U.S.!: Songs and Stories Paperback – Feb 21 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
In his second satiric novel, following the hilarious Bear vs. Shark (2001), Bachelder supposes that muckraker Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, has the power to repeatedly rise from the grave, "oft-resurrected and oft-assassinated" by his followers and foes. A haggard and bullet-ridden Sinclair symbolizes the bedraggled American political left (making a triple entendre of the book's title). In Bachelder's present-day America, capitalism-loving smalltown residents fear a Socialist uprising spurred by the mediocre novels Sinclair continues to publish. Sinclair assassins (such as three-time killer Huntley and crazed young upstart Billings) make the cover of Time and write bestselling memoirs. The first of the novel's two main parts comprises a funny, though gimmicky, series of Sinclair ephemera, including a bile-filled book review, transcripts from the Sinclair-sighting telephone hotline and "Professor" Sinclair's writing workshop syllabus instructing students to "write socially engaged, morally outraged fiction with unambiguous endings." Part two is a gripping narrative in which an anti-Socialist book-burning becomes the converging point for Sinclair , his forlorn folksinger son Albert, competing assassins and a 12-year-old convert to liberal politics who may be the crumbling left's best hopes. Readers require no knowledge of the historical Sinclair to relate to Bachelder's bumbling, endearing idealist grandpa in this entertaining though uneven sophomore outing.
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"Like the wonderful Bear v. Shark, U.S.! is a mad contraption of a novel, an encyclopedia of all our rich American armamentarium of bullshit, cant, ad copy and hyperbole (including the blurbs on book jackets). But this one carries secret reserves of heartbreak and ruefulness that propel it farther and deeper into the reader's imagination." -- Michael ChabonSee all Product Description
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The larger function of this character is to point out the current bankrutpcy of American politics. How it has no ideas, no passion, no commitment just plenty of hype, gloss and spin. But if someone like Upton Sinclair can keep his hope alive that idealism matters, that all people have dignity and deserve respect and a decent wage for their labor, then maybe all is not lost.
The book is divided into two distinct sections. The first is a series of rifts on how popular culture would respond to the idea of Upton Sinclear existing as an eternal target for the American Right. There are several inventive and hilarious setpieces; a series of haikus, an interview with a photographer of a naked Upton Sinclair, a transcript of a phone call by a would-be assassin. The second half is pure narrative driven by a malevolent prank and the Upton Sinclair's naivete. The conclusion is funny, sad and terrifically satirical. If you need a therapeutic tonic to cope with the absymal state of idealism and the American left, this should do the trick.
Bachelder wisely recognizes the limitations of his premise, and thus engages it in a very loose manner by riffing on it in lots of different formats. There is a running storyline concerning this iteration of the undead Sinclair, as he moves around the country aided by his secretary/personal assistant, holing up in remote cabins to write, and making clandestine visits to underground meetings. However, sprinkled into this are letters from Sinclair to his son, Amazon.com reviews of some of Sinclair's 90 books (most of which bear the dreaded "Be the first to review this item."), transcripts from a 1-800 "I Saw Sinclair" hotline, hilarious memos (including one from Sinclair to NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabule about the need for instant replay), a reading list and syllabus for a writing course taught by Sinclair, newspaper editorials, interviews, an eBay auction listing (for a bullet that killed Sinclair), song lyrics, and other such artifacts of popular culture.
As we learn more about Sinclair, we also learn more about the cult of celebrity that has arisen around his killers. Indeed, the main story thread leads Sinclair toward a small town celebration (he thinks it's to honor him, but it's actually to burn his books), where the country's top Sinclair hunters (many of whom have been hired by corporate interests) hope to bag him. There's a great little subplot about the grizzled old veteran killer vs. the brash young upstart. There's another subplot involving Sinclair's folk singer son which suffers a bit from underdevelopment.
But beneath all this, there's a clear message -- the bumbling, almost unbearably earnest, permanently outraged, ever-pedantic Sinclair is a symbol of all that's wrong with the American left and yet paradoxically, also what's right. Although Sinclair's neverending sub-mediocre writing is mercilessly skewered throughout the book, his dogged dedication to (and faith in) an ideal is both touching and ultimately inspiring. This is another major theme of the book, the intersection of art and politics, and the difficulty faced by the artist who dares to mix the two. Bachelder's book manages the tricky task of both doing this and commenting on it at the same time, while shifting ably between slapstick comedy, family pathos, blind zealotry, pop culture riffing, and even moments of quiet reflection. This is both an entertaining and excellent novel.
Chris Bachelder returns to the ring after his debut novel, Bear v Shark, found its way into the hands of readers not too long ago. That novel was a wonderful mix of humor, poignancy, and Chris' style of what I like to call "chapter concepts" He takes your basic novel structure but instead of just telling the story in a straight forward manner he will use various different storytelling concepts in each chapter. In one chapter you may get a poem, or a television interview, and in another chapter you could simply get a listing of ebay auctions. Its a brilliant way to view his themes and characters from different points of view.
In his sophomore effort Chris Bachelder refines his techniques and tightens his themes for a novel that somehow manages to surpass the simple yet wonderful Bear V Shark. Again he comes in with a concept that seems rather absurd, muck raker Upton Sinclair continues to live on through an unexplained method of resurrection. Used as a tool for the left he lives on to spread his beliefs in socialism and the evils of capitalism. Bachelder never shows bias he simply portrays the man as he was and how he would adjust to this day and age.
I am ashamed to admit I knew very little about Mr. Sinclair going into the novel and trust me this is not a dull protagonist. He's akward, ambitious, and has the drive of a young man despite his frail dying body. The novel makes me wonder what would happen to Michael Moore if he found a way to live on. What happens to ones causes over a long period of time? Does change ever truly happen? Must we lose hope if the answer to that question is no? You won't get an answer after reading U.S.! but you will certainly get a little closer to forming one of your own.
A gem that has just happened to take the form of a book.
Hopes and shovels forever.