The Unfolding by AM Homes review – jittery tale of Republican conspiracy
By Xan Brooks
One voter’s dream is another’s nightmare, especially in the fevered, tribal world of 21st-century US politics, where the House is divided and the red states and blue states pull in opposing directions. As AM Homes’s seventh novel opens, it’s 4 November 2008, and Barack Hussein Obama has just been confirmed as the nation’s 44th president. Inside the Biltmore hotel in Phoenix, Arizona, the Republican high command is in a state of full-body recoil. Its members are doubled over and sobbing, vomiting on the carpet and blaming the crab bisque. These people need comfort, reassurance, some faint hope for the future. They need to believe that America can be made great again.
The Unfolding is a jittery tale of crisis and opportunity, tracing that liminal period between Obama’s election and inauguration which doubled as the GOP’s long dark night of the soul. Homes’s tone is similarly discombobulated, veering between barbed satire and nuanced domestic drama like a train clattering over the points as it homes in on DC. Her protagonists have lost their bearings and mislaid their schedule. It is their outrage and confusion that provides the book with its fuel.
The reader is taken inside the Beltway or strolling the links at Palm Springs, occasionally circling the Oval Office itself. The gilded setting allows for shout-outs to Bill Barr and Mitch McConnell, plus a walk-on cameo for George W Bush, merrily contemplating a retirement with his oil paints. For all this, though, Homes’s political saga is not so much Primary Colors as a study in grey. Its focus is on the backroom boys: the donors and lobbyists who shuttle from one fundraiser to the next. Chief among these is Hitchens, whom Homes refers to as “the Big Guy”. He has one of those mysterious, lucrative non-careers that seems to involve sitting on the board of a helium company and owning a vast amount of Disney stock. The Big Guy is a GOP fixer and an American patriot, a sentimental reactionary who wells up whenever the national anthem is played and is appalled by the prospect of a Black man in the White House.
Election day was a shock. But it might also be a wake-up call. It’s obvious to the Big Guy that the American Dream, or at least his version of it, is in peril. Factories are closing, manufacturing has largely moved overseas and migrants are massing along the southern border. His plan is to grasp the nettle and take charge. So he assembles a crack team of like-minded avengers, a mix of fat cats, fringe historians and spooky military types. Huddled together, the conspirators discuss the importance of getting the far-right extremists on side, and debate the distinction between misinformation and disinformation. The Big Guy’s intention is to draft a road map to the future. Or as his buddy Bo puts it: “America is in the crapper and we need to do something about it.”
Homes whisks through the intrigue with a cool eye and a keen ear, animating Hitchens’s clandestine meetings with whip-smart, affectless dialogue that reads like an episode of The West Wing co-scripted by Don DeLillo. But Hitchens’s political reckoning is impacted and complicated by a series of crises at home that shunt the tale on to its parallel track. His beloved wife, Charlotte, is at the Betty Ford clinic and says that she wants to end their marriage. His teenage daughter, Meghan, meanwhile, is suffering through a crash course in revisionist history – rocked by the revelation that Thomas Jefferson had kids with his slaves and startled by the skeletons in her own family closet. “My entire identity is a false narrative,” Meghan complains. As inauguration day looms, the girl has started to question pretty much everything.
How startling to realise that The Unfolding is Homes’s first novel since 2012’s prize-winning May We Be Forgiven – not least because the two books feel so closely aligned. Each has an interest in the inner recesses of Republican party politics. Each is fascinated by the relationship between our private and public selves. Viewed through the first window, the Big Guy looks borderline sympathetic. He loves Charlotte and Meghan and appears to want the best for them. But Hitchens also loves America and means to save it from itself. He envisages “a slow roll to the right”, perhaps culminating in “a coup of sorts”.
The Unfolding, one assumes, was conceived and written over a 10-year period, running across a changing terrain, straining to keep pace with events. Homes’s rueful prehistory of the Maga movement ultimately risks feeling like a book caught between two eras: a state-of-the-nation novel from the recent past. It gives us the shy white dinosaurs in their smoke-filled rooms, the quiet background hum of the old Washington machine. But America, God save us, has turned altogether wilder since Obama’s first term. Radical solutions have moved beyond the draft stage and low- profile conspirators have largely broken cover. They are hosting press conferences at Four Seasons Total Landscaping. They are attending Stop the Steal rallies in Freedom Plaza. They make Homes’s 2008 founding fathers look quaint and modest by comparison.
The Unfolding by AM Homes is published by Granta (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.