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    A Time To Turn painting

    Book Tour: The Future’s Back

    Time Loops in Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland, Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman, and Erica Hunt’s Jump the Clock

    Phil Christman

    September 25, 2020
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    • THOMAS CROTTY

      I enjoy Mr. Christman's reviews enormously. I'm not sure I'm up for Mr. Perlstein's 1100 page book, but the review tempts me. I was in my 20's through the Carter-Reagan era, and I recall my own reactions to its politics only vaguely, through the fog of my 20 something confusions. What I remember most vividly about the politics of the time were the reactions of my dear father, a New Deal Democrat to his Irish Catholic bones. He dismissed Carter as not capable, or perhaps as Mr. Perlstein would agree, not interested in the New Deal or any dealing whatsoever. Dad didn't trust that in a politician, any more than he trusted Reagan whom he spotted as a phony a mile away, an actor by temperament and profession. But he didn't dismiss Reagan as I remember him dismissing and disparaging Carter. I think he knew there was something bigger going on, which brings me to today, and another phony, another larger dynamic afoot. Maybe I need to give Mr. Perlstein's book a shot! Thanks to both the review and the reviewed.

    • Rick Perlstein

      This might just be the best essay I've read about my book.

    Book Tour is a bimonthly review by Phil Christman of new titles, each exploring a theme to trace hidden connections among books and writers.


    I am hardly the first person to report that the pandemic has altered my sense of time. The months thicken and the days thin out; July seems longer ago than March. History stagflates. Narrative breaks down.

    Reading Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland – the over-1100-page final volume in a tetralogy narrating American conservatism’s ascendancy from the Goldwater insurgency to the Reagan triumph – has certainly helped me pass the time. It has not, however, made time itself seem any less spooky in its operations. As I began Perlstein’s book, reading about the United States of 1976, I felt as though I were reading not history but alternate history – a United States that it hardly seems possible for this United States to have emerged from. It’s a place where politicians fear the power of organized labor so much that Congress seriously weighs a policy of full employment. Passage of the Equal Rights Amendment seems almost certain. Evangelical Christians are about to make a Democrat president, and that Democrat will soon appoint, as our ambassador to the United Nations, a black man who says true, and therefore harsh, things about colonialism.

    Perlstein’s object, in all four books, has been to remind readers how close the United States once came to being an outright social democracy, and how that future was averted. (He has never pretended to be an objective historian, and he shouldn’t. We can learn from reading Karl Marx on the nineteenth century, and from reading Thomas Carlyle; we learn nothing from a dry recitation.) But for a person who was two years old when Ronald Reagan won his first presidential election, it is hard to imagine that such a future was ever in the offing.

    Then, as I read on, an even stranger thing happened. The more Perlstein filled in the details of America before its great right turn, the more that place began to look like . . . America after its great right turn. In this book, we also read of police violence, government by lobbyists, the mainstreaming of dumb conspiracy theories by Republican politicians, crops rotting in fields, commodities hoarded in advance of actual shortages – though in this book it’s gas instead of toilet paper. We meet wrongfooted experts, twitchy suburbanites, and mass shooters; we watch a society deny continuously that its entire energy regime is doomed; we wander past empty store shelves (truckers were on strike). The national mood is eventually lifted by a superhero movie. Reading about the 1979 assault on a lesbian bar called Peg’s Place, where dazed victims yelled out for police, only to hear, from their assailants, “We are the police!,” I thought, of course, about Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Weeks later, reading – not in Perlstein but in the news – about the teenage terrorist who exchanged a friendly greeting with the local cops, then opened fire on protestors in Kenosha, I thought about Peg’s Place.

    Perlstein’s book teems with detail, but Presidents Carter and Reagan inevitably take center stage. Over the course of the book, they come to seem, like the United States of 1976 and the United States of 2020, both militant opponents to and weird reflections of each other. Jimmy Carter at times attacks big government with Reganesque vigor, and during the coal miners’ strike of 1977, he considers doing to them pretty much what Reagan did to the striking air traffic controllers of 1981. Both men manage their images with an aplomb that a healthy person would consider terrifying.

    The famous “malaise” speech, conceived by a Carter handler named Pat Caddell – a television man through and through, who, not accidentally, supported the TV star Donald Trump in 2016 – seems like nothing so much as a media spectacle that happened not to work. Carter spent months ostentatiously consulting Americans from all walks of life, asking them all what had gone wrong: it’s just like all of those early-seventies pop culture products in which a simple man dons a jean jacket and walks off in search of America. Unfortunately for Carter, the moral vision at the heart of his speech – in which, with example after example, at magnificent length, he blamed our problems on our personal sins – was way too small-c conservative to survive any contrast with Reagan’s California optimism, his deep belief that America could only get wealthier. (Perlstein makes the point that every historian of the Carter era is required to make, that initially, Americans liked the malaise speech fine, to judge by approval ratings.) Here, at least, the two men differ profoundly. Carter was a sober engineer and observant Baptist who found the idea of shared sacrifice aesthetically and morally appealing. It’s why he kept coming up with policy packages that offended his base while displeasing his opponents. The smaller its constituency, the greater its purity as policy.

    The similarity that most fascinates me, though, is psychological. At one point, Perlstein writes: “Preserving his sense of himself as a person of pure motivation was Ronald Reagan’s strongest psychological drive.” This seems right to me, for Perlstein shows Reagan repeatedly, floridly lying on matters of simple fact, and reacting, every time he’s called out for it, with an outrage and woundedness that really don’t seem studied. It’s as though he mentally adjusts the facts so as to be able to believe in whatever happened to have just dropped out of his mouth. (In other words, he’s a good actor.) This trait is most memorably exemplified, to my mind, in Perlstein’s description of a forgotten 1977 debate between Reagan and William F. Buckley about the return of the Panama Canal to its host country, an issue on which Buckley had for once – we all need a little variety in life – sided with David rather than Goliath.

    Regarding Carter, Perlstein at one point quotes from James Fallows’s classic essay “The Passionless Presidency,” to the effect that Carter’s real project while in office was not energy reform, or the Peace Accords, or throwing out old jars of malaise, but simply proving the sincerity of his intentions. As the reader surveys Carter’s record, his failures, his occasional self-serving lies, above all his fear of dirtying his hands by being an effective politician, it’s hard not to agree.

    Though I sometimes use them, from sarcasm or laziness, I’m deeply skeptical of phrases like “the American self,” “the American psyche,” “the national identity,” and the like. Billions of American adjectives – most of which disagree with each other – do not add up to a singular American subject. If I were going to reduce America to such an allegorical stand-in in a morality play, though, I think Perlstein’s description of Reagan, and Fallows’s of Carter, might stand as a statement of that character’s deepest motivation. America-the-nation, if not America-the-aggreggate-of-over-three-hundred-million-individuals, is a person who strongly believes in his own good intentions. He will rearrange reality and history in order to restore his belief that he acts on principle, unselfishly, heroically, in every case. He will beat Vietnam and Iraq to a pulp and then ask why they aren’t grateful. He will, most of the time, proclaim that he doesn’t understand Why the Blacks Are So Worked Up. When, as recently, he is forced to remember, it gives him a vertigo so profound that he cannot long live with it; he must purge it through demonstrations of masochism. He reads books about white fragility; he reckons with his own privilege; he lists his sins; he castigates his poor racial attitudes. (“Racism,” said Barbara Fields, “is neither attitude nor bigotry nor prejudice. It is an act.”) He hopes to be a better ally in future. He hopes most of all, by this purgative sincerity, to prove to himself again that he is still, somewhere deep down, good, since if he were not good at least in intention, he would never subject himself to these self-punishing displays.

    When you understand in this way, you can do a lot of damage and think you’re doing favors. (Zora Neale Hurston: “They’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Or Bob Dylan: “They’ll stone you and then they’ll say good luck.”) If you were a congressman, you might even write a bill, say, in which you steal the last remaining scraps of land belonging to Native Americans, and call it emancipation, and congratulate yourself on your public-spiritedness. It is this sort of do-gooder that Thomas Wazhashk, the titular night watchman of Louise Erdrich’s superb new novel, must out-strategize. Thomas is a Turtle Mountain Indian working third shift in early-1950s North Dakota – the man is not exactly swimming in resources, or free to devote all his time to the salvation of his community. (His carefully worded, painstakingly respectful letters to Congress are written as he fights off sleep.) He does what he can. He does a lot. Thomas is that rare thing, a convincing but virtuous literary character. Erdrich has said that he’s based on her grandfather.

    A Time To Turn painting

    Rochelle Blumenfeld, A Time To Turn Public domain

    Thomas is not the only hero in this big-hearted novel. His niece Patrice, whom everybody except Patrice calls Pixie, fights dispossession in another way, sneaking off to the Twin Cities to find out what became of her sister Vera. Her adventures are both absolutely horrifying and comic, a hard combo to pull off, though Erdrich’s understated style makes it look easy. The Night Watchman offers only the pleasures of the so-called “conventional” novel: characters you forget aren’t real, described in sentences that, however lovely and complex they may be, don’t show off. It is odd that so many writers and critics call these pleasures “conventional” when almost nobody – in any language, in any generation, a handful of writers, and Louise Erdrich is one – can offer them; it’s a trick I’ll certainly never get used to. Unfortunately, the repetitive quality of American history has added to this novel’s many virtues a kind of prophetic power it doesn’t need. Even now, we hear of attempts to disband this or that tribe, to grab this or that piece of prime real estate. That’s something else we shouldn’t get used to.

    Erica Hunt has been publishing poems since the 1980s. Jump the Clock gathers nearly two hundred pages’ worth of them. I generally feel like a poet has some level of talent if, in a chapbook, I find a couple of lines I want to quote; Hunt’s book had me nodding or laughing or wincing in appreciation at least every other page. I emerged from it with the sense that she is, whatever this term might mean, a major poet. Like others associated with the group we call “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” (or just “language”) poets, she shifts between voices and speakers, and often uses patches of found language, or leaves us to guess who (if anyone) is talking. Sometimes she speaks in an official or powerful voice. We might call the latter “The Voice of No,” as she does, in one poem:

    looking for that darn
    fraction of a percent of the landscape
    you say it is possible to live in,
    who will miss
    it when we divide up
    the sun, devour the
    young rather than
    give up our good seats.

    “The Voice of No” was published in 1996, and the last three lines, in particular, sound like every twentysomething I know, describing their grandparents’ generation. Hunt certainly saw this future coming. But why “darn,” I wonder? It calls to mind the homely repair of old clothes, the make-do life of Erdrich’s Native Americans, of poor people everywhere, improvising and maintaining in their fractional places. Our darned landscapes.

    A much more recent poem, “The back of the future,” meditates on the widespread post-2016 feeling that the end of the end of history has arrived:

    The future is back
    so where do I begin

    The future is back and it is
    ungovernable

    It’s back and it sucks
    Just as I’ve been told …

    It’s all in the hands
    The future’s back
    And it’s been frozen in place
    a germ, waiting to thaw

    The future’s back and X marks the spot
    where it was last seen
    picking cotton, cutting cane

    The future is back and can’t remember what it came into the room for
    The future’s back having locked the keys in the car
    The future’s back no gimmick, I promise.

    You’re the prize
    YOU
    The future’s back and swim is what we do next
    The future’s back
    a dance craze

    As much as the last few years seem to repeat the same horrors with greater intensity, they have also shown repeatedly that history is not on some endless pathway toward a single universal market. They have been years of rupture – and rupture is horrible in its own way. The future’s back and it sucks. With its gallows humor – “The future’s back and swim is what we do next” – the poem makes the return of history seem nearly as despair-filled as the feeling of living after it. “The future’s back and can’t remember what it came into the room for” – it’s gone senile, like the climate. But the punning in the title and refrain – “the future’s back” meaning both “it has returned” and “the back of the future,” as though time had a body, with something beyond it – contains at least the whisper of a suggestion that this rupture, too, this end of endings, is not the end. Time, too, is one of God’s creatures.

    Contributed By portrait of Phil Christman Phil Christman

    Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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