Politics & Literature

Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, posted today its latest “NBCC Reads” list — the result of polling members on the question: “Which work of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry best captures the realities of American political culture?” Topping the list (deservedly so, of course) is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men — still packing a punch 60 years after its publication.

I myself submitted a small reply that didn’t make the main list — and wasn’t expected to, I’ll admit, since it didn’t really aim to answer the question exactly, but instead offered an interesting anecdote from earlier this year. (I’ve just been told that my response will be included as a freestanding “long tail” entry in subsequent posts at Critical Mass.)

Earlier this spring, I was teaching a course in American detective fiction at George Mason University, and one of the books on our syllabus was Margaret Maron’s 1992 novel Bootlegger’s Daughter, a book I’d chosen in part because of the way it sought to explore contemporary (by which I mean 1992 contemporary) social issues and in part because it had ultimately swept several mystery awards: the Edgar, the Anthony, the Agatha, and the Macavity (still the only novel to make such a sweep, I believe). 

We reached our reading of Bootlegger’s Daughter in the midst of some of the hottest, tensest moments of the Democratic primary. Clinton and Obama were battling it out in a contest in which race and gender were often in the forefront of the conversation, either implicitly or sometimes explicitly. Meanwhile, in the book, main character Deborah Knott (a white woman) was in a high-stakes run-off with Luther Parker (a black man) for a judgeship in Colleton County, N.C. — and one of our most interesting in-class discussions explored how the issues facing that fictional political race resonated, with increasingly eerie similarities, with what was playing out each day on the news with regards to the Clinton-Obama face-off.

At one point, someone distributes fake letters from each candidate, impugning the other in the harshest terms. The message copied onto Knott’s letterhead “wasn’t quite as blatant as He’s a nigger, I’m white, vote for me, but it was the next thing to it.” Here’s a later scene in which Knott reads the next fake bit of propaganda, this one supposedly sent out by Parker’s camp:

If one could believe everything in this open letter, Luther Parker was an upright, foursquare Christian family man who sang with the angels when he wasn’t defending Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Ms. Deborah Knott, on the other hand, was an unmarried (a) castrating bitch, (b) promiscuous whore, or (c) closet lesbian (pick one), the daughter of the biggest bootlegger in Colleton County history, and a defender of foreign drug dealers from whom she was probably getting a cut of the profits. “If Ms. Knott is elected to the bench, it will be speedy trials and speedier acquittals for drunks, junkies, and perverts of all kinds.”

Does this mean that Bootlegger’s Daughter “captures the realities of American political culture”? Well, no…. and it also doesn’t imply, by any means, that Maron was prescient of what was going to be happening more than a decade and a half after the novel came out. But it does say something, I think, about how society’s treatment of questions of race and gender haven’t entirely changed much in those 16 years, and proves that Maron’s big breakthrough book is as relevant and interesting as ever these days. 

Other books I’ve been reading, rereading, using or perusing this week:

  • The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald (took me a while to finish it)
  • Feed the Hungry: A Memoir with Recipes by Nani Power
  • The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories by Pagan Kennedy

— Art Taylor

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