A. M. Homes: The Unfolding
This novel opens on 5 November 2008 which was the day after the 2008 US presidential election won by Barack Obama against John McCain. We follow the Hitchens family. The father is known simply as the Big Guy. His wife is Charlotte and their only child is the eighteen year old Meghan. The Big Guy is rich, very rich, and, of course, a Republican voter, as are his wife and daughter. He is also a friend of McCain.
We move back to election day, 4 November. Meghan is at a posh boarding school in Virginia and comes home (Wyoming, though they appear to have several homes) to vote, the first time she has voted. Much is made of this first vote by her family and Meghan herself, as though it were some major initiation rite.
Immediately after voting the three fly to Phoenix to stay at The Biltmore Hotel, where McCain and his family are staying and where there will be a big party (which, of course, turns into a wake).
One thing Meghan seems to do is to meet complete strangers and get on with them. Here she meets a social historian, Mark Eisner, twenty-five years her senior and they end up swimming together, late at night, in the hotel pool. She will later chat away to the person sitting next to her on the flight back to Virginia and the taxi driver. Her conversation with her family and people she knows seem more awkward than her conversation with these strangers.
Not surprisingly, after Obama’s victory, there is considerable despondency among the Republicans. A Black man just got elected president of the United States. Oh my fucking god. They blame the choice of Sarah Palin as running mate (Whoever suggested that Palin woman to him should be court-martialled. If you want to appeal to women voters, don’t pick an idiot.) Hitchens Sr’s reaction is “I can’t spend the next thirty years watching it all come undone.
Meghan goes back to school and her parents go to one of their houses (the one in Palm Beach). He blames himself – I spent all my time trying to get rich but didn’t do something more interesting with my life, something that might change the course of the world. She, as usual, turns to drink and bemoans her own fate. I forgot to have my life. I’ve been having your life for a quarter of a century. The last time I had my own life I was about eleven.
Back in Virginia, Meghan has something of a traumatic experience involving a horse, a deer and a police officer. Both she and her father (though for different reasons) say that they cannot go back to things the way they were. None of this can continue.
The Big Guy decides he is going to arrange a counter-attack. He packs his wife off to the Betty Ford Center. She is an alcoholic and depressive. He invites a few (very few) trusted friends to the house, including, surprisingly, Mark Eisner whom he met at the Biltmore but does not know that Eisner and Meghan met. Indeed he seems to trust him on one brief meeting and the fact that Eisner’s father was a speech-writer for Eisenhower.
The men (all men, of course) discuss what went wrong and what they can do about it. From our perspective, reading this after the Trump presidency, it takes an interesting turn. Obviously Trump does not get mentioned, not least because if anyone had suggested back in 2008 that Trump, a dodgy businessman and second-rate TV star, would succeed Obama, they would have been considered insane. They mention and criticise the far right in the Republican Party(I can tell you right now, there’s a set of fresh-faced yahoos out there who call themselves Republicans but they’re not like Republicans I know), though the Tea Party had not really you got going. What becomes apparent, apart from an oblique reference to socialism,is that their real concern is that Obama is black (though, of course, he is half-white). In other words racism is their main motive. A black person is obviously not one of us.
One of them sees one advantage of the far right in that they can be cover for less extreme activities. However bottom line is, we’ve lost control of the Republican Party and it’s not just our ability to steer the course of the country; the party itself is about to blow into a thousand little pieces.
There is a lot of interesting discussion, e.g. in America democracy is capitalism, guns, and lower taxes. However, it is clear they have little idea of what they can do and what they want to do except the usual vague idea of conservatives that it was somehow much better in the past and they wish to bring back this idealised past, which of course, never really existed.
They discuss various threats – cyber attacks, Russia, China, the religious right, the size of the government. However they are all unsure of what they should do, what would be treason, and what it would look like if they succeeded.
After this first meeting, there is more plotting afoot as various other potential supporters are roped in. They visit strange people, including a survivalist and a weird sweet maker. They worry that, interestingly, enough, none of them has a son to take over the mantle or to whom they can leave their legacy, both financial and/or historical. They also struggle with their format. Should there be a leader? A real person is suggested.
Daughters do not count and clearly the issues of feminism as well as racism are to the fore. Meghan witnesses both and is unsure of where she is going given that she has always followed her father’s lead, virtually without question as, indeed, has her mother. The Big Guy (it seems almost cartoonish to keep calling him that but, while we know his surname, we never learn his first name) is somewhat lost when his wife is in the clinic and he is not allowed to speak to her even on the phone.
Indeed, much of the second part of the book moves away from the political to the personal. While the Big Guy’s political world is collapsing, so is his personal one, at least as regards his wife and daughter, with his relationship with both subject to considerable stress because of his actions, past and present. Part of it is clearly male bad behaviour and women being taken for granted by men. Indeed, he finally, to some degree, admits it – Not only was I not seeing them for who they are, I was actively denying them their own story. It was all about me, my need to protect myself. What an ass I am. I wonder if such a man would have said that in a book written by a man.
However his merry band of plotters move on, determined to counteract Obama. One realistically points out Our economy will divide into those who have more and those who have nothing. On the world stage, the view of America will be cloudy. Our allies will be looking for that shining city on the hill, and they will see ravages of wildfires, catastrophic floods, illness, and death. The book ends on Inauguration Day.
This book is something of an interesting mixture of the political and personal. Homes clearly wrote this book with full knowledge of Trump and his weird supporters- QAnon, Proud Boys, Oath-Takers and so on, though they do not get a mention, not least because they were not a feature during the period of this book. However we do know that the Koch Brothers have been responsible for a lurch to the right by the rich and, presumably, Homes had them in mind when writing this book, though there are no brothers in this book. I assume, without any evidence whatsoever, that the main characters are entirely fictitious but they may well be based on people like the Kochs.
Homes has mixed it up with the introduction of the Big Guy’s marital woes and how his wife and daughter seek their own path and freedom. The Big Guy is not the only one of the group having marital problems but he is the one we follow and learn about. The wife/daughter issue worked well. I felt that, as regards the political side, there was a lot of talking but, at least initially, little sense of what needed to be done and could be done. Moreover, the issue seemed to be primarily racist (colour and middle name) and the various policies Obama may have been planning to introduce were barely touched upon. When a military man was introduced things did start moving. I can only say that I would have loved to learn of their reaction to Trump and his allies. I suspect that they would not have been very happy.
First published in 2022 by Viking