JANUARY 25, 2021
“THE FUTURE BELONGS to crowds,” wrote the American oracle known as Don DeLillo in his novel Mao II some 30 years ago. I once found that statement gnomic, as oracular pronouncements tend to be. What did it really mean? On January 6, 2021, I found out.
As I watched the white riot at and inside the Capitol building unfold on television that appalling afternoon — thousands of enraged, clueless, and deluded Randy Quaid/Cousin Eddie clones, man-children staging a violent cosplay insurrection for selfies and their social media accounts — a couple of phrases kept running through my head. One was a line from Frank Zappa’s proto-rap number from his 1966 album Freak Out!, “Trouble Every Day”: “Hey, you know something, people? / I’m not black, / but there’s a whole lots a times / I wish I could say I’m not white.” You should listen to it.
The other phrase the kept repeating was the resonant and oft-quoted description by Philip Roth in his 1997 novel American Pastoral: “the indigenous American berserk.” Yes, that was what was on display. Roth used those words to describe the Job-like late-’60s chaos visited upon the suburban Jewish golden boy Swede Levov by his radicalized daughter and the riots in Newark that put paid to his once-thriving glove manufacturing business. But the perfection of the phrase is not quite matched by the depth and breadth of Roth’s social vision. His imagination is certainly unruly, but the unruliness tends to come from within his characters, wrestling to balance the dictates of conscience and custom with the insistent demands of the id. Still, his words have been ringing in my head like an especially ominous bell for days now.
For four years I have been playing a game with myself, asking what imaginative writers could have dreamed up a figure of such grotesque comic malignity as Donald Trump. I have come up with five candidates: Jonathan Swift (the Yahoos, “the most filthy, noisome and deformed animals which nature ever produced”); Terry Southern (Guy Grand, the billionaire trickster figure of his 1959 novel, The Magic Christian); Bertolt Brecht (Arturo Ui and his resistible rise); Alfred Jarry (Ubu Roi, the obese, infantile, grandiose, and gluttonous antihero of a play that, fittingly, caused a near-riot when it was first performed in Paris in 1896); and William Gaddis (what is Trump really besides the child tycoon JR all grown up?). I tend to resist dignifying Trump with any comparison to figures in Shakespeare or Greek and Roman literature, but hey, knock yourself out.
Then I started to ask myself that day whether any American novels have ever represented an event like what I was witnessing. There are, in fact, two candidates, both masterpieces, both by writers supremely attuned to the darkest currents of human nature and American life. Both books conclude with climactic riots, and these depictions require our attention, especially at this moment.
The first of them is Robert Stone’s prophetic first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1966), 400-plus pages of bad juju set in Civil Rights–era New Orleans. The book reads like a prose diorama fashioned to illustrate the thesis of Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (by no means coincidentally published in 1964, at the same time Stone was writing his novel), with a bleakly accurate pictorial sense that feels derived from Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958). Of all the major postwar American novelists, Stone had the most firsthand experience with the underside of American life. He’d grown up rough on the streets of New York as the child of a mentally disturbed single mother, done time in a Catholic orphanage, run with a Jets-style, zip-gun-and-car-antenna-wielding gang, and served in the US Navy as an ordinary seaman. He and his wife Janice had scuffled for a living in New Orleans for a couple of years, and in writing his novel, Stone had drawn from those experiences, which included stints working in a soap factory, selling encyclopedias, and taking the census. He’d also worked for a time as a journalist for a sub-Enquirer scandal sheet, concocting outlandish stories for the credulous. He had measured the country’s temperature, and it was spiking. As he later wrote of the book, “I had taken America as my subject, and all my quarrels with America went into it.”
The main character and controlling intelligence of the book is Rheinhardt, hipster cynic, recidivist alky, and classical musician manqué who drifts from town to town picking up work as a radio DJ and announcer. He’s washed up in New Orleans, where during a tryout at a station with the call letters WUSA (“the Voice of an American’s America”), which is part of a media empire run by a racist right-wing tycoon named Bingamon, he discovers a talent for stitching diverse news item off the wire into an incendiary tapestry:
Armed with scissors and paste-pot he went back up and took it from the top, made some sharp one-liners out of the international stuff with a premium on Castro, stuffed the middle with the first or last paragraphs of the assembled racial routines and a sprinkling of the jazzier neutral items. The piece closed with a reverent thirty seconds on the lady from Tulsa [a minister’s wife raped and knifed by a black man in New York City] and a harmless Pete Smith style comedy accident that happened to a man in Venice fixing his roof.
As Rheinhardt marvels at his handiwork (“five minutes of sheer eagles and lightning. The cumulative effect of it was really something to read”), the contemporary reader will recognize the roots, almost the entire business plan, of Fox News and Newsmax and talk radio, outlets that transform journalism-plus-opinion into political propaganda designed to inflame the populace for profit.
Stone’s New Orleans is a city where the Four Horsemen of the American Apocalypse — racial prejudice, political corruption, corporate greed, and violence in a wide variety of manifestations — have free rein. Another character, the hapless and ghost-like do-gooder Morgan Rainey, works as a welfare surveyor in the city’s black neighborhoods, little knowing that the profiles in misery his wary interviewees offer are being used by a local politician to purge rather than augment those welfare rolls. All the dark energies being unloosed converge on an event billed by Bingamon and WUSA as a “Restoration Rally and Patriotic Revival” at the Sport Palace, a piece of extravagant political theater designed to burnish the brand. Local grandees and figures of note like a John Wayne–ish Hollywood actor, a fire-breathing anticommunist admiral much like Major General Edwin Walker (or maybe Michael Flynn), and various pliant preachers are herded into a fenced area in the infield. Rheinhardt, drunk, stoned, and in the last stages of violent self-loathing, serves as the emcee, and Bingamon even provides some recruited Negro [sic] protestors to give the crowd someone on-site to hate. Chaos mounts, gunshots sound, and as they say in prison novels, the shit finally jumps off when an angry old Wobbly drives his truck full of dynamite into the stadium and sets off an explosion, with a dazed Morgan Rainey riding shotgun.
At one point, Rheinhardt is pushed forward to the microphone and directed to calm things down somehow. Instead, deeply in his cups and near-hallucinating, he delivers an extraordinary, pyrotechnically satirical peroration sending up every sentimental, racist, xenophobic, jingoistic, militaristic notion white Americans hold about their own virtues and the deficits of every type of other — a rhetorical tour-de-force too long to quote here. Eventually, wielding red-white-and blue axe handles given as souvenirs, he and a companion, Farley the Sailor, make their escape from the stadium and the near-holocaust Bingamon’s devil’s brew of racial and political provocation has unleashed.
The causal sequence in Stone’s Big-Easy Walpurgisnacht is far more confusing and diffuse than the event the cable news channels have taken to calling “the Trump Insurrection,” but the levels of anger and delusion — and the lack of any clear strategy besides the release of anger and frustration — track perfectly. Stone died in 2015, which is a shame because he’d have much of an original and clarifying nature to tell us about the roots of the riot in the toxic swill Trump followers have been fed by right-wing media outlets, and about our current low estate.
The other book that bears recall and study, perhaps even more urgently, is Nathanael West’s 1939 masterpiece of simmering American anomie, The Day of the Locust. This may seem a bit eccentric, but in my opinion, no one can claim to understand this country who has not read and pondered three 20th-century novels: Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and The Day of the Locust. (Extra credit for reading the complete USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos.) West’s novel is often lazily regarded as simply a book about Hollywood or Los Angeles when it is really a far-seeing and definitive account of the American nightmare of overpromise and underdelivery. In comparison The Great Gatsby (1925), as gorgeous as it is, is soft and sentimental and wildly overpromoted as the explanation of America. It is one of the ironies of our literary history that, after a decade when left-leaning critics had conducted a star search in the proletarian precincts of farms, coal mines, and assembly lines for the great social novel, the genuine article arrived in 1939 in the form of a black-comic report from the underbelly of the dream factory.
Nathanael West, like so many of his peers, had come to Hollywood as a screenwriter, plying his trade at Poverty Row outfits like Republic Pictures. At a remove from all the glitter and glamour, he took in the reality of lumpen Los Angeles: the loony health cults, the slack boredom and free-floating credulity and mounting resentments of sunstruck transplanted Midwestern pensioners, the outré temples of worship with names like Church of Christ Physical, the Church Invisible, and the Tabernacle of the Third Coming. The vehicle for these perceptions in the novel is a painter, Tod Hackett, who works by day as a film-set designer and at night on sketches for a vast and many-peopled James Ensor–like canvas he calls “The Burning of Los Angeles.” Like West, his intentions are anything but mocking: “He would not satirize them as Hogarth or Daumier might, nor would he pity them. He would paint their fury with respect, appreciating its awful anarchic power and aware that they had it in them to destroy civilization.” (So much for Popular Front we-the-people solidarity.)
Tod’s proleptic intuitions come to terrifying reality in the book’s shattering final scene, when the crowds at a film premiere finally boil over into violent anarchy. West’s description of the rioters is one of the key passages in American literature. “It was a mistake to think them harmless curiosity-seekers. They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment.” Describing the sullen roots of their boredom, he shows how it
becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. […] They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.
Just as in Hackett’s painting, the rioting crowd has become “a great united front of screwballs and screwboxes to purify the land. No longer bored they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.”
There is nothing at all resembling conventional politics in The Day of the Locust, but it is child’s play to apply West’s vision of The Disappointed to the rioters at the Capitol. They too have been fed a four-year (and longer) diet of mendacity and florid unreality. They too know at some level that they are being cheated but lack the wit to perceive the true reasons for and the real perpetrators of the swindle. They seethe with anger and require only the right setting and circumstances to erupt into uncontrolled violence.
On that horrible day of January 6, we watched a volcanic hellmouth open into a moronic inferno (in Saul Bellow’s phrase) that many of us refused to believe was really there all along, just waiting for a shrewd scoundrel like Donald Trump to inflame and exploit. We were all served a naked lunch, in a far from frozen moment when we truly saw what was on the end of every fork. What happens now is far from clear. Certainly, it is time for us all to retire the tired phrases “the American Dream” (who are we kidding?), “This is not who we are” (sorry, it is, and it has been us for centuries), and “The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice” (a lovely phrase of profoundly questionable truth value). Such slogans cloud the mind and sap the resolve. “Exterminate all the brutes” might be more to the point.
As the past four years have demonstrated, there are tendencies in American life that, if not battled against by people of goodwill and common sense, will bring American democracy to an end. Unless we learn the baleful lessons to be gleaned from visionary pessimists like Robert Stone and Nathanael West, we will remain in peril.
Until then, the future belongs to crowds.