The Best American Essays 2017 edited by Leslie Jamison

Bland. Forgettable. These are not engaging essays. At the midway point, the collection putters into its longest piece — The Book of the Dead — which I should like, given it explores the mining towns of West Virginia, the same topic as a great documentary I watched earlier this year. It was intolerable. I skipped the last several pages entirely. Things improved from there, but generally when picking this anthology up, I’m looking for a good deal more than half-good.

These essays focus heavily on politics. The type of politics that shouldn’t need to be political, like race and health care. This is nominally an improvement on past years, where I complained of far too many essays about intensely personal experiences involving dead parents.  There is something tired about 2017. I suppose I’m looking for something exploratory or fresh and not the same litany of institutional misery I’m already reading everyday. 

Anyway, my favorites:

Indigent Disposition by Christopher Notarnicola : A chilling 2nd person narrative account of how we reduce undesirable people to mere bodies. Especially those that are impoverished or in poor health. Notarnicola enumerates the laws pertaining to “indigent bodies” in a specific county in Florida, and the story of a man about to become a body (“you”) and his brother, a self-made lawnmower man. But mostly it’s an indictment of a country and people that simply lets the most vulnerable among them die. Then blames them for it to keep its collective conscious clear.

 

The Reader is the Protagonist by Karen Palmer : Initially the title refers to the classic children’s book There is a Monster at the End of this Book, where the reader is indeed the protagonist as they turn page after page while Sesame Street’s Grover begs them not to. Karen Palmer is reading this to her daughters in a temporary house in Boulder, Colorado after fleeing her abusive ex-husband with her new one. This leads to a staggering coincidence where Palmer gets a job interview at a mysterious publisher, who turns out to contract crime fiction writers to churn out kitschy texts like a A Handbook for Hitmen. Skeeved out, Palmer leaves, only to discover several years later that a woman fleeing from her abusive ex-husband was murdered by his paid man. They found the publisher’s hitman handbook in his car.

What follows is a brief reflection, from both writer and reader on what should and should not be published. There’s no good answer.

 

H. by Sarah Resnick : Resnick’s uncle is a recovering heroin addict. She takes care of him, with occasional help from father, and about half of this long essay is about that difficult relationship. The other is exploring America’s inability, our outright refusal, to provide quality treatment for addicts. Resnick profiles a center in Vancouver, BC where addicts are free to enter and provided state assistance to get their fix: Clean tools, from needles to pill-crushers, a safe space and attendant nurses. Despite its proven efficacy as an avenue to get people clean, most other western nations continue to ignore data in favor of gut feel. Easier on the pride to let people die than let go of the rhetoric on personal responsibility and shame.

 

Season of the Witch by David Talbot

season of the witchI.

Every sunday during football season, I walk to an Irish bar to watch the game. The Blarney Stone. It’s one of many Irish bars in the neighborhood, indeed one of even more in the city. They’re all over.

This is what I think of when I think of the Irish-ness of San Francisco. It’s there. I wouldn’t call it an Irish city though. I grew up near Boston. That is an irish city. Walk around and you’re immersed in a goofy ass tribal pride. Nearly everyone claims to be part Irish. I visited Dublin for the first last year and while I had a great time, I couldn’t help feeling like but I’ve already been to Boston. San Francisco conjures none of these feelings.

So, as the first portion of Season of the Witch opens with the tale of working-class Irish-catholic San Francisco, of how the city was completely controlled by Irish immigrants and Irish-americans for the first half of the 20th century, of how the counterculture movements of the 70s and explosion of alternative lifestyles was as much a rebellion against the still-hanging-on Irish establishment as much as it was against the conservative mien of America at large, it required a confrontation with a San Francisco that barely exists anymore.

It’s not the kind of history that’s embraced. Possibly because everyone’s glad it’s gone. It stands as a stark contrast to the identity San Francisco cultivated and embraced in the past fifty years.

 

II.

I can walk to the Haight, though it’s a much further distance than the Blarney Stone and best saved for weekends. It’s a fun neighborhood. A good bookstore, a better record store. Good food, good drinks. Bad drinks at fun bars. There’s often some kind of spectacle — last time we strolled through, a woman caring for a wagon full of week old pitbulls was hanging out outside the bar we were at. A man strolled by with a goat on a leash. A street person was waving around dollar bills and asking passersby if they wanted any change. Just another day.

There’s still some hippies around, but the epicenter of a philosophic movement it is not. Partially because the appeal of the place — shopping, bars, restaurants — all cost money and despite how colorful it is, it’s very far from the sort of money-free egalitarian paradise that Talbot describes it as in the last 60s. Though the fact that it exists at all is only because of many people’s very hard work; while governor of California, Ronald Reagan made no secret of his seething hate of the Haight and would have prefered it to burn to the ground. The city itself did nothing to alleviate the pressure of thousands of youths converging on the city, fleeing the oppressive conservative climates of an America corrupted by McCarthyism and Vietnam. Instead, the establishment hoped it would turn to disaster and they could demolish it in the name of civic duty, like they had years before in the tragically racist destruction of the Fillmore. Season of the Witch details the efforts of the residents of the Haight to create free medical clinics, feed the foodless, and so on. At least for a little while before drugs and government meddling interfere and plunge the neighborhood into catastrophe.

I’ve come to distrust the counterculture movements of the late 60s, in large part due to Joan Didion’s essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and the sexism inextricably tied to the moment. But if there’s any question of why so many women embraced the movement, why they had to do the hard labor to support the brainchild of high and irresponsible men, it’s because what they were rebelling from was something much worse — the chief of police, a man of the Irish catholic establishment, was still publicly advocating patriarchs to discipline their children and wives with the rod while necessary. While the Summer of Love had its problems, it was favorable to an extremely rigid traditional life. Sexual freedom worked in women’s favor too of course, as famous poets of the day celebrated women’s sexual feelings and actually talked about orgasms, something woefully underrepresented in… anything, at the time.

III.

Prior to this book, all I knew of Harvey Milk was he the first openly gay elected official and he was assassinated. Of George Moscone, murdered moments before Milk, I knew even less. Just that I often passed a convention center named after him. 

I liked learning of their history, but far more fascinating and shocking was the domestic terrorism and horrors occurring during the 70s. I’ve heard of Jonestown — Jim Jones’ suicide cult in the jungles of Guyana — but I did not know just how terrible it was and all the SF politics involved that basically let it happen until I read this book. The zebra killings I had not heard of at all, playing second fiddle to the far less impactful or devastating zodiac killer. Indeed, they’re especially chilling when compared to the racial violence occurring in the US right now. The sequence of events basically went:

Ongoing systemic violence and dispossession of blacks in the city->Rise of extremist black muslim death cult and subsequent targeted murders of vulnerable white people->horrendous black profiling police practices including the shooting of innocent unarmed people.

It’s a racist construct all its own that this portion of history of so dimly known.

IV.

There’s something about the gay exodus to the city that becomes almost unremarkable when you live in the bubble that is San Francisco long enough. It feels somehow like the Castro was always here, at least for all of living history.

A few years ago, it became illegal to be naked in the city outside of private or certain designated areas, much to the chagrin of the cadre of men who were always hanging out in the buff on the corner of Market and Castro. This was not at the behest of close-minded straight prudes, but instead by the many gay folks living in the area wondering what about when my family comes to visit? Similarly, when hanging out among the friends of my wife’s uncle and his partner, I get to hear middle aged gays half-jokingly lament that there are women with children, whole families(!) walking around the Castro.

In other words, in some ways the gays have become the bourgeois. The movement succeeded. The party didn’t exactly stop, but the Castro of today is certainly not the Castro of the 70s. Even the Halloween party is no more!

Of course, the past also includes the grim specter of AIDS. There was a point in the 80s where a full fifty percent of gay men in the city had AIDS. It’s horrific to imagine, but timeline wise it basically just happened. It was a highpoint in the city’s trauma that so many people came together to care for those suffering. San Francisco raised 4x as much money as New York did, despite the much smaller population and spent more money than the entire federal government on the AIDS crisis. It’s funny/awful how the more I read about people writing about the Reagan administration, there’s apparently no ceiling on how terrible it was. Many people died, many others were persecuted due to the purposeful inaction of the president.

 

V.

Season of the Witch comes to a close with the rise of the 49ers dynasty of the 80s. Mostly by profiling the great coach Bill Walsh, author of the West Coast Offense, the modern form of football most teams play that puts an emphasis on the pass over the run. The city’s first superbowl win came at a time when the assassination-AIDS-social unrest upheavels all had run back to back to back and some relief was sorely needed.

Talbot paints Walsh as a model of San Franciscan upbring. He hired a gay trainer. He hired a controversial black mentor for his black leaders. While it’s not entirely convincing, at the very least it points out that people will get conservative about literally anything. You’ve got fools declaring the only ‘real’ way to play football is buried in the dust, grinding out three yard gains like it’s always been. They tried to feminize or gay-ify three receiver spreads even when it was winning.

The political-football crossover reached absurd heights when the 49ers, as a stand-in for San Francisco culture at large and formerly a joke and coming off a 2-14 season, blew out America’s Team/God’s Team/The Dallas Cowboys and major networks didn’t even cover the highlights of the game. Fuck the Cowboys.

 

VI.

All these highs and lows, triumphs and miseries, aren’t The City I know. Not least of all because the book wraps up before I was born. The San Francisco I know is crises of tech bubbles, housing, the homeless. And not a hotbed for revolution. 

Yet it still remains a progressive bubble of some kind. There’s a sort of baseline acceptance of people here. I’ve never met anyone personally who expressed any positive feelings about Donald Trump. Quite the opposite with pretty much everyone. As a result, it’s hard to grasp that so many people in this country will vote for him. Feelings like this follow Talbot’s notion that in San Francisco, even the right is to the left of the rest of the country. 

I would be shocked if anyone ever gave a gay friend a bad look, which certainly can’t be said for much of New England when I travel back home to family (It’s like a perennial fucking question of someone asking me “San Francisco? [pause] Are there a lot of… gay people there?). All of this was made possible through the troubles and travails of the people in this book and many others who fought through the 60s-70s-80s. And of course maintained by the people keeping it alive still.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

betweentheworldandmeA few days before the racial violence of the past week — the senseless murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille and the retaliatory madness in Dallas — my wife and I decided to choose an audiobook to listen to on our Oregon road trip. We chose Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehsisi Coates open letter slash memoir about racial violence & white supremecy in America. It turned out to be a grim precursor indeed: Killer evidence that Coates’ morose belief that nothing will change, that plunder is an addiction, contains truth.  

The genesis of this book: Ta-Nehsisi Coates finds his teenage son crying in his room over the absence of punishment for Freddie Gray’s murder. This leads him (Coates) to relate the story of his black life, from the violent streets of Baltimore through reaching his own personal mecca of Howard University and his own disillusioning, rending collision with police-racism-brutality when one of his friends is
set up and murdered by cops. The danger of being black in a wealthy neighborhood.

Along the way we’re treated to Coates cogent reflections on the systems of race and oppression in America. The history of America is a history of a oppression of the black body. They are one and the same. Nor does it survive purely as history but a damning present and almost certain future. The infliction of fear and control continues. Coates is criticized at-large, and surely across many goodreads reviews about not being hopeful enough. Too pessimistic, too solution averse. I try to fit myself amid this history. Surely even the systemic racism of today pales in comparison to the generations born into shackles across the tenure of American slavery, or the crashing fall of Reconstruction and institution of Jim Crowe thereafter? But a weak form of progress, with a majorly long way to go, assuming the destination is actually reachable. I can’t fault Coates stance. Clearly American racism is unlikely to quote end (or anything close) in his lifetime, and there’s not a whole lot of reason to feel sure it will conclude in his son’s lifetime either. Coates’ has a good writeup in response to this ‘hope criticism’ here.

Between the World and Me is a less a story of specific injustices (unlike Tim Wise’s White Like Me, which we also started on the drive), but a general investigation of human systems and constructs. For instance, his notion that “white” is not a race but a totally fabricated classification that allows tribal unity in the ruling class is not so much stated outright but unfolded over time and through various means. Or one of my favorite points comes after Coates’ delves into his teenage African nationalism spent idolizing African cultures, and subsequent falling out from that mindset. After initially embracing the search for the answer to Saul Bellow’s question:

Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?

Coates then comes to a sort of awakening with his response that:

Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.

It’s a powerful response that sticks with me, and speaks to a possible and neglected human unity that all the “all lives matter” reactionary racist bullshit can’t even approach.

I used to listen to audiobooks all the time when I had to actually drive to work. Now I only listen to them during vacations or holidays or other rare times spending a whole lot of time in a car. As such, I can be more discerning and I only listen to books narrated by the author. Even if they don’t have a great voice, they understand better than anyone the rhythm and cadence of their prose and it makes for a much better listen. Coates spent some time reading (bad) poetry aloud or working spoken word nights in his youth, so his narration has a particular speakerish quality to it. His repetition of words and phrases “My body”, “the black body”, “plunder”, “the people who think they are white” etc added to the fact that’s a memoirish essay made for a more compelling experience than I figure the text would. 

The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber

utopia of rulesBureaucracy! You hate it! You love it! Quite possibly your workday is clenched between its squeaky-clean cogs.

Inflexible and stupid rules. Little else can make me as furious. Someone simply saying “but those are the rules!” regardless of how stupid they are is incomprehensible to me. Non-negotiability is madness. Especially when wielded by those with real power over me.

Graeber’s essays go beyond the mere stupidity of bureaucracy into deeper, sinister territory.

Here’s a cheat sheet:

  • Bureaucracy is tightly coupled with the threat of violence. The rules only truly work because if you don’t follow them, men in uniform, be they police or security guards or whatever, will throw you in a cage or charge you exorbitant fees.
  • Bureaucracy used to be more a government technique, but Graeber coined the term ‘total bureaucratization’ to encompass our modern era where government bureaucracy is inextricably linked with corporate bureaucracy. See banks throwing up their hands and saying there’s nothing we can do while pointing at inflexible regulations that they themselves encouraged. Or consider work within corporations themselves, which now includes all sorts of metrics and rubrics and paperwork to measure performance. 
  • Bureaucracy, at least the current American version, stunts technology. By forcefully pointing tech and science in directions of further bureaucratization / social control, it keeps it from inventing alternate technologies that change the world and possibly obsolete capitalism or bureaucracy itself. For instance, the ‘mechanized worker’ people of the early 19th century were sure would be invented never materialized.
  • Bureaucracy totally morphs the concept of value in baffling ways. Value becomes a ubiquitous concept to be arrived at, rather than the obvious result of labor. See:

The whole idea that one can make a strict division between means and ends, between facts and values, is a product of the bureaucratic mind-set, because bureaucracy is the first and only social institution that treats the means of doing things as entirely separate from what it is that’s being done

Worst of all, as a result of all these things (and more), modern Americans now think that the hard-line, impersonal rulecraft of bureaucracy is the only correct way civilization works. Yet for the vast majority of human history, it wasn’t required at all. Somehow people got by without being able to instantly call men in uniform to threaten (&inflict) violence in the name of Rules.

The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

milagrobeanfieldwarCheck out this cover: A skeleton in a sombrero with a bottle of tequila. Intentionally yellowed page edges. A brick of mass market paperback in that unmistakable font that used to signify A BOOK to me before trade paperbacks took over and the construction of the book itself became stylized. Along with the funny title, these are the reasons I picked this up for three dollars (more than its original sale price) and took it home.

Do you ever stop to contemplate a physical book that is older than you? This book is about a decade older than me. While I was busy being born and learning to read and playing super mario brothers and being bored at school and entering the workforce and getting married and whatever else up until the present moment, this copy of The Milagro Beanfield War was out there, somewhere. Maybe having adventures and being read by all sorts of people (there was an old receipt stuffed between the pages of the book from a now defunct airline). Or maybe it was just read once and stuffed in a trunk before being sold to a used book store many years later.

Anyway, enough musing. Review time.

This is a political book. The war of the title is not a joke nor a bloody battle, but a sort of Cold War between the inhabitants of Milagro and a combination of the wealthy landowners and government forces seeking to abscond with their ancestral lands to create a golf course and surrounding tourist amenities. It’s a story of rich versus poor, old versus new, white versus brown, tradition versus capitalism.

The chicano subsistence farmers of Milagro, New Mexico have lived and died there for hundreds of years. They were there before the US won the Spanish-American War and they’ve been there since. Never really gaining anything in the way of wealth, they’ve survived OK off the land, taking joy in beers on the front porch, mariachi music, and hunting and swimming around the gorgeous and serene mountain lakes that frame Milagro. But for the past several decades, trouble has been brewing and the working class farming community has slowly morphed to true hopeless poverty. Milagro’s inhabitants are all in danger of losing their lands. Indeed, many already have. They’re pushed into service jobs in faraway cities and a huge portion of them are on food stamps.

What happened? Bureaucratic water laws driven by interests far from Milagro, with dead eye sights on economic growth, out of state tourism and the March Forth of Progress. It almost does not need to be said that the poor farmers of Milagro whose land is the fuel for this endeavor will never see any of profit.

This leads to the events of the novel: Joe Mondragon, fed up with the directionless path his life has taken, heads out to his late parents dusty property and diverts a stream to irrigate a paltry beanfield. A simple gesture, but a seriously illegal one with major political implications that Joe himself, a fiesty hot-head, doesn’t even consider. Government agents, water rights goons, local businessman, and a slew of other interests converge on Milagro, plotting how best to dispose of Joe and his beanfield without blowing the whole delicate political situation like a powder keg. The community of Milagro, slowly, through various means both violent and peaceful, starts to unify in response.

While the paragraph above outlines the plot, it’s not truly the focus of the novel and it falls into the background for many pages at a time. Joe himself will disappear from the narrative for large swathes, heard only of in rumor, and some of his most important deeds occur off screen. Instead, the majority of the novel is spent elaborating on the exploits and histories of its large cast of characters, from old men like the ancient, possibly immortal Amorante Cordova and one-armed Onofre Martinez (his other arm was eaten by butterflies), to the whites who found themselves in Milagro for various reasons, like Charlie Bloom, a Harvard lawyer who desperately sought to escape his own culture but has a love-hate relationship with the new one that adopted him.

This is simultaneously The Milagro Beanfield War’s defining strength and distracting flaw. While it’s essential to get to know the town to truly feel immersed in the politics and get behind the plight of not just one unique main character, but a whole slew of them, it’s also digressive and meandering to the point of madness. Every character gets a backstory, even ones who appear for a mere scene or two. Luckily it’s funny and engaging and also relevant 40 years later, where the axis of wealth and the exploitation of the poor continues.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

“Good prose is like a window pane.”

– George Orwell

homageThe above quote is a framed print on my wall. Orwell proves it fully with Homage to Catalonia, a personal account of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It’s a window into a very particular point in time, a baleful precursor to World War II. It went far beyond my previous understanding of the conflict, which in American schooling boils down to Franco = Bad.

The chapters of the book follow two different paths. The first is Orwell’s direct experiences on the front and later in the street fighting in Barcelona. This is largely a tale of privation. Both sides of the war were drastically undersupplied. No guns, no bread, no tools, and eventually no tobacco. Plenty of lice. It’s ironic that my mid-century version of the book has a bloodied bayonet on the cover because the Republican forces did not even have those. Indeed, their guns were 30-40 years old, often from the previous century, and as like to lock or blow up in their wielder’s face as shoot anything. Furthermore, the fronts were so far apart and in such hostile terrain, there was very little fighting at all for much of Orwell’s tenure. Endless boredom and sleep deprivation instead.  

It’s a vivid retelling. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been told that trench warfare was abysmal and some of the very worst humanity has inflicted on its own. To hear it in Orwell’s crisp prose is to be re-acclimated with just how miserable the whole experience was. Worse, how absurd and pointless. Orwell barely sees any action, certaintly not anything that can be claimed a military victory, but plenty of good men are wounded or die and George gets a bullet through his throat for good measure.

The alternate chapters are Orwell’s summary of the politics of the war, from his position a few months after he left. I just learned in newer copies of the book these are actually appendices placed at the end, which is a grave injustice if you ask me. The war and its politics must be intertwined. Orwell joined the war under a specific party, the P.O.U.M., without giving it a second thought. There to fight fascism, he assumed a unity amongst the opposing republican parties. But an ominous note early on bodes ill when he asks someone about a fellow acronym-based group and is told “they’re the socialists”, to which Orwell replies “Aren’t we all socialists?” 

Turns out there’s some majorly important distinctions between the political groups of the republic. There’s socialists of various kinds, communists, and anarchists, which should share many of the same tenets, but Orwell goes at length to show that this version of communism is based entirely on the military interests of Russia (the only party supplying the government with guns) and not much on ideology. This becomes essential later, when the communist-backed government clashes with the P.O.U.M. while George is on leave in Barcelona and the city devolves into street fighting. The end game is complete disillusionment with the war as he watches all his friends thrown in jail and escapes to France by the skin of his teeth. He has a particular hate for the misleading foreign journalism abroad, and the rampant censorship and harmful propaganda within Spain. You can almost see 1984 being written.

Something of a side note that I found fascinating was the political anarchism that briefly gripped Spain. Orwell writes that capitalist hierarchy was eliminated in Catalonia. In the militia, officers pulled the same pay as raw recruits and enjoyed the same social status; if a grunt didn’t like the order his ‘superior’ gave him, he had the right to question it. Land ownership was abolished and food freely distributed. It’s easy to think of political anarchism as nice in theory but totally impractical and before he engaged with it, Orwell thought the same. It’s fun and a little bittersweet to ponder what might have happened in Spain had the anarchists prevailed.

George Orwell is from a different era. It’s easy to forget. His writing, especially 1984 and Animal Farm, are still widely read and relevant today. Big Brother is a concept rooted in international parlance. I write this because his mentality on joining the war in the first place is thus: he thought it was the only decent thing to do. To go to Spain and fight fascism by killing some fascists. To modern eyes, the idealism and sense of duty present is almost shocking. He infuses the book with a certain violent moral force. Amidst the war is an appraisal of human decency, which through individual interactions he maintains a high opinion of, regardless of the widespread hate and oppression swirling around.

The Unwinding by George Packer

unwindingGeorge Packer weaves a tapestry of American stories, from rich to poor, their rises and downfalls and lost opportunities, to paint a picture of an American social institution come adrift and unbound. The old social contract has dissolved and the series of laws and buffers that cemented the country throughout the twentieth century have been repealed and overridden. The worst part of the 2008 recession was not the recession itself but the missing high-profile arrests, new laws, and checks that failed to materialize afterwards. And not for lack of evidence or persuasiveness.

The Unwinding follows many people, but three “average” and unknown Americans get several chapters devoted to their stories. One is Tammy Thomas, an assembly line worker coming of age during the collapse of the steel industry in Youngstown, Ohio. Tammy watches as her community implodes, jobs disappear, gentrification and white flight run rampant only for her to lose her job herself. In the past, a combination of industry barons and the unions had protected their own; they were no saints and the jobs were often unsafe, unhealthy and did not include stellar pay, but they were stable. They paid enough to feed your family, had safeguards for injury, and took care of retirement. Packer is careful not to turn the early-mid century into a halcyon golden age — the terrible racism is reinforced. In fact, the industrial collapse was even worse for the rising black middle class since their time was so short and they were hit the hardest in many of the industry towns as they were coming in as the whites were coming out (at least for the most physically demanding and dangerous jobs).

Next comes Dean Price, an entrepreneur and green economy evangelist whose story spans the Piedmont Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. Shocked by the notion of peak oil and hyped up on self-help books, Dean starts a southern crusade to employ various combinations of crops or waste products to replace diesel fuel (a major dependency of the sprawling, decentralized, crop-run south). The plan is to make farming useful again and get the locals back to work. Shrink business and put the means of production back in the hands of the community. His businesses fail. Due to a combination of ignorance, petty infighting, political games, shifting economics (once gas prices stabilized, green fuel became too expensive), and poor financial sense (on Dean’s part). But he keeps on trying. A friendly politician tells him to stop using words like “sustainability” and “green energy” as they tend to scare the populace. Dean himself, despite his strict adherence to peak oil, rejects speaking of climate change as “too partisan”. The book paints a picture of an economically devastated south, entire industries wiped out with whole towns employed and shopping at Walmart. Plus a disdain leveled upon them by the richer cities (of which I reside!). But still, it’s hard to sympathize when massive global crisis is present but ignored or decried as partisan and when you hear what the most common word that Dean’s fellows have to describe Obama is (hint: it begins with an n).

Lastly is Jeff Conaughton, a “Biden-guy”* with joint careers in Washington and Wall Street. Jeff’s story is largely an affirmation that the former is still in the latter’s pocket. His eventual departure from both involves him being unable to get an important audience with a politician as a Washington insider while his friends in a financial firm command eighty minute meetings. Meanwhile, the Republican party is now run on spite**. The democrats are largely ineffectual or just as bad. There’s a chapter profiling Elizabeth Warren that points out she espouses the same sort of views as Barrack Obama but seems determined to actually fulfill them without some kind of buddy-buddy ho ho let’s make a deal, guys schtick (Packer: “She actually seemed to hate the banks”). As a result, she was despised by members of both parties while in Washington. While probably the compelling personal story, Jeff Conaughton’s is the one with the most obvious and dire consequences. The highest levels of this country are a mess.

Interspersed between these three paths are exposés on famous people and three tumultuous locales — Wall Street during Occupy, Silicon Valley and its elite, and the housing crisis as it builds and smashes Tampa Bay. The character portraits are fascinating, Packer adopts a voice and language that fits the person he is writing about. Military based Colin Powell’s chapter uses high falutin language (glory, comrade, etc) with short sentences and an epic bent. Oprah’s uses more spiritual and floaty language. With the conspicuous exception of Elizabeth Warren, they generally have something negative to say. Oprah’s magical thinking ties wealth to goodness. Alice Waters inability to compromise has greatly assisted in what Americans eat being defined along class lines. Jay-Z is selling a cheap and false notion of rebellion. Raymond Carver was a pathetic, drunk asshole (not sure how that one ties into the greater narrative to be honest).

The Wall Street and Silicon Valley segments were interesting, but the implosion of Tampa and its environs was perhaps the best told and most harrowing section of the book. The real estate doomtrain and its inevitable derailment. The scrabbling at the ruins and the honest attempts to keep a house. The foreclosure machine in action — obfuscation of what is actually owed and to whom; three minute court hearings without the bank present. The fear and anger that led the Tea Party to emerge***. The Republican National Conference literally blockading the citizens of Tampa out of their own city. It feels like the setup to a dystopian fiction.

Packer’s America is one that has lost faith in itself, its people afraid of the future. Each chapter is preceded by a year and series of quotes, song lyrics, movies lines evoking that year. The last one, 2012, quotes the premise of The Hunger Games. The children of the starving and oppressed poor forced to fight to the death for the novelty of the extreme wealth. If Sci-fi represents how we view the future and fantasy how we dream, then we have become incredible cynics. Our Sci-fi/fantasy worlds are ones of decay, lands ruined by social upheaval and environmental disaster. It’s no surprise that Game of Thrones is so successful, in novel and television form. It’s the story of a corrupt elite repeatedly abusing the trust of their representative peoples, while they ignore a supernatural threat that comes literally from the glacial poles and negatively affects the weather.

*Jeff got into politics following a rousing speech that Joe Biden gave to his high school; it made an immediate impact on young Jeff and moved him to pursue politics. Later, he comes to learn that Biden is actually kind of a prick.

**a sad-but-funny chapter details the Republican National Convention. Romney is purposely not named — he’s merely the Nominee — and whenever major conservative figures are asked “Why him?”, they inevitably say something negative about Obama as a response.

***Again, the fear and anger is sad and understandable. The paradoxical self destructive behavior might even be. But the singular aim with which they smashed legitimate attempts to heal the economy is not. Just because the people got utterly hosed does not give them license to hurt others.