Did Jack Torrance stumble upon a truth much deeper and more primal than he knew when he wrote, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”? My girlfriend seemed to say as much a couple of weeks back and subsequent events in Winnebago County, Wisconsin lead me to believe that she just may have a point.
Aviva kicked me out. Said I was “no fucking fun anymore” since I started crusading against the Brylcreem Brigade1 and their weird rhetorical war on the middle class and just plain common sense. “Goddamn it, Liam, it was funny at first, but it’s getting old. Now you’re starting to sound more like my econ professor than the writer I thought I was living with.”
I guess I could see where she was coming from. When we’d met at a mutual friend’s holiday party last December I was riding high on the crest of a fresh wave of creativity. I couldn’t stop blabbing about this novel I’d planned to write. It was a Kabbalistic parody of contemporary American religious culture centering on a cabal of ambitious up-and-coming angels who set up to hit God’s target numbers of human souls by dealing in volume rather than quality. They’d try to do it by exploding the human population, stretching the available supply of human souls by patching them with bits from the souls of animals like foxes, sharks and sheep, who at any rate would be dying off due to the environmental damage caused by the extra human population. It seemed like a great crack at the time, with no end to its scope to satirize religion, finance and industry.
Aviva ate it all up with a spoon. She’s a pretty sharp girl who appreciated the seamless elegance with which it seemed to comprehend all the sickest contours of 21st century American culture. And she had more than a little to add to the mix herself; she was in the middle of a rebellion against what she saw as the stupid complacency of her conventional, limousine-liberal Reform Jewish parents. With a business career closed to her not only by the economic downturn, but by an undisguised personal disgust for the stupid banality of Rotary Club wankers, she’d settled for draining her college fund pursuing a degree in comparative religion—with an emphasis in Kabbalah, the loopy esoteric tradition of her Polish great-grandparents. The same great-grandparents her father couldn’t stand living with as a ‘progressive’ secular kid during the Boomer era. Using the Kabbalah’s legends about angelic hierarchies and the architecture of the soul to collaborate on a big literary ‘fuck you’ to her parents’ generation was just the sort of gig she was looking for. And if she could top it all off by sleeping with some big, nasty Mick, it’d be all the sweeter.
I admit it was pretty heady, those first few months. Within a couple of days of that first meeting we began regular pow-wows at the local café to discuss the project’s outline. From there we ambled over to her place, and the sessions never seemed long enough to cram in all the ideas that were exploding out of our pores. One thing led to another, and within three months I’d unceremoniously ditched my roommate and moved in with Aviva full time.
Which rather limited my exit strategy options when shit hit the fan. If I’d been more pragmatic I’d probably have seen this thing coming a mile away, at least as far back as July and planned accordingly. With the unemployment rate hanging steady near 10%, and a lot of folks who otherwise would have been good customers for the type of carpentry/renovations work that I do hanging on to every last red cent in a deathgrip of fear, I’d been spending more than the usual amount of time at home—coinciding with her own off-semester break. Other than the novel and the sex, we didn’t really have a lot else in common. Sure, we coasted for a couple weeks on the fumes of her parents’ initial disappointment upon being introduced to her new ‘roommate’—a stinky, crude joiner from a working class background and who was, after all, not all that much younger than her own parents. But that couldn’t last forever, and my near obsessive involvement in the Russ Feingold campaign and blogging about the gory aftermath were like the final insults to the type of aloof artistic remove that she’d carefully constructed between herself and her parents’ passé notions of political engagement; her old man is actually a big fan of Russ’.
Still, as Plan C’s go, crashing with my uncle Éamonn was not half bad. Éamo’s the black sheep of his generation of the family, as I am of my own, and we have always shared a strong bond of mutual understanding and sympathy. No one really knows exactly how he made his money and no one’s ever been rude enough to press. But then again he’s never been stingy about sharing the wealth or the entertaining stories of his early days in Chicago. He claims to have walked hand-in-hand with Ted Kennedy during the civil rights marches in the mid- ‘60s, been a frontline eyewitness to the Right Wing cabal’s bloody crackdown during the ’68 Democratic convention following RFK’s assassination, and pleaded passionately with Eldridge Cleaver to drop the codpiece-themed fashion line in favor of launching a private barbecue sauce label—an idea that Éamo claims Bobby Seale later stole and adapted into a goldmine of a cookbook franchise. “The sheer grief of it all! No wonder Eldridge lost his mind! If only I’d been able to convince him!”
Yeah, more than likely Éamo’s just full of shit. But before his shaggy dog stories could begin to get old a familiar face returned and the whole scene over flipped over on its head yet again: Siobhán.
Siobhán’s a beautiful girl, lithe and auburn-haired with a smooth, porcelain complexion, about my age, and from the Old Country. I don’t know exactly what she does for a living, how she met Éamonn or what their precise relationship is or was, but like a bad penny she keeps turning up—thanks be to God! Since the summer of ’92 I spent staying at Éamo’s place in Oak Park she’s been an on-again / off-again fixture in my life, punctuating its low, dull troughs of with exciting pivot points and vaulting me on to the next great adventure. And this one would be no exception.
Éamonn hands me the phone one afternoon; it was Siobhán. “Liam? How’s it hanging, you rat bastard?” I laughed and launched into the Webster’s Abridged Version of the Aviva story.
“Hmmm, well then, it appears my timing is excellent. Seems that our biorhythmic waves have just crashed into one another once again. Just so happens that I’m in a bit of a transition period myself, and I could have a bit of a job for you. If you think you’re up to it.” And she recounted a typically labyrinthine tales, replete with overtones of Byzantine romantic complexity. Apparently her regular gig as ‘au pair’ for some rich Chicago doctor had come to an abrupt end and she suddenly found herself instead the caretaker of his summer home on a lake up in Winnebago County, Wisconsin.
“It’s a grand old place to be sure; a three-story Victorian job on a tree-lined country road and all. But to tell the truth it’s gotten the worst out of the last few winters and I’m not sure it’s quite ready for this coming one. I’ve persuaded the ol’ fellah to put up a reasonable budget for repairs and whatnot. Could take you a few weeks to finish, but the west wing’s dry and comfy and I could use the company anyhows."
Clearly Siobhán had lost none of her native talent for understatement. I knew that neck of the woods very well—too well. Yes, technically it was part of the Oshkosh-Neenah metro area, but that house’d be a good half hour drive to the next human soul, and frankly you’d be taking your chances even then. Oshkosh is the hometown of Charles Murray-loving, half-witted local-boy-married-good, senator elect Ron Johnson, the very man who’d taken the election from Russ.
Actually, the area’s history of nutty, Right Wing politics goes wayyyyy back beyond Johnson. Nearby Appleton is the home of the loony John Birch Society, the 1960’s precursor to the Tea Bag movement that urged parents to check beneath their kids’ beds for any errant Soviet surveillance equipment before beddy-byes. Batshit demogague Joe McCarthy was born in Grand Chute, and he made a good run of it, too, until he had the nuts to accuse WWII veterans baptized under fire in their nation’s defense of being corrupt fellow travelers. When he died of the drink in ’57 they buried him at St. Mary’s in Appleton.
Ripon in adjacent Fond du Lac County even claims to be the 1854 birthplace of the Republican Party—although that was clearly a very different creature from the atavistic beast we’ve come to know today. My God, Old Abe Lincoln would have vomited all over himself if the national committee tried to foist a babbling idiot like Sarah Palin on him as vice presidential running mate.
And the true origins of Right Wing, fear-based politics in America probably stretch back to the dawn of human memory, even further back than that. In 1835 the proto-archaeologist N.F. Hyer claimed to have located in Jefferson County, Wisconsin Aztatlan, the legendary original home of the fierce Aztec people, whose gory rites of human sacrifice on the steps of Mexico City still send shivers up the spine today. Some people say the Aztecs were simply enacting in a more openly public, literal form the cannibalistic esoteric motifs woven through Roman Catholicism’s Doctrine of Transubstantiation, and others say that it was just a crudely brutal method of policing political dissent, scaring the shit out of anyone who might otherwise dare to oppose the will of the Emperor.
But all that shit may as well have been a thousand miles away and a million years ago for all I cared now. I needed to get on with it. And it’d be horribly ungrateful to decline what promised to be a blank check. Certainly there’d be no need to fear boredom, either, not with Siobhán’s company at hand.
*The following is allegory, okay? By nature it is a symbolic, fictional narrative illustrating in a subjective way factual realities whose tangible real-world importance could get lost in a dry technical account. I’ll furnish links and footnotes pointing out the relevant facts where necessary, but I recommend reading this thing first from beginning to end without stopping to hunt down the citations along the way. Don’t ruin the flow at the first crack. You can always revisit those later.
1Ever notice the sad aping of Ronald Reagan’s hairstyle by the current crop of Gen-X’er Right Wing wannabes? Paul Ryan, Sean Hannity, etc., etc. Its helmet-like plasticine inflexibility is like a contemptuous challenge to sixty years of cultural development and nature itself, kind of a legionary standard to rally the forces of Entropy in their struggle to wipe out the last remaining pockets of dynamism in North American culture.