Here is a brilliant novelist's road trip across the landscape of the national zeitgeist, all the way to the last election of the Millennium. Steve Erickson wanders the highways of a republic in revolt against itself and in search of its own meaning.
The story of his work for Rolling Stone is a genuine hoot. The Californian Erickson, a successful young author in the Thomas Pynchon mold, was originally hired because, as the features editor told him, "What we want is a novelist who will write about the 1996 presidential campaign as though it were a novel." But even in his first meetings with the magazine's editor, Jann Wenner, he realized that he was expected to compete with the New York Times, despite the fact that he was not a professional reporter. The collision of his own and Wenner's expectations led to a series of amusing misunderstandings and confrontations over the ensuing months, with the author covering the interesting fringes of the Republican race and the fascinating but doomed candidates, while the magazine pushed for strategy, tactics, scoops and straightforward coverage of the Dole campaign. Erickson's account of these battles basically adds up to a drive by shooting in which his target is Wenner and the publisher's grandiose pretensions and limited understanding of politics. Meanwhile, Erickson had really vested himself in the story and when he was finally fired, simply decided:
...I would just go right on covering the campaign. I would get in my car with my bogus press badge and my bogus business cards and I would start driving, a bogus correspondent without portfolio, and I would write the story of the campaign the way I had wanted to in the beginning, and the way I had foolishly supposed in the beginning that I was being hired to do, but now armed with moonshine credentials and a surreptitious itinerary of my own making. And I would keep on driving out past L.A. and back into America and into the last years of the Twentieth Century, on one last rampage through the national asylum just to make one last observation, one last comment, or even to tell just one last lie, just as long as no one expected from me one last answer.
So, unemployed, uncredentialed, his marriage seemingly crumbling, Erickson continued along his own gonzo path.
Freed from the constraints and delusions of the Rolling Stone editors, Erickson liberally sprinkles this book with long digressive expositions on popular culture. Often they are really interesting and insightful, like the ones on Springsteen and Oliver Stone. Sometimes they are just as bewildering as they are fascinating, like imagining Richard Nixon as Mike Hammer. And sometimes they simply don't work at all, like an imagined world where the hostage rescue worked and Jimmy Carter won a second term. But, on balance, they do enliven the book and add more than they detract.
The real core of the book though is Erickson's attempt to understand what was happening in America at that moment, how the country had become so divided, with minorities--racial, religious, political, or whatever--questioning not just the ideas but the very legitimacy of their opponents. He correctly identifies, but I think fails to understand, the fundamental schizophrenia that had beset the American people : the sort of self-loathing that leads the electorate to demand the truth from candidates and then punish them when they give it (a la Bob Dole in '88 or Tsongas in '92); that takes a hostile view of all special interest groups, except for those that each of us belong to; that rages against duplicitous politicians--like Clinton--then turns around and elects them. Here Erickson's strongly stated but weakly held liberal viewpoint betrays him somewhat. He is unable to dot the final 'i' and cross the final 't'. The problem with modern America is that we continue to believe in our Founding myths--rugged individualism, self-reliance, democracy, freedom, etc.--but have become a country of dependents, relying on government programs that range from farm subsidies to welfare to school loans to social security. The dissonance that Erickson correctly perceives arises from the battle between American ideals and desires. Thus in a moment of almost insane idealism the electorate chose a Republican Congress in 1994, hell bent on reducing government. But as soon as Democrats demagogued a few middle class entitlement cuts, that some electorate turned on Congress with a vengeance and embraced Bill Clinton, defender of the welfare state. It is not that our original ideals are somehow bankrupt, as Erickson intimates, but rather that they have been temporarily (one hopes) swamped by selfishness and greed. The 20th Century legacy of Depression, World War, Cold War, and inflation left behind them a people who were understandably a little shaken up and unfortunately too willing to draw their renewed confidence from government. We must inevitably disappoint ourselves when we continue to believe in a free society, but increasingly accept the controls and strictures of big government. How can the public help but loathe the politicians who keep buying their votes with ever greater social spending bribes? How can the public help but hate itself for being bought? The dichotomy Erickson discerns will continue until we actually return to first principles and return to the minimalist government which has been a historic norm. The author comes close to nailing this idea, but somehow misses, presumably for ideological reasons.
On the other hand, Erickson is excellent when he's most honest with himself and with the reader, even at the risk of offending his political fellow travelers and his own sense of himself as a liberal. For instance, he does little to hide his contempt for Bill Clinton. He finds partial birth abortion repellent. He writes compellingly about the debasing of American culture and about the hypocrisy of a generation that maintained that Rock and Roll would change the world, now arguing that pop culture has no effect on kids' moral development. He provides wonderful portraits of the men he met whose intellectual honesty and whose true convictions impressed him--Alan Keyes, Pat Buchanan and Gary Bauer. All of this seems to reflect a man who is much more ambivalent about his own professed liberalism than even he realizes.
At one point, Bauer says that he'd even vote for Erickson over Clinton and the author hastens to assures him that would be a mistake, as if he would make Clinton look like a conservative. But, in fact, over the course of the book the author emerges as someone who is deeply concerned with the moral crisis in America and as someone who has considered most issues before adopting positions on them. I, for one, would prefer to see someone like him, someone who actually has some core values and beliefs, run for president, than many of the poll driven, risk averse, weasly twerps who run now. He makes for an engaging and often funny guide to an election that ultimately left a bitter taste in everyone's' mouth and which did nothing to resolve the divergence between our dreams of freedom and our dependence on handouts. We can only hope that an equally agreeable observer is chronicling this election and that this time the story will have a happier ending.
While Erickson is better than almost anyone at conveying the soul-searching impotence of being alive in the 1990's, this book is surprisingly thin gruel. Witness, for example, how interchangeable section of the book are. Flip it open anywhere and you could be anywhere, the same somewhat overwrought Ericksonian prose, full of loss and pain and anguish, but surprisingly ... well, boring.
Erickson's book is too precious by far. It takes the worst parts of his style, on display in any of his novels, this sort of aimless, high-style, like Cheech Marin after a few semesters at Juilliard. But in its manneredness it becomes frustrating, and then plain annoying.
To be honest, I think Wenner did the right thing. Canning Erickson wasn't a bad decision, despite the wails of the artistes out there. This simply wasn't interesting campaign coverage, novelist or no novelist.
Read Michael Lewis's "Trail Fever" on the 1996 elections, or read the bravura "What it Takes" on the 1988 elections, or, if you're so inclined, go right back to Hunter Thompson "Fear and Loathing '72" or even White's books from the 1960's.
But Erickson's book is just mannered writing by an uninvolved novelist-cum-journalist who here writes like one of those disturbingly self-obsessed characters you see dressed in back and loitering in the Starbucks of your choice.