an outsider next to my wealthier classmates. I need to write about this impulse to look "above" and "below,” to aspire to rise in status, even if (as those on Avalon Island do) it means stepping on the backs of those “below.” My father's favorite show was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and we'd watch it together every week. I can't remember if there was an episode focused on Donald Trump—but how could there not have been? I grew up watching my father worship, envy, and, sometimes, detest the rich. Is this juxtaposition of idolizing and loathing the elite intrinsically linked to the American Dream? I write to examine that question.
On October 19, 1972, four months after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters that set off the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, gave the president some shocking news on the source of a series of damaging stories in The Washington Post that had begun to tie the bungled break-in to the White House. “We know what’s leaked and we know who leaked it,” Haldeman told Nixon as the Oval Office tapes whirred in the background. “Is it somebody in the FBI?” Nixon asked. “Yes, sir,” Haldeman reported. “Very high up.” Nearly half a century later, as another American president finds himself engulfed in scandal over claims of election misconduct, his staff may well want to start reading up on the Watergate scandal. Thanks in large part to the bestselling book All the President’s Men, the source for the classic film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, Watergate is understood in the popular imagination as the story of a newspaper investigation. In this version of the tale, two hotshot reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, fueled by righteous indignation and a burning desire to get the story, nearly single-handedly brought down the leader of the Western world. But this slant on Watergate is, in many ways, an accident of history. Because Woodward and Bernstein didn’t reveal their prime source, famously nicknamed Deep Throat, until 2005, it has taken historians decades to piece together an accurate account of how the scandal unfolded. In fact, as Tim Weiner details in his recent history of the Nixon presidency, One Man Against the World, one of the principal architects of the president’s downfall was Mark Felt, the second-in-command at the FBI who, as a deep background source to Woodward and Bernstein, leaked incriminating information from the FBI files that he knew would probably never see the light of day in any other way. Felt held a personal grudge against Nixon. A 30-year veteran of the FBI, Felt believed he was the rightful heir to the job of FBI director after J. Edgar Hoover died in May 1972, a month before the Watergate break-in. When Nixon passed him over for L. Patrick Gray, Felt was hurt -- and smelled a cover-up. But Felt was experienced enough in the ways of Washington to understand that a mere FBI agent, even the deputy director, could not take on a president alone. So he used the best tool at hand, a young, ambitious reporter he happened to know at The Washington Post. In other words, while the Watergate scandal was the product of shoe-leather investigations by a pair of dogged reporters, and later by an equally dogged pair of special prosecutors, Richard Nixon was also very much the target of a palace coup. This is the essence of the news Haldeman delivered to Nixon in October 1972. The recording of their conversation is now available on YouTube, and it is worth a listen for anyone interested in speculating on the kinds of conversations Donald Trump may be having with his aides as he combats the recent spate of damaging leaks from intelligence operatives and his own staff. Felt, Haldeman explains in that October 19 conversation, is the source of the press leaks, but there isn’t much the president can do about it. “If we move on him, then he’ll go out and unload everything,” Haldeman tells Nixon. “He knows everything that’s to be known in the FBI. He has access to absolutely everything.” “What would you do to Felt?” Nixon asks. “I asked (White House Counsel John] Dean,” Haldeman says. “He says you can’t prosecute him.” “Oh, no?” Nixon says. “He hasn’t committed any crime,” Haldeman reminds him. Trump, of course, faces no such constraint in his own skirmishes over press leaks. Since much of the material being leaked about alleged connections between Trump’s campaign team and the Russian government during the election involves classified national security matters, Trump can plausibly threaten to prosecute the leakers. And, unlike Nixon, Trump has a stalwart Republican majority in both houses of Congress as well as a popular distrust of the media almost unimaginable in the early 1970s. Still, if there is any truth to leaked claims that Trump’s aides had contact with Russian intelligence officials involved in hacking into the Clinton campaign’s email servers during the 2016 election, Trump and his team would do well to heed the hard lessons of Nixon’s discovery of the Watergate leaker, Mark Felt. On the October 19 tape, Haldeman, grasping at straws, suggests transferring Felt to “Ottumwa, Iowa,” to which Nixon replies: “Christ! You’d know what I’d do with him? Ambassador.” (“He’d like that, you know,” Haldeman says.) But in the end they did nothing. According to Weiner, FBI director Patrick Gray was ordered to fire Felt five times, but he never pulled the trigger. Eventually, Gray himself was ousted, and Felt retired from the FBI in 1973 after Nixon again passed him over the top job. He eventually moved to Santa Rosa, Calif., where he lived in relative obscurity until Woodward outed him as Deep Throat in his 2005 book The Secret Man. Felt died, a hero to many, in 2008.
1. In 1798, a decade after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, President John Adams signed the infamous Sedition Act. The controversial law, passed alongside a slate of Alien Acts aimed at cracking down on immigrants deemed dangerous to the state, made it illegal to produce any “false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States…with intent to defame the said government…or to stir up sedition within the United States.” The brief history of the Sedition Act, which expired in 1800 after Thomas Jefferson succeeded Adams as president, had its comic moments. One day, an elderly New Jerseyan, Luther Baldwin, stopped to watch President Adams and his wife parade down Newark’s Broad Street accompanied by a 16-gun salute. According to James MacGregor Burns’s judicial history, Packing the Court, someone in the crowd shouted, “There goes the President and they’re firing at his a – !” Baldwin, who had been drinking, retorted that he “did not care if they fired thro’ his a – !” and was promptly clapped into jail. But the Sedition Act was also used to silence press criticism. Scottish-born polemicist James Callender spent nine months in jail and paid a $200 fine for calling President Adams, among other things, a “repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor.” More famously, Benjamin Bache, editor of the virulently anti-Federalist paper the Aurora, was arrested under the Sedition Act after printing stories attacking Adams and accusing George Washington of secretly collaborating with the British during the Revolutionary War. I was reminded of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the opening days of the Administration of Donald Trump when, in rapid succession, the president halted immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and his chief policy adviser, Stephen Bannon, told The New York Times that the media “should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Like a lot of people who read Bannon’s interview during that first tumultuous week when the president was signing one new wildly controversial executive order after another and millions of Americans were flooding the streets and airports in protest, I heard only the line about the nation’s media needing to sit down and shut up. When I reread the Times piece some days later I realized that Bannon wasn’t simply trying to muzzle the American media. He was also delivering a blistering critique of a media culture so lost in its bubble of urbane liberal comfort that it missed what may one day prove to be the story of the century. “The media got it dead wrong, 100 percent dead wrong,” he said of the 2016 election, calling it “a humiliating defeat that they will never wash away, that will always be there.” This, the blown coverage of the 2016 campaign, is the context for his headline-making denunciations. “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” he told Times reporter Michael Grynbaum, adding: “You’re the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.” Now, obviously, mainstream media outlets weren’t the only ones who misread the Trump election. Everybody missed that story, including some members of Trump’s own campaign staff. It is also absurd to suggest that “the media,” en masse, are out to get Trump and his administration. There is, after all, a well-financed network of right-leaning news sites, one of which, Breitbart.com, Bannon himself has run, offering full-throated support to Trump’s presidency and even more full-throated condemnation of his enemies. But if you look past the bombast and exaggeration, you can detect in Bannon’s comments the outlines of a chillingly accurate analysis of an American news media crippled by half a century of technological disruption. The national media did miss the white-working-class rage that propelled Trump into office last fall, and even now large swatches of the mainstream press seems perplexed by -- and in some cases, openly opposed to -- the president that populist anger helped elect. Meanwhile, the news sites that saw Trump coming, the Breitbarts of the world, seem dangerously uninterested in facts and instead relentlessly push a hard-right political agenda. This, then, is the predicament facing the American news consumer today. It’s not just that we live in a polarized media universe. It’s that we are, journalistically speaking, flying blind. One segment of the population, the one that just elected a president, is in thrall to a fact-challenged ideological fringe while the rest of the population relies on a badly weakened legacy media whose reporters are highly educated and professionally concerned with facts and evidence, but so deeply ensconced in their elite, urban echo chamber that they’re not always capable of making sense of the facts they find. Thus, as we stand in the still-smoking ruins of the 20th-century American media machine, we risk returning to a media environment not unlike the one before the rise of the mass-circulated print newspapers when a hyper-partisan press free-for-all pushed an American president to sign a law allowing the government to lock up journalists it didn’t like. 2. I care about news because I read and watch a lot of it and because I rely on it as a voter, but in another way, this is personal for me. Thirty years ago, as a 22-year-old straight out of college, I lucked into a job at my hometown weekly, the Mill Valley Record. I had no journalism training, and I hadn’t written a news story since high school. I just showed up one day in the newsroom looking for work and the editor handed me a press release for an upcoming public meeting. “Why don’t you go to this?” he said. “If there’s any news in it, we’ll print it.” Three months later, I had a full-time job covering local politics. Like many young reporters in those days, what little I knew about journalism before I began practicing it myself came from two books, All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and The Powers That Be by David Halberstam. The Halberstam book is a massive doorstop history of 20th-century journalism while the Woodward and Bernstein book is a tick-tock thriller about a single major news investigation, but both books offer riveting accounts of American print journalism’s finest hour, the Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate Scandal, which ultimately caused the resignation of President Richard Nixon. At the Record, I may have been covering planning and zoning meetings and writing puff pieces about local businesses, but in my mind I was a junior Bob Woodward nailing down that last fact, making that extra phone call, so that one day I would be able to speak truth to power on the front pages of a major metro daily. What I didn’t know -- what no one of that era understood -- was that in a little more than a decade the Internet would strangle the small-town weeklies that had trained generations of cub reporters like me and put the major metro dailies that I aspired to join on life support. Three decades on, I understand that the media landscape that I knew as a small-town reporter in the late-1980s and early-1990s was just one iteration in the ever-shifting continuum of American journalism. In the early days of the Republic, the era that brought us John Adams’s Sedition Act, newspapers were a luxury item sold by subscription to a relatively narrow, educated elite. Often, these journals were owned and operated by political parties with the express purpose of advocating for their candidates and embarrassing their rivals. That changed with the advent of the steam-powered press, which so radically reduced the cost and sped up the process of printing a newspaper that editors could slash the cover price from six cents to a penny and market it to a working-class audience. Over the next century, print newspapers grew from a handful of blog-like broadsheets into a complex network of newspapers ranging from tiny, one-man-band local weeklies to national publishing chains run by tycoons like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. In 1950, before TV began stealing eyeballs and ad dollars, there were 25 percent more newspapers sold each day in America than there were American households. The midcentury American newspaper, written for a local readership and dependent on local advertising dollars, naturally reflected the political outlook of its audience A newspaper in a segregated Southern town had to toe the segregationist line or go out of business, just as a newspaper in a well-to-to liberal suburb faced disaster if its news columns contradicted the views of its readers. But in both cases, editors had a strong incentive to avoid extreme rhetoric or wildly inaccurate reporting because they depended on local advertisers, who would pull ads from a publication whose reputation besmirched their own. The system was far from perfect, but it built the journalistic world I stumbled into the day I took that press release from my editor at the Mill Valley Record. The reporters and editors I worked with were not especially serious people, but they took their jobs seriously. When a reader buttonholed one of us on the street to complain about an issue of local import, we asked questions and followed up. We called both sides in any dispute, always. We knew the people we covered well, but we routinely rotated beats so we wouldn’t get too cozy with our sources. We called back to double-check facts, and when we screwed up, we wrote a correction for the next day’s paper. More than anything, we prided ourselves on being able to cut through the bullshit and explain in clear, direct prose what had happened. Thirty years later, that world is fast vanishing into the digital ether. No footloose 22-year-old without journalism training could expect to fall backward into a full-time newspaper job today, unless, of course, he or she was of the social class that could afford to take a nonpaying internship and follow that up with two years of journalism school. That, more than any nefarious liberal cabal, explains the leftward tilt of what remains of the mainstream media. As local newspapers in smaller cities and towns die off, we’re increasingly left with national publications and TV and cable networks based in liberal urban centers. Meanwhile, digital disruption has changed how reporters are trained, which is changing who enters the profession. A generation before me, news reporting was still a union job only a small step up from the guys who ran the Linotype machines. Today, thanks to the same forces of technological disruption that have hollowed out so many middle-class professions, journalism is the province of a highly educated and urban elite -- precisely the class of person most likely to look askance at a man like Donald Trump. 3. This, I think, is what Stephen Bannon means when he calls the media the opposition party. Bannon sees himself as leading a white working-class revolt against the multicultural liberal elite, which is neatly personified by the latte-sipping chattering classes of Washington DC. Of course, by declaring war on the media and by prodding his boss to make ever more alarming moves in office, Bannon is himself pushing an already liberal-leaning press corps in an ever more shrilly leftward direction. But really, this fact is less frightening than the fact that he can do it so effortlessly. Without that truth-seeking ecosystem of healthy small- and mid-size daily newspapers to explain national news in terms local readers can understand, Americans are left stewing in separate echo chambers, one urban, educated, and liberal, the other working-class, rural, and spoiling for a fight. Not only do the inhabitants of these echo chambers not talk to each other; they barely speak the same language. It’s heartening to hear that digital subscriptions to legacy media sites like The New York Times and The Atlantic are on the rise, just as it’s refreshing to see ordinary Americans using social media to organize and keep themselves informed. Maybe over time, as we grow more sophisticated about our digital tools, we’ll get better at using Snopes.com-like sites to knock down fake news stories and start crowd-funding citizen-journalists to cover small cities and towns the way I once did. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about the Internet. It’s a tool like any other. We just have to learn how to use it. For now, though, we would be crazy not to acknowledge the danger we face as a nation flying blind without a media we fully trust. No one in government has discussed reviving John Adams’s Sedition Act, but every day that Trump sends his press secretary into the White House briefing room to dress down the media or uses Twitter to gaslight Americans into disbelieving the facts they hear on the nightly news is a day we inch a step closer to that reality. Image Credit: Flickr/Ahmad Hammoud.
First, there was the endless presidential campaign, the daily, ugly slog through the mud of “Hillary lied!” and “Grab them by the pussy,” the compulsive visits to 538.com, the circular arguments on Facebook and Twitter, the depressing reality that this -- this sour, angry, nationally televised sandbox tantrum -- was the method by which a country that elected Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln was going to pick its next president. Then there was the gut punch of election night itself, the lung-crushing spectacle of watching Hillary Clinton’s blue Upper-Midwestern firewall crumble in a wave of white working class fear. Late that night, after the networks had called Pennsylvania for Donald Trump and it was finally, irrevocably over, I turned to my mother, who was visiting from out of town, and said, “I don’t know my own country anymore.” More than anything Trump has said or done in the days since, that moment stays with me. I may be the walking embodiment of the coastal urban elite, but my parents both grew up in a small Southern mill town, where I spent long stretches of my childhood. I’ve traveled America from end to end, visiting every state but Maine and Alaska, and I spent three formative years living in Richmond, Va., where statues of Confederate generals line the streets to this day. I thought I knew America, warts and all. I thought I understood its essential decency. On November 8, I learned that I did not. It’s a shock from which I may never fully recover. All this has made reading nearly impossible. On November 7, I was reading, of all things, Larry Tye’s Bobby Kennedy. On November 9, I set it aside. I just could not read another goddamn word about Jack Kennedy facing down Mississippi’s segregationist governor Ross Barnett, or Bobby Kennedy shaking off the agony of his brother’s murder to run first for the Senate and then for the presidency as a liberal firebrand. On November 7, all that was taking place in a country I knew and loved. On November 9, the book might as well have been set on Mars for all I could make sense of it. After several days of staring dumbstruck at the news and my Facebook feed, I picked up Jo Baker’s A Country Road, a Tree, a fictionalized treatment of Samuel Beckett’s life in France during World War II. A book club I belong to was reading it, and my plan, honestly, was to fake it. I had read Deirdre Bair’s Samuel Beckett: A Biography, so I knew the outlines of the story and could talk knowledgeably about the central conceit of Baker’s novel, which is that Beckett’s desperate escape from the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied Paris is the unstated plotline of his famously plotless play Waiting for Godot. I could barely read the newspaper, much less a whole novel, but in this case I figured I wouldn’t have to. Then I read the book’s opening line: “The tree stirred and the sound of the needles was shh, shh, shh.” I was sitting on the living room sofa when I read this, surrounded by student papers, my laptop open to The New York Times website, which still, two days after election night, read “TRUMP TRIUMPHS” in all caps. All that fell away, and I was halfway up a tree in Ireland hearing the branches sway in the breeze. I didn’t know precisely where that tree was, or who was sitting in it with me, but I didn’t care. I was a grown man in despair invited, for an instant, to inhabit the mind of a boy hiding in a tree, listening, alert to the music of the world. “The boy swung a knee over the branch,” I read, “heaved himself up, and shifted round so that his legs dangled. The scent of the larch cleared his head, so that everything seemed sharp and clear as glass.” Do you know what a larch tree smells like? I don’t either, not really. But I smelled it then. For nearly a year, I had been stuffing my head with useless crap -- turnout predictions of Hispanic voters in Florida, Bernie Sanders’s legislative record in Congress, federal law as it relates to the handling of classified government materials. Now I settled back into the sofa, smelling larch needles, and my head cleared just a little, just enough to keep on reading. All the time I read A Country Road, a Tree, I shifted between two competing states of being, a pre-Trump reader and a post-Trump one. The pre-Trump reader in me had read enough Beckett to know that he would almost certainly regard Baker’s novel as so much sentimental bollocks. One of the more charming quirks of Beckett’s extraordinarily quirky personality was that he dismissed his work in the Paris Resistance, for which he later was awarded the Croix de Guerre, as mere “Boy Scout stuff.” More importantly, by stripping plot from his postwar plays like Waiting for Godot and novels Malone Dies and The Unnamable, Beckett called into question the very notion of the dramatic hero. In a conventional narrative, plot is driven by the hero’s desire to achieve some essential objective. The more consuming this desire is, the more absorbing the story. You can argue, as some do, that Vladimir and Estragon, the bickering central figures of Waiting for Godot, are heroic in their desire to wait for the elusive Godot, that for them inaction is a kind of heroic action, but as decades of baffled theatergoers can tell you, that’s hardly the kind of action most audiences expect. The Samuel Beckett of A Country Tree, a Road is, by contrast, every inch a traditional dramatic hero. The book begins with Beckett in Ireland listening to the radio broadcast of Neville Chamberlain declaring war on Germany in September 1939. He could easily wait out the war in safety at home, but he is in love with a Parisian woman, Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil, and just as importantly, he is creatively stymied and believes he can write only in Paris. When Beckett tells his mother that he plans to return to France, she asks witheringly: “And what possible use do you imagine you would be?” This line functions like a witch’s curse that gives the hero his purpose: For the rest of the novel, Beckett struggles to be of use. Disgusted by his inaction as his friends are rounded up by the Germans, he joins the Resistance and, like magic, the very traits that made him useless -- his introverted personality, his stubbornness, his savant-like gift for arranging random words and numbers into patterns -- make him an ideal Nazi saboteur. Over and over, in crisis after crisis, others panic or give in to hunger and fear while Beckett calmly saves the day with a resourceful decision or a well-timed joke. Once, on the run from the Gestapo, he and Suzanne get lost in a dark alleyway, and Beckett suggests they flip a coin to decide which direction to go. “What good would that do?” Suzanne asks. He shrugs, takes the cigarette off her. “It’d be something. It’d be a start.” “Hardly.” “So, we’ll stay here, then.” He takes a drag and settles down against the wall. “Shut up,” she says. “Idiot. You break my feet, you know?” He shuffles his shoulders, chilly brick against his back. “You know, I like this alleyway. I think we could be happy here.” “Oh, I’ve had enough. Come on!” Surely, Beckett would hate all this. Surely, he would see that, in translating his life into fiction, Baker has turned him into an Ernest Hemingway war hero: laconic, mordantly funny, graceful under pressure. And just as surely, that would drive up him the wall. One of the hallmarks of the postwar European avant garde was an almost reflexive resistance to the bourgeois morality that drives most conventional narrative. In occupied Paris, in the concentration camps, in besieged Leningrad, it was who you were -- Jew, Gypsy, enemy alien -- not what was in your heart that saved your life or ended it. And when it wasn’t that, more often than not, it came down to dumb luck. Had I read A Country Road, a Tree before the election, I would have said it was an enjoyable read, gorgeously written and historically fascinating, but also at a certain level a load of sentimental bollocks. But the election of Donald Trump on a wave of white aggrievement changed the way I read A Country Road, a Tree, as I suspect it will change the way I read and understand everything in the years to come. For one thing, I have felt so damn useless since Election Day, so gutless and impotent, and so I was primed for a good, old-fashioned bollocksy tale of a self-involved artist who, faced with the great evil of his time, finds within himself hidden reservoirs of courage and moral purpose. More than that, though, what I found restorative in Baker’s novel, so deeply necessary, was its beauty. Ours is an ugly, angry age, and this ugliness is reflected in our politics. Once, America turned out leaders who inspired the world, but can you think of a single memorable line from either side in the 2016 presidential campaign that wasn’t an insult or a threat? We have gone from a public oratory that gave the world, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and “I have a dream,” to one that has given the world, “I will build a wall on the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it.” A Country Road, a Tree resists all this, not by arguing against it, but simply by being beautiful. Baker writes beautifully, but she also cares about beauty, sees the intrinsic value in it. It’s there in that first line about the boy in the tree listening to the swaying larch branches saying “shh, shh, shh,” and it’s there 279 pages later in book’s quietly moving final scene in which a war-weary Beckett returns to his Paris apartment and settles down to write: In silence and in solitude, he folds open his new notebook. He flattens out the page. He dips his pen into the ink, and fills it, and wipes the nib. The pen traces its way across the paper. Ink blues the page. Words form. This is where it begins. There is no way to know what the next four years will bring, but whatever happens, it is safe to say it’s not going to be pretty. I, for one, plan to remain engaged politically, to write letters, make phone calls, sign petitions, and commit acts of civil disobedience, if none of those other things gets results. I continue to believe, Electoral College be damned, the America I know and love is still out there, strong as ever. But in the meantime, amid all that struggle and rancor, we can’t forget to make a place for beauty. We’re going to need it, now more than ever. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005