Dante’s Indiana

DANTE’S INDIANA
By Randy Boyagoda

Written in the early fourteenth century, the Comedy of Dante Alighieri (only later designated as “Divine”) is considered by many to be the greatest poem ever written in any language. One test of that status in our own time is the continuing popularity of its many translations into English and its widespread presence in contemporary culture.

Randy Boyagoda’s Dante’s Indiana, the second volume of a projected trilogy about a Toronto academic named Prin, takes that ongoing process of cultural assimilation as a starting point.

Following closely on the events of the previous novel, Original Prin, things kick off here with Prin experiencing a full-blown mid-life crisis. He has, in the language of Dante, lost his way. His marriage is under stress, and when a trip abroad leaves him with PTSD and unemployed he finds himself taken on in an advisory capacity by a family-run packaging business whose patriarch is building a Dante-inspired theme park in Terre Haute, Indiana whose goal is “to put fun back in the fear of God.”

Chaos ensues as the opening of the theme park runs into the buzz saw of life in twenty-first century America. Terre Haute is caught in the grips of the opiate epidemic and race riots break out when a young Black man is killed by the police. All of this has an immediate impact on the team Prin has joined at the park, and while he tries to keep everything on schedule he has to also juggle his disintegrating life. Prin’s family is threatening to come apart as he has to manage a long-distance relationship while an old boyfriend is making moves on his wife.

It’s the emphasis on family that connects all of the different stories in Dante’s Indiana. One of Prin’s co-workers has a daughter who is a heroin addict. The family of the murdered teen is another focal point, as is a Sri Lankan family that wants to adopt Prin.

Dante himself was married with children, but they don’t figure at all in the Comedy. He was interested in genealogy, but not family in the nuclear sense.

This is enough to let you know that Boyagoda isn’t interested in writing a modern version of the Comedy, on the order of what James Joyce did with Homer in Ulysses. He’s telling a story of redemption, but not following any formal model laid down by Dante, or even alluding to the Comedy much beyond a few obvious winks.

Still, given the precedent being invoked it’s clear that Boyagoda set himself a challenge, and it’s one that he’s up to. It is, for example, notoriously hard for writers to represent or evoke the sense of smell, but Boyagoda makes it seem easy with a series of apt similes: tap water in a public school that “smelled like flat Coke,” a truck interior that smells “like a lemon grove of baby wipes,” and fast food that gives a car an odour “like steaming bodies.”

This is the sort of imaginative verbal panache that in our own vernacular pays tribute to Dante as literary guide. As a spiritual guide the link is harder to make out, mainly because Boyagoda wants to explore domestic virtues – caring, mutual support, stability – that Dante was less interested in. The classics, however, are always reimagined in ways that respond to the personal anxieties and public crises of our own time. In the shattered funhouse of the twenty-first century we have to to redefine the content of a faith that sustains.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star, September 3 2021.

Dynasty

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar
Tom Holland

At the funeral ceremonies for the “dashing” Germanicus Julius Caesar in 19 CE the mood of the Roman populace started turning ugly – something his uncle, the princeps Tiberius, couldn’t help but be aware of. “Clinging as he was to the ears of the wolf, Tiberius could feel the rising of its hackles, sense the baring of its teeth, smell the hunger on its breath. He knew that it wanted meat.”

That sort of writing is typical of Tom Holland at his worst, the sort of thing that I described in my note on Millennium as being “stuffed with overwrought scenery and repetitive rhetorical emphases.” You could argue, however, that the style suits the tabloid/soap opera subject matter. The lurid history of the Julio-Claudian line is gone over again here with lots of dash and brio but in a way that will probably leave readers wanting something more substantial.

The Reckoning

The Reckoning: Our Nation’s Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal
Mary L. Trump

The election of Donald Trump gave his niece, or at least triggered in her, a case of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which eventually landed her in a treatment center in Tucson that specializes in handling such matters. If that strikes you as a bit precious then you’re in for a rough rest of the ride. Trump’s previous book about her uncle, Too Much and Never Enough, was a revealing and insightful biographical-psychological sketch that did a lot to explain the then president’s train-wreck of a personality, but this one paints outside the lines in dragging in a lot of stuff about race in America that isn’t on point. I’d be the last person to defend Donald Trump on a charge of racism – I think he exploited racism in America as much as he could for political gain – but given the enormity of his other outrages it feels off topic here. For a short book like this that lack of focus is a problem.

Landslide, I Alone Can Fix It, and Peril

LANDSLIDE: THE FINAL DAYS OF THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY
By Michael Wolff

I ALONE CAN FIX IT: DONALD J. TRUMP’S CATASTROPHIC FINAL YEAR
By Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker

PERIL
By Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

For four years the mantra of the Trump presidency was that “there was no bottom.” Just when you thought he couldn’t sink any lower, some fresh outrage either to democratic norms or just plain decency would come along.
Still, it seemed that he’d reached a kind of nadir when January 6 brought a shambolic riot to the Capitol while behind the scenes an earnest albeit ham-handed effort was underway to overturn the results of the 2020 election. In the aftermath, the feeling one sensed, even in the media, was more one of relief at the end of a long national nightmare than the usual shock and disgust that Trump specialized in generating.

While in office Trump ruled the bestseller lists, and the most recent round of books, focusing on his final year in office, gives us what is perhaps (and hopefully) the final chapter. Written by authors who have covered the court of Trump extensively in previous books, and dealing with events already given saturation news coverage, do they have anything new to tell us?

Perhaps not much that’s new, but on at least a few points an indelible portrait is drawn of the calamitous final days.

In the first place, as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi succinctly put it, the president at this time was “not well.” More precisely, his behaviour in fighting the election results was “a complete, total manifestation of insanity.”

This was not a clinical assessment, but while the talk of having Trump removed from office due to incapacity was always a non-starter, for many close to him, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, it was clear that in his final year Trump “had gone into a serious mental decline.” What the country was experiencing, in Michael Wolff’s words, was a chief executive suffering “mental derangement of a kind and at an intensity never before known at the highest level of the U.S. government.”

There was more to this than the Narcissistic Personality Disorder that Trump himself seemed to see as a super power, and that then Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was being briefed on as soon as Trump took office. Trump was living in a fantasy world. He honestly believed, or at least affected to believe in the absence of any evidence, that Pfizer had deliberately withheld the rollout of a vaccine for COVID in order to hurt him politically, that the election had been stolen by various fraudulent means, and that he would be able to overturn the results in “his” courts.

The only word for this is madness.

The second point drilled home is that, at a time when the United States was faced with a major crisis, Trump basically quit his job. There had, of course, long been reports that Trump had no interest in doing the work of being president but only enjoyed being the center of attention. When COVID struck, however, what resulted was, in Leonnig’s and Rucker’s account, “a leadership vacuum,” where “the president had almost entirely ceased doing the business of running the country.” Then, according to Wolff, after the election he “put aside every other presidential function except the election challenge.” Which just meant watching more TV and flying off into foul-mouthed rages at everyone around him.

The final point is that this was a situation that the people closest to him (that is, his supporters) understood but that no one had the courage to speak out against. His immediate circle of family and aides thought he was living in an alternate reality, but they were either too sycophantic, afraid of him, or (as in the case of bizarre figures like Rudy Giuliani and My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell) too far gone themselves to do anything about it.

One could take this a step further and wonder at the fact that Trump seems not to have had any real friends or confidants at all. What’s more, many of those who knew him and worked with him (and for him) more or less openly despised him. The Trump haters among his current and former officials constituted, according to Wolff, “a large club.” His one-time secretary of state Rex Tillerson famously thought him a “total fucking moron.” Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News was little more than a propaganda arm for Trump during these years, hated him, as did Ted Cruz, one of his staunchest defenders in the Senate. Meanwhile, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell had a “view of Trump [that] was as virulent as the most virulent liberal’s view: Trump was ignorant, corrupt, incompetent, unstable.”

No doubt this grated on Trump, making him feel even more isolated and resentful of the establishment “elites.” But it underlines that question of why people continued to support Trump even though they not only knew he was crazy but personally hated him as well. Obviously self-interest was part of it but Wolff gets at something more fundamental in what he has to say about the psychology of the political class:

The question that was asked since the beginning of the administration but that became even more urgent as Trump’s single-minded and senseless election challenge progressed was: Why would anyone tolerate this? The answer was simply that, in 2016, he had been elected, no matter how loopy and unexpected that was, and this was the nature of politics: you bowed down to the winner. (In fact, already some of that tolerance was seeping out because of the stark reality that he had not been reelected.) But the other answer was that, in politics, there was a whole professional class whose essential skill sets involved dealing with maximally difficult and damaged bosses. You took it and put up with it and tried to make the best of it, not in spite of everything, but because this is what you did; this was the job you had. And the more you could tolerate or accept or rationalize, the better you were at it and the higher you would rise in the universe, the brutalized universe of power.

Each book has its strengths and offers a slightly different perspective. Wolff’s account of the last days focuses mainly on the fight over the election and its fallout. Leonnig and Rucker give an account of Trump’s entire final year and so deal more with the COVID crisis. Woodward and Costa are broader still, even including a slightly off-topic look at the incoming Biden administration.

All the authors strain hard to be non-judgmental and present their sources in the best possible light. These books aren’t hatchet jobs. While Leonnig and Rucker refer to Trump’s “extraordinary capacity to say things that were not true” they balk at calling him a liar (Trump tells them he prefers “a more beautiful word called disinformation”). Meanwhile, the cabinet members and congressmen who enabled Trump are allowed to walk away with their excuses, if not their dignity, intact. But there are no heroes in this story.

Will there be a sequel? By all accounts Trump is enjoying life in his alternate-reality bubble at Mar-a-Lago. Leonnig and Rucker get an invite and are suitably impressed:

Here, beneath the gold-leaf ceiling of winged griffins and crystal chandeliers, Trump still rules, surrounded day and night by applauding fans, obsequious courtiers, and dutiful servants. At the perfectly manicured Mar-a-Lago, none of the disgrace that marked the end of his presidency pierces Trump’s reality. Here, he and his aides work to maintain the gospel according to Trump, with the most important revelations being that Donald Trump was the greatest president of all time and was unjustly denied a second term.

It sounds very nice, but given where things stand today, with Trump maintaining his position as the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024, we shouldn’t be surprised if he tries a comeback. For a narcissist, fame is a powerful drug. There may be a new bottom yet. As Woodward and Costa conclude, “peril remains.”

Notes:
Review first published online November 8, 2021.

The Whiskey Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion
William Hogeland

Shays’ Rebellion was dismissed with a whiff of grapeshot, without a musket being fired by either side. The Whiskey Rebellion, less than ten years later, was over practically before it started, with no resistance offered to the arrival of federal forces in western Pennsylvania. Some twenty men were brought to trial for treason, leading to only two convictions, one of them being of a man mentally handicapped in some way. Both were pardoned.

It was then a minor, anticlimactic incident. William Hogeland’s account of it is, nevertheless, worth attending to for both its readability and for the picture it draws of Alexander Hamilton. In recent years – meaning in the wake of Ron Chernow’s award-winning biography and the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical it inspired – Hamilton has been presented in glowingly heroic terms. Here, however, he is the villain of the piece, which makes a nice corrective.

The Tyranny of Merit

THE TYRANNY OF MERIT: WHAT’S BECOME OF THE COMMON GOOD?
By Michael Sandel

In my review of Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites I talked about how hard it is to define just what is meant by a meritocracy. In particular I asked what “merit” consisted of aside from getting ahead or making money. This is a point that I think Michael Sandel also has some problems with, though it’s not one he wants to take on directly. Still, it’s there in his opening chapter. One paragraph suffices to cover the twilight of America’s elites:

Over the past four decades, meritocratic elites have not governed very well. The elites who governed the United States from 1940 to 1980 were far more successful. They won World War II, helped rebuild Europe and Japan, strengthened the welfare state, dismantled segregation, and presided over four decades of economic growth that flowed to rich and poor alike. By contrast, the elites who have governed since have brought us four decades of stagnant wages for most workers, inequalities of income and wealth not seen since the 1920s, the Iraq War, a nineteen-year, inconclusive war in Afghanistan, financial deregulation, the financial crisis of 2008, a decaying infrastructure, the highest incarceration rate in the world, and a system of campaign finance and gerrymandered congressional districts that makes a mockery of democracy.

Haven’t governed well? They haven’t done anything well except the one thing they are good at: getting ahead and making money. This is, precisely and I think by definition, what makes them a meritocratic elite.

Put another way, the problem with meritocracy is that it’s a myth, a justification for power and privilege that, outside of a handful of endeavours like some professional sports, has no basis in talent, intelligence, hard work, or the social utility of what one does. Merit does not equal value on any level, however much its ideology insists.

In short, life is a lottery and the meritocratic elite are only the fortunate few. Sandel freely admits as much, drawing authority from as far back as the Book of Job, where the voice from the whirlwind sternly informs us that there is no point to the random blights and blessings that make up our lives, no moral logic or cosmic justice standing behind them. The biggest contributing factor to one’s social status, after all, is the class one is born into. But even in the broader economy it’s basically a crapshoot. The stock market? A casino. Bestsellerdom? A blockbuster movie? Internet stardom? Random lightning strikes. As the screenwriter William Goldman famously put it, when it comes to that kind of success nobody knows anything. Sticking to his own bailiwick, when discussing the increasingly painful process of admissions to prestigious universities, perhaps the key stage in the process of “meritocratic sorting,” Sandel, who teaches at Harvard, proposes that administrators simply “toss the folders of the qualified applicants down the stairs, pick up 2,000 of them [out of 20,000 – 25,000], and leave it at that.”

The only cure for the “meritocratic hubris” that Sandel sees as being baked into the mix of our current social hierarchy – that is, the tendency of winners “to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way” – is a humility informed by our sense of “the contingency of our lot.” We might reduce this to the form of a prayer: “There, but for the grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the mystery of fate, go I.”

To recap: It is hard to say what “merit,” when referring to a meritocracy, consists of, but it’s likely to mean nothing useful. Hedge fund operators (who, on average, can’t even outperform the market) and cryptocurrency speculators make thousands of times more than agricultural and personal support workers, who are often little more than slave labour. It’s a readily observable fact that many who have risen to the top through effort and education are in fact no good at what they do, in whatever field, from business to politics to the arts. “Smart America,” as George Packer characterizes it in his more recent book on class sorting, Last Best Hope, is not as smart, or talented, or industrious as the rest of America at all.

Nevertheless, it’s human nature to see any social prominence as earned or deserved, so the language of “merit” automatically gets employed as a way of whitewashing this status. It’s no accident that Packer places himself in “Smart America,” or that David Brooks, writing in The Atlantic, sees himself as a member of a class of people who are wealthier, smarter, more talented, more creative, more open and diverse, and just plain better than the non-elite. They are “our class,” “we” and “us.” People who read The Atlantic. And Brooks wants you to know how much it pains them to have to admit their superiority. But . . . life isn’t fair.

Indeed, to his credit Brooks thinks the current system is insane:

The modern meritocracy is a resentment-generating machine. But even leaving that aside, as a sorting device, it is batshit crazy. The ability to perform academic tasks during adolescence is nice to have, but organizing your society around it is absurd. That ability is not as important as the ability to work in teams; to sacrifice for the common good; to be honest, kind, and trustworthy; to be creative and self-motivated. A sensible society would reward such traits by conferring status on them. A sensible society would not celebrate the skills of a corporate consultant while slighting the skills of a home nurse.

Where I’d differ from Brooks is on the more fundamental point of what the meritocracy consists of. For Brooks meritocracy is a real thing, however invidious and “batshit crazy” it may be as a way of ordering society. I don’t think it’s a real thing, or at least much of one, but rather a myth. It is also worse than useless as a way forward. Hillary Clinton, on the campaign trail in 2016, enthusiastically spoke of how “I want this [America] to be a true meritocracy. I’m tired of inequality.” This may have been sincere, but as rhetoric it didn’t fool enough people. “The meritocratic ideal,” Sandel writes, “is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality.” That is its purpose.

There are two recent developments that are driving a lot of the interest in the meritocracy now, and its “toxic mix of hubris and resentment.” In the first place, while life has always been a lottery it’s becoming even more of a lottery than ever. Second: the prizes for winning that lottery have become ever greater, while runner-up status has come to mean being consigned to oblivion. When Sandel enters into his peroration and offers a prospective vision of “a broad equality of condition that enables those who do not achieve great wealth or prestigious positions to live lives of decency and dignity – developing and exercising their abilities in work that wins social esteem, sharing in a widely diffused culture of learning, and deliberating with their fellow citizens about public affairs,” he’s actually looking back to the golden age of the American middle class that entered into palliative care in the 1980s.

So what became of the common good? I don’t think there’s any spoiler alert necessary for the loss of community and the advent of a winner-take-all economy leading to growing levels of inequality, which then needed to find an ideological justification. During the only comparable levels of socio-economic inequality in America (the so-called Gilded Age) the gospel of social Darwinism had its first burst of popularity, and I don’t think today’s prophets of meritocracy are saying much that’s very different from what was said then. The meritocracy is essentially a natural order, the society it creates inevitable. Merit will out no matter what obstacles are placed in its path.

Sandel and Brooks are right in seeing in the myth of meritocracy a mighty engine for the generation of mass resentment. Meritocratic hubris leads to smug self-congratulation among the fortunate and anger among the left behind. “There is reason to think,” Sandel opines, “that popular antipathy toward meritocratic elites played a part in Trump’s election, and in the surprising vote in Britain, earlier that year, to leave the European Union.” People were confused at Trump’s railing against elites when he was himself, at least by his own reporting, a billionaire. But Trump, unlike Hillary Clinton, didn’t talk about merit. He talked about winners and losers. And what Trump’s supporters recognized was that Trump was actually a giant loser: a serial bankrupt, serial divorced male, clinically obese, deeply ashamed of being bald, and acting out his various insecurities in giant rages on the most public of stages. His favourite word with which to tag anyone he hated was “loser.” This, like everything else about him, was pure projection. That loser rage, however, struck a mass chord. His anger – and he was anger incarnate – was a kind of therapy. His fear of being laughed at and humiliated was something everyone suffering from a loss of social esteem could relate to.

From politics to pop culture the language of meritocracy is part of the fabric of our lives now, however spurious. The “regime of merit,” Sandel writes, “exerts its tyranny in two directions at once. Among those who land on top, it induces anxiety, a debilitating perfectionism, and a meritocratic hubris that struggles to conceal a fragile self-esteem. Among those it leaves behind, it imposes a demoralizing, even humiliating sense of failure.” I’m not so sure I agree with the psychological cost of hubris here (I think it more often leads to moral blindness and a pathological arrogance), but in any event we are all living under the tyranny of this bullshit now. And can we expect things to change?

Notes:
Review first published online October 25, 2021.

An Impalpable Certain Rest

AN IMPALPABLE CERTAIN REST
By Jeff Bursey

A few years ago I started noticing a trend in literary fiction toward the new, or newly labeled, genre of the Weird. The origins of the Weird lay in a fusion of genre elements: primarily science fiction, horror, and fantasy. There was something subversive in this, as genre is essentially conventional and the Weird uses many of those same conventions to unmoor readers, leaving them to wonder what was going on.

I think the stories in Jeff Bursey’s an impalpable certain rest are located in the same Weird neighbourhood, though approached from a different direction. It is a landscape both generic and uncanny. Where are we? Someplace familiar but unspecific. “Where I work doesn’t matter,” the narrator of the first story tells us, and tells us no more. In the most fantasy-oriented story the survivor of a shipwreck finds himself on a magical island in some unnamed sea or ocean. In “A Livid Loneliness” a woman comes to another island, apparently a tourist spot, that’s only described as “this idyllic land where she had longed to live for so many years, this bright speck of color on a map of a drab, increasingly bleak and hostile world.” The Caribbean, maybe? We just know that it’s “the country of her fantasies.” “The Frequency of Alarm” is set in a country at war, or one that was at war until recently. But where? Eastern Europe? The people speak with accents, sometimes, but it’s anyone’s guess where they hail from.

This sense of a vague location is very much a part of the Weird, but Bursey comes at it not from a genre background but from the field of experimental fiction and the traditions of an earlier avant-garde. An entire previous novel, Verbatim, takes the form of a Hansard record. Another, Unidentified man at left of photo, uses frequent authorial interruptions to draw attention to its artificiality in a way that’s thrown down before the reader as a challenge. The characters aren’t real, the plot is just whatever convention or expediency dictates, and even the words on the page are just that: words on a page. A phone rings not for any reason other than the fact that the author “desperately needed to get out of that paragraph.” He needed a break. And so a character picks up the phone, or “the object described on paper as answering to the letters t, l, p, h, o, n and three es.”

an impalpable certain rest isn’t a book as self-conscious as this (the lower-case title is one of the only flourishes in this regard) but I wanted to mention the experimental background because I think it shares in the same sense of weirdness, if not Weirdness, I started off by talking about. It employs alienation techniques instead of aliens, but I think some of the effects are the same.

What grounds it in Bursey’s case – here and in the other books I mentioned – is his use of voice. Bursey is a writer of the spoken word: speech, dialogue, and what literary types call free indirect discourse. When you read you have to imagine someone talking. This is an essential quality, even in the stories that aren’t driven almost entirely by dialogue (as several here are). It’s a matter of style that comes across clearly in the first story. Listen:

If we had a boss who came in regularly I suppose things would change, but even a new boss couldn’t alter the fact that fewer people are buying what we’re selling like they once did.

That colloquial redundancy at the end nicely captures the rhythm of an interior voice. It’s not something that’s easy to represent in prose and few writers do it well. Here’s another good example:

What I think every day is at least for now I have a job, though the idea of not having one doesn’t worry me, because I have one, I know, but really, it doesn’t make me sleep any worse than I do when I think about losing it some time.

You don’t want to teach someone to write like that, but when it’s done well it has the effect of making you nod your head and shake it at the same time.

This use of language is both familiar and strange. It can work well in a naturalistic vein in stories like “Certitude” and “A Torch Did Touch His Heart, Briefly” that feature first-person narrators who expertly (or unconsciously) walk a line between despair and self-awareness. Or perhaps we might say they pitch into the former without ever quite achieving the latter. But in other, less conventional stories, voice is more disruptive, giving the sense of the Modernist project of dialogue-as-form, with the story itself dissolving into a medley or even cacophony. “What in Me is Dark, Illumine” has a Prufrockian quality to its gallery of voices coming and going, while “The Frequency of Alarm” almost reads like a play in its latter half. Both stories are grounded not so much in place (which remains obscure) as in voice, and voice used in such a collage-like way that it creates its own imaginative space that feels disembodied and alien. These stories are also the most difficult: requiring a rerun just to sort out of what is being said and what is happening. Always keeping in mind that “what happens” is something that’s often up for grabs in experimental or Weird fiction. It doesn’t want you to get too comfortable.

The tone of the collection is downbeat if not bleak, but there’s a great variety to it and it’s Bursey’s strongest work yet. The short story form suits his kind of experimentation, giving the results a more purposive and intense quality. I think this is also in part due to that inheritance I mentioned from a previous century’s avant-garde, here adapted to contemporary manners and mores. The cutting edge of culture is now somewhere behind us, but it can still light the way today when so much else, from our literature to our politics, is sliding into reverse.

Notes:
Review first published online July 19, 2021.

The 1619 Project: A Critique

The 1619 Project: A Critique
Phillip W. Magness

I like the idea behind the 1619 Project. Here was a new perspective on American history focusing on the Black American experience and published by the New York Times as a way of bringing history into a more public forum. I had thought, however, that a big part of its purpose was to foster, or even provoke, further discussion and debate. When that debate arrived, however, it quickly degenerated into Twitter salvos and a withdrawal into bunkers. Whether this was inevitable, or even intentional given the political slant the Project promoted, one can’t help but feel that a great opportunity was missed.

Phillip Magness’s little book only looks at a few disputed issues out of the many available: the primacy given to the idea that the Revolution was fought to preserve slavery in the colonies, the link between capitalism and slavery, and Lincoln’s plans for colonizing freed slaves. Some good points are made, several times over. I hope there will be more to come on the Project, but given the present climate I don’t know if that’s even possible. What a depressing thought that is.

The Hollow Crown

The Hollow Crown
Dan Jones

The one thing most people who know anything about the Wars of the Roses know about them is that they had nothing to do with roses. Aside from that, it’s all a terrible mess: a bewildering series of conflicts stretching over thirty years that has often been likened to Game of Thrones in that even the warring sides of York and Lancaster were hard to distinguish, what with all the switching of allegiances and different families involved (families whose members didn’t always play on the same team).

As far as wars go it surely ranks as one of the most pointless in European history. The Battle of Towton is usually credited as having been the worst military bloodletting on English soil, but it only led to the Yorkists temporarily having the upper hand and settled nothing. Dan Jones makes the story as easy to follow as he can in this popular narrative history without trying to push a provocative new thesis or even offering much of an explanation as to why any of it matters. Though it still makes for a great story.

My Friend Dahmer

MY FRIEND DAHMER
By Derf Backderf

Being a large, affluent, suburban nation (at least for most of the second half of the twentieth century), the U.S. is in love with its roads. Going “on the road” is the preferred way to discover the country, and oneself, while roads not taken are seen as life choices of metaphysical impact. Getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage for many, though one may wonder if this is changing for today’s young Americans.

“All we did was drive. There was nothing else to do,” John “Derf” Backderf writes of his final year of high school. The road is a dominant motif in his brutally honest true-crime memoir My Friend Dahmer. It (the road) is literally totemic, standing upright in several crucial full-page illustrations, never reading from left to right but composed like a monolith with no obvious side roads or turn-offs. There are no roads less traveled by but only a single, solid metaphor for fate that grows darker as the book progresses.

And at the end of the road? Well, we all know how Dahmer’s story ends. There’s no direction to his upright road. It stands squat like a tombstone, which is an effect reinforced by the repeating crosses of power lines. The perspective is flattened so that there’s no vanishing point in the distance so much as just a hill we have to climb, with only darkness at the top.

Such an image lends itself to a feeling of inevitability, which in turn addresses one of the main concerns of all such serial-killer studies. Did Jeffrey Dahmer have to end up the way he did? Was his road his fate? And what was it that made him the monster he became?

That Backderf has no final answers shouldn’t be surprising. This isn’t meant to be an in-depth psychological analysis. Backderf observed Dahmer while they were in high school together in the 1970s, but they don’t seem to have been terribly close friends. And finally he seems just as mystified as anyone at what went into the making of the murderer. At one point he calls out Dahmer’s parents and his teachers for their obliviousness or indifference – “Where were the damn adults?” – but while Dahmer had an unhappy childhood growing up in a dysfunctional family so did lots of kids, and many of them in far worse situations. Furthermore, Dahmer didn’t stand out all that much at school. “If just one adult had stepped up and said ‘Whoa this kid needs help . . . ’ ” Yes, but the fact is that every high school has problem kids like this who are simply passed along. In an epilogue Backderf even confesses that Dahmer wasn’t the most likely candidate at Revere High to become a serial killer. What made Dahmer truly exceptional remained hidden, and probably would have been hidden from his closest friends, if he had any.

Backderf’s art shows the influence of Robert Crumb, effectively using twitching bodies and sweaty faces to evoke anxiety and emotional fragility. But where My Friend Dahmer really stands out is in its depiction of the everyday misery of high school: the in-groups and out-groups, the mockery even performed by the weak on the weaker, the bullying, the failure of authority. Backderf himself doesn’t come out of the story as any kind of hero, and indeed may have contributed to Dahmer’s alienation, but nobody who experienced high school at the time can blame him. Not that I think things are any better now.

“Pity him, but don’t empathize with him,” is how Backderf sums up how we should feel about Dahmer. But in this haunting account I didn’t find much even to pity. Dahmer was a lonely, repressed mess, to be sure, but he was also sadistic and cruel, and it’s not clear that much could have been done for him aside from lifelong medication: “A sad, lonely life that Dahmer would have gladly accepted over the hellish future that awaited him.” He didn’t get that help though, and in any event, by high school I think it was already too late to fix what was wrong.

Notes:
Review first published online June 12, 2021.