Me: “I’m really enjoying the new Barbara Kingsolver book!”
My cousinsisterfriend: “Oh? There’s a new one? What’s it about?”
Me: “This sweet Mexican-American closeted gay man in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. He starts out living with his man-obsessed, diva mother in Mexico, but then becomes the cook for Diego Rivera and then Trotsky until…”
Cousinsisterfriend: “Uh, Pam? I read that book. A couple years ago. It’s not new.”
Me (who would be embarrassed at this point in front of anybody else except my cousinsisterfriend who knows EVERYTHING about me but still loves me deeply): “Oh. Well. It’s new to me?”
Cousinsisterfriend: “Enough about you. Let’s talk about me…”
Though the scintillating conversation that followed would probably interest you greatly, I’m going to risk disappointing you by telling you about Barbara Kingsolver’s most recent novel The Lacuna. I’m sure you’ve all read The Poisonwood Bible by now, and if you haven’t you never will (unless you haven’t but always wanted to, in which case please hop over to your local library and get it out. Now. I mean it. Right. Now.) It’s been so long since I read The Poisonwood Bible that all I remember is that it was my favorite book of the year if not the decade, so I started The Lacuna with a “Go ahead, make my day” kind of attitude, which is not really fair to Barbara K. but that’s where I was at that moment so tough patooties. Maybe ol’ Babs was of the same mindset because this book took a while to draw me in. It did eventually, and I liked the book a lot, but I didn’t want to marry it or anything like I did with The Poisonwood Bible. Ultimately, I categorize The Lacuna as a must-read because of Kingsolver’s ability to provide important commentary on the world-altering crisis in “journalism” today (the quotes indicate my loose application of this term) through a gentle, purposefully unassuming character.
Harrison Shepherd is such an humble, less-is-more character that he doesn’t even have a name that sticks. Nor a home. He is neither Mexican nor American. He is neither classically male nor female. He is a smart man partially educated at a school for imbeciles. He wants to fade into the backdrop but he can’t help but to let his culinary and, more importantly, literary talents drop a spotlight onto him. And, poor guy, this novel isn’t really about him at all – even though the entire story is written through his journals – for he is merely a screen upon which the nonsensical media madness projects itself.
“In the beginning were the howlers.” (God, I love a good first line of a book!) “They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten. It would start with just one: his forced, rhythmic groaning, like a saw blade. That aroused others near him, nudging them to bawl along with his monstrous tune. Soon the maroon-throated howls would echo back from the other trees, farther down the beach, until the whole jungle filled with roaring trees. As it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world.”
Wee Harrison Shepherd and his fantasy-based mother mistake the monkeys for demons that will eat the flesh from their bones. As Harrison grows up, the howlers become journalists who would rather spread fantastical lies than do a smidge of honorable reporting. They howl about Diego Rivera’s murals. They howl about Lev Trotsky’s attempts to take down Stalin. They howl about Japanese civilians living in America. They howl about Communism under every rock of the McCarthy era, the jungle cry that crashes disastrously through the small, protect world Harrison carves out for himself.
While I’m reading about Kingsolver’s delicately created world in the mid-20th century, my ears are reverberating with the clumsily reported soul-eating news stories of today, spewed by the media mouthpieces and inhaled by people who call themselves Birthers and Tea Partiers and Charlie Sheen fans. The howlers today shrilly hurl brightly wrapped feces of misinformation, which many Americans gobble up with greedy glee like free Happy Meals falling from the sky. Without question or comprehension. For to question would be to doubt…and a pit bull in lipstick does not abide by doubters. Or thinkers. Especially not thinkers.
As an FBI agent is investigating Harrison Shepherd as a Communist during the Red Scare, Harrison suggests ever so politely that the Constitution grants him the rights to know who is accusing him of wrongdoings. The agent responds, “Whenever I hear this kind of thing…a person speaking about constitutional rights, free speech, and so forth, I think, ‘How can he be such a sap? Now I can be sure that man is a Red.’ A word to the wise, Mr. Shepherd. We just do not hear a real American speaking in that manner.”
"Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant -- they're quite clear -- that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments.” – Sarah Palin on Bill O’Reilly’s show in May, 2010.
''You got to have an enemy to fight. And when you have an enemy to fight, then you can unite the entire world behind you, and you seize power. That was Hitler's plan. His enemy: the Jew. Al Gore's enemy, the U.N.'s enemy: global warming. Then you get the scientists — eugenics. You get the scientists — global warming. Then you have to discredit the scientists who say, 'That's not right.' And you must silence all dissenting voices. That's what Hitler did.'' —Glenn Beck, linking Al Gore's campaign against global warming to Hitler's campaign against the Jews, 'The Glenn Beck Program,' April 30, 2007
One last quote, if you don’t mind, from The Lacuna. Harrison is writing a letter to Diego Rivera soon after Independence Day in 1946, “The radio is the root of the evil, their rule is: No silence, ever. When anything happens, the commentator has to speak without a moment’s pause for gathering wisdom. Falsehood and inanity are preferable to silence. You can’t imagine the effect of this. The talkers are rising about the thinkers.”
Make no mistake. Kingsolver’s “new” book isn’t strictly about the ways the 24-hour news cycle is killing all that is good and just in the world. In fact, you could read the whole book and hardly register this jibe. But her underlying message kept leaping out at me. While I was reading this book, I was trying to avoid the Sheenification of America - as we takes sides by either joining in the death parade or contemplate the macabre dancers (or contemplate the contemplators) or write about how we won’t write about it. And you all know that, like any good prestidigitator’s aim, while we’re watching Charlie Sheen, we’re not watching the gluttonous devouring of basic American civil rights.
Did I mention The Lacuna made a great beach read too?