The power of a good book in times of chaos

From Hunter S Thompson to Philip Roth, Shirley Jackson and John Connolly, great writing has a way of making readers feel less isolated in a world of anxiety and upheaval

US president Donald Trump:  the US midtterm elections take place on Tuesday, November 6th. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times

US president Donald Trump: the US midtterm elections take place on Tuesday, November 6th. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times


During the long and increasingly grim political summer of 2016, amidst the first presidential campaign for which I was back in the US after eight years in Ireland, I returned to Hunter S Thompson’s greatest work, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, about the Nixon-McGovern presidential contest. So much of my experience of my home country’s politics while abroad was coloured by a sense of optimistic potential, however flawed, and I needed some kind of anchor in the bleaker currents of 2016.

I first read Campaign Trail ’72 decades ago, when I was old enough to be struck by Thompson’s bewildered alienation, but young enough that I couldn’t quite register the full scale of his diagnosis. Thompson’s work isn’t often framed as a candle against the darkness, but rereading it in 2016 was a way to feel less isolated by a sense of impending civic collapse.

What Campaign Trail ’72 offers is neither cynical nor – despite his prodigious intake – an addled and hallucinatory view of reality. Instead, it delivers all the thwarted, lucid hope that a wounded optimist could summon, tracing the 1972 campaign in granular detail. That detail is enlivened by the exploits you’d expect from Thompson, but haunted by a bone-deep sense of the stakes beneath the surface.

Against all of his gambler’s instincts, Thompson maintains some thin hope for a McGovern victory almost until the end. In the book’s September chapter he comes to a final reckoning, one that remained on the nose during a September 44 years after he wrote, precisely capturing the feeling of an election he did not live to see: “This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it – that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

“The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes and all his imprecise talk about ‘new politics’ and ‘honesty in government’, is one of the few men who’ve run for president of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon. ”

Not for nothing did Thompson later blame Nixon for breaking “the heart of the American Dream”.

It would take a special kind of naivety to think US history reflects only “the best instincts” and not the worst as well. As much as anyone, Thompson insistently addresses how brutally compromised those instincts have often been. The genius of Campaign Trail ’72 is Thompson’s ability to depict the tension between those poles, between a high promise and a low betrayal.

A version of that tension, between despair and hope, has shaped much of the past two years for many Americans, at least those – significantly more than half of all voters – who cast a ballot for someone other than Donald Trump. Such chaotic times are what literature is for, and when it is most sustaining. Indeed, American literature is full of images of the nation’s bleaker sides, a long legacy from Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland to a host of modern fiction as diverse as Patricia Highsmith’s Little Tales of Misogyny, Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go, Shirley Jackson’s stories, and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (sales of which surged after the election). More contemporary examples include Megan Abbott’s The Fever and Walter Mosley’s wide-ranging Easy Rawlins series, as well as Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective, with its timely US publication date of November 6th.

The value of empathy

Among the most lauded fictional examinations of fascism in recent decades is Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America with its disturbingly plausible sense of how fascism could come to power, a depiction of mid-century America not far from Thompson’s view of Nixon’s America, nor from Fintan O’Toole’s contemporary diagnoses in this newspaper. Americans have also shown a significant appetite for similarly dystopian or speculative narratives by writers from elsewhere, such as the British novelist Naomi Alderman’s The Power and Hulu’s popular adaptation of Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, costumes from which now feature regularly at protests.

The most powerful crime fiction models a profoundly valuable empathy, a quality disastrously absent from national politics in the US

As even this too-brief catalogue indicates, genre literature is a particularly hospitable medium for such grim matters: just two weeks ago, for example, the New York Times drew on these energies by gathering very short, sharp stories about “Trump’s Next Chapter” from five spy and crime novelists. I’ve found my own particular company in Irish crime fiction like Alan Glynn’s novels, which carry forward the great 1970s Watergate-era paranoid thrillers, and John Connolly’s most recent novel, The Woman in the Woods, which depicts the deceptive public face of fascism with a key secondary character, set against the protagonists’ determination to do right by a dead woman they never knew.

Escapism has its own powers, of course, not to be denigrated, and memorably articulated by Michael Chabon’s stunning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, with its exploration of comic books, the creative process, and profound loss in the wreckage of the second World War and the Holocaust. None of these works, however, would rightly be described as “merely” escapist. The more overtly political dystopian narratives of science fiction reflect the extent to which American culture is shot through with uncertainty and confusion, and with a clear anger to which such writing is well suited. Similarly, the most powerful crime fiction – even when it displays little or no explicit sense of politics – models a profoundly valuable empathy, a quality disastrously absent from national politics in the US at the moment.

These navigations of a grim landscape have their counterpart in the “best instincts” to which Thompson referred. One such instinct is surely in the nation’s founding attempt to welcome dissenters of varied stripes. Every attempt since to exclude on the basis of a narrow, restricted identity has only been holding back the inevitable: the founding of the US carried with it the seeds of what could be – and is – a profoundly heterogeneous nation, with a built-in capacity for meaningful evolution, with membership based not on racial heritage, not on blood and soil, but on an agreed set of principles, one of which is that difference is central rather than anathematic to American identity.

A phyrrhic victory?

On the cusp of next Tuesday’s midterm elections – when every seat in the House of Representatives and 35 of 100 seats in the Senate are at stake, and the nation’s balance of power could shift dramatically – the news is full of discussions about a possible blue wave, one built partly on demographic shifts. Indeed, long-range projections for America’s changing population are not on the Republicans’ side.

While it often feels as if there’s no end in sight, my hope is that we’re witnessing the right’s pyrrhic victory, a bonfire that flares deceptively high as it collapses under its own weight. Perhaps this moment in the US shares similarities with Ireland in the 1980s and that decade’s abortion and divorce referendums. Those scarring debates appeared at the time to cement clerical authority but now look more like late-stage gasps, temporarily won at a self-defeating price through fear, animosity and deceit.

At the same time, even if these conservative victories do prove to be pyrrhic, part of the grimness of Brett Kavanaugh’s supreme court appointment – after what those hearings said to every survivor of assault, and to every entitled assailant – is this: every one of the many cruel decisions of the present US government at least came with the hope, however delusional, that the next government could quickly start mitigating the damage. The decades of destructive decisions this Supreme Court seems poised to make, however, will not be undone with a simple Democratic majority in the House or the Senate, nor with a new president. There is no quick fix in reach, only a painfully long, slow fight.

In this light, whatever happens in next week’s elections, and no matter how big or blue any wave may be, the most dramatic of quick fixes – impeachment – is clearly a pipe dream. Trump was right when he said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing his supporters: there’s little ground for hope that there’s a line beyond which his congressional enablers will not follow him. Nor are they alone: his evangelical support depends partly on his willingness to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v Wade and make abortion widely illegal again, a price for which they’ve openly made their deal with the devil.

Hunter S Thompson is clearly not the only unlikely candle against the darkness of such vicious nightmares. Writing like his, or Abbott’s, Roth’s, Mosley’s and Alderman’s, depicts recognisable experiences of confusion, uncertainty, irresolution, and a complex despair with which characters have to live, rather than one they can overcome in 300 pages. Such writing can give reason to feel less adrift in a world riven by suffering, paranoia and malignant hucksters. Sometimes that’s all we have.

Dr Brian Cliff, assistant professor in the School of English at Trinity College Dublin, is the author of Irish Crime Fiction (Palgrave)

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