Reviewed by Jennifer Spiegel
(Stalking Horse Press, 2017)
When I started the process of reviewing this book, my own small world was not exactly on my mind. More than anything, I eagerly opened my copy to see the workings of the indie press industry. How is Small Press America (there might be a pun buried in here) doing in 2017? There are, of course, a plethora of bookish offerings, but this particular one landed on my radar.
The funny thing is that my life inadvertently encroached. As I began reading this political satire, my husband and I finished another weirdly timed thing: a TV binge of “The West Wing” (a show that ended in 2006)—having ventured into it accidentally, without a thought about the current political climate. We just wanted to see it. Additionally, I was listening to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale on audio for a future review with Snotty Literati, another dystopian-political-kind-of-book. And, well, we can’t exactly ignore the world into which this book was born, for better or for worse: the, um, “Trump Era.” Lastly, I’m a practicing—albeit unorthodox, rakishly anti-Trump, mildly castigated by more than a few—Christian. (Poor Baumeister! Should I even touch his decidedly anti-Christian political prose?) These things worked on me as I read this novel.
I opened the book—all Jed Bartlett-infused, Trumped-out, quaking from Atwood, and Christianized at heart. And, lo and behold, I just went with it. I went with the crazy. Politics as they are, imagination shaken, faith under fire, I read this indie offering. What did I find?
It’s a rollicking good time of wild satire, enmeshed with keen observation of rightwing ideology, and full-bodied (as in full-bodied coffee) prose. Prose that is alive. Prose with bite. Prose like a smack in the face.
Baumeister envisions a 2034 post-Bush America. He didn’t even know about Trump’s presidency yet, but it’s impossible to read it apart from The Donald now. (I did wonder if the timing of publication helped or hurt the book.) Part James Bond (with one tiny nod to 007 within its pages), part Austin Powers, part Arthur C. Clarke’s “Hal” in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and part Jerry Falwell, the narrative takes a humorous tone, but it’s almost as if Baumeister has read democracy’s entrails—the lingering odor of prophesy trails after each sentence.
Just look at some of the features of this new America:
The big evangelist is married to his fourth wife, named Kelly Anne!
The dominant economic ideology is Christian Consumerism, which includes “Christian banks and Christian department stores, Christian gun manufacturers and, of course, Christian defense contractors.” Christian businesses get tax breaks. “Vanderbilt’s Pat Robertson Seminary for Christian Capitalists” is one place of study. There is a “Virtual Jerusalem.”
Comically apt name-dropping runs throughout the narrative. Some Cheney here. Some Putin there. “Slick Willie,” “his wife,” and “the Kenyan” are all referenced.
And, best of all, there is “Righteous Burger,” an echo of Chick-fil-A. Blood of the Lamb Shakes and Freedom Fries are available and a Christian consumer might sit in one of the “Never Walk Alone two-seaters” with a “life-sized hologram” that sermonizes. Its bathroom is marked “HETEROSEXUAL MEN.”
Apart from the barbs at religion, though, clever innocuous commentary abounds. Having run through the gamut of the ordinarily named hurricanes, hurricanes are now given such creative monikers as “Biffy, Poffy, Tippy, Albertine, Screwy, and Lu-Lu.”
But the crux of Pax Americana is Symmetra, which is the computer software that might be said to meet the human need for meaning. Baumeister writes, “The dream was of no more cookie cutter gods. Everyone could have their own god, and that god would be Symmetra, and if everyone had it there would never be need for war again. And that dream was enough on its own.” The problem of world peace, then, is the most critical problem (as opposed to the problem of evil or the problem of existence). Consider this long-ish passage:
“The answer lay in the middle ground of coexistence, in finding a way to get past religion. And that was where Symmetra came in. Symmetra would break the old paradigm; free the world from men whose ideas were static and ancient—stupid at best, wicked at worst. It would free humanity from consequence-based religions, from the rigid stupidity of belief in opposites, the fundamental inability to understand the flexible nature of truth. That was what could save humanity, maybe the only thing that could, because the realization that everyone was wrong also meant that everyone could be right. . . Symmetra would change the meaning of spirituality.”
Intriguing, yes? You can see what’s at stake in this book, right? So, despite a plot that takes up the screwball antics surrounding global political machinations, the White House, spies, and private islands, there’s a philosophical conundrum at its heart. Though Symmetra is presented vaguely like a Magic 8 Ball, it is also like the Ark à la Indiana Jones. Yeah, it might be construed as anti-evangelical. But let’s be honest: right now, in America, the evangelical church has rendered itself out-of-touch, a little mean-spirited, jingoistic, and in pursuit of a bottom dollar-defined line. And I say this as one associated with evangelicalism. Baumeister certainly offers up an implicit challenge.
Make no mistake about it. Baumeister writes well. There’s quite a bit of dialogue—energetic, fast-paced, and character-oriented. There are colorful characters throughout—equipped with silver spoons and secret pasts. International espionage and old flames flicker. At times, he crafts pretty sentences with vibrant imagery, planting himself firmly on literary terrain. So, while we’re satirizing a mildly familiar reality, we’re also steeped in good storytelling.
With such a promising debut showcasing a range of literary talents, my guess is that we’ll see more from this author.
Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, The Freak Chronicles (stories) and Love Slave (a novel). She’s also half of the book-reviewing gig, Snotty Literati. Her website is at jenniferspiegel.com.