In A.M. Homes’s New Novel, the Political is Personal
By Jennifer Haigh
We are living in fractious times. Two decades into the new century, our nation is bitterly divided and our political institutions have never seemed more fragile. The genesis of these fissures in the American body politic is the central concern of “The Unfolding,” a sharply observed, wickedly funny political satire by the reliably brilliant A.M. Homes.
The novel opens on election night, 2008. Candidate John McCain has just conceded to Barack Obama, and not everyone is celebrating. In a Phoenix hotel bar, our protagonist — a 60-something business tycoon referred to only as the Big Guy — is drowning his sorrows and contemplating next steps. “Something big,” he tells a stranger he meets in the bar. “A forced correction.” He scribbles notes on a napkin: “A patriot’s plan to preserve and protect.”
The Big Guy is an old-school Republican — in his own words, “the last of an era.” His conservatism is sentimental, backward-looking, patriotic to its core. Fantastically rich, he bounces between Palm Springs and his ranch in Wyoming, an affable fellow who adores his teenage daughter and is largely faithful to Charlotte, his clever, acerbic and extravagantly alcoholic wife. For the Big Guy, McCain’s defeat sparks an existential crisis. “I can’t live like this,” he tells Charlotte. “I can’t spend the next 30 years watching it all come undone.” The “it” in question is an idealized version of the American past. Though the phrase is never uttered, it’s clear that the Big Guy hopes to Make American Great Again.
Homes is a gifted satirist, a keen observer of bourgeois manners and mores. Here, she nails the psychic particularities of the politically conservative American male: the glorification of American military conquests, the quasi-religious reverence for the Founding Fathers. (“How much do you love George Washington?” the Big Guy’s daughter teases him.) Hoping to school her in his ideals, “he doesn’t talk about himself or his childhood. He talks about historical figures, battles, wars, treaties and the three branches of government.”
In one of the novel’s most indelible scenes, the Big Guy indulges in his favorite pastime — staging miniature battle re-enactments on his basement pool table, with toy soldiers and orange Jell-O powder standing in for Agent Orange. “This is his idea of a good time, re-enactments, skirmishes,” Homes writes. “His men are the highest quality, tin, lead, mixed metal.”
As he plays, the Big Guy ruminates on military strategy and ethics: “Today he is using rainbow herbicides, orange and strawberry mixed together, to defoliate the trees. People were allergic to it. Vietnamese babies were born deformed. Soldiers claimed it gave them everything from acne to diabetes to heart disease. Maybe the stuff wasn’t perfect or wasn’t handled properly, but people have to quit complaining; they can’t be expecting everyone to take care of them. This is war.”
While the Big Guy plays with his Army men and ponders the future of the nation, his family is quietly coming apart. His daughter goes AWOL from boarding school and begins to question his conservative values. After finding Charlotte drunk and nearly drowned in the family pool, he packs her off to the Betty Ford Center. (Gerry and Betty were family friends.) Thus unencumbered, he is free to devote all his energies to saving America from ruin.
He assembles a quorum of consiglieri reminiscent of the Eisenhower Ten, the group of civilians secretly tapped by the president to run the government in case of national emergency. Ike’s picks were titans of corporate America, captains of industry. The Big Guy chooses billionaires, a rogue general, a speechwriter and a tax attorney. The group’s first meeting is “like a eulogy for an America that perhaps never was. The air is awash with the unsmoked scent of cigars chewed on, gone wet — damp with the drool of men still dreaming.”
To fans of the overheated telenovela that is American politics, “The Unfolding” is studded with Easter eggs, miniature romans à clef: a defeated John McCain thanking his supporters on election night, Condoleeza Rice eating Thanksgiving dinner, George W. Bush cleaning out his desk in the Oval and gifting the Big Guy’s daughter several boxes of commemorative White House M&M’s.
Fittingly, the novel ends on Inauguration Day. At a restaurant in Great Falls, Virginia, the Big Guy’s cronies plot ways to foment revolution, swapping dire predictions of the chaos to come. “A slow-moving wave, a coup of sorts that will sweep across the country largely unnoticed until the American people have been decimated economically, intellectually and spiritually,” says one of his co-conspirators. (Which one is hard to discern and doesn’t really matter; like characters in a David Mamet play, they all speak in the same voice.) “People will be ordered to stay home, not to congregate. It will be difficult to reach consensus about anything; no one will know what is fact and what is fiction. Between the plague and the toxic waste and the decentralization of the government, America will be a dead zone.”
The Big Guy finds these predictions appalling. “We’re not here to self-destruct,” he protests. “We are here to protect and preserve.”
“Sometimes you have to rebreak a bone to set it right,” his henchman counters. “We are breaking the back of America to set it straight.”
In “The Unfolding," Homes puts her finger on the fault line, giving voice to the nebulous fears and fantasies of the old Republican plutocracy. At the root of it all, the novel suggests, is race. With characteristic aplomb, the Big Guy sums up his current existential crisis: “My wife is a drunk, my kid is running off into the woods and the people elected an African as president.”
His racism is presented as fact but never explored — a missed opportunity and ultimately, the novel’s greatest failing. From the outset, Homes walks a fine line between realism and caricature. By choosing not to examine her protagonist’s racism, she denies us full access to his psyche. This lack of particularity has a flattening effect: the Big Guy is racist not because of his own specific background and experience and psychological idiosyncrasies, but because he’s the kind of person who would be racist. Instead of a deeply imagined, fully human character, rife with complexities and contradictions, The Big Guy is reduced to a type.
Novel-writing is a slow business. Producing a good one — or even a bad one — takes such an ungodly long time that any relevance to the current moment is largely a matter of luck. And indeed, “The Unfolding” — Homes’s first novel in 10 years — reads like a story conceived in another era. After all the nation has lived through in the Trump years, the 2008 election seems very far away.
The publisher’s marketing copy attempts to address this, calling the book “prescient.” It’s a puzzling claim — “The Unfolding” was written long after its characters’ predictions had already come to pass — that ultimately does the book a disservice. Homes isn’t trying to predict the future. Her intentions are forensic. Obama vs. McCain may seem like a lifetime ago, but this witty, perceptive novel underscores its continuing relevance. Like an insurance investigator reconstructing an accident, Homes is interrogating the recent past. In “The Unfolding,” she connects the dots for us, tracing the tortuous path that got us where we are.