American As Fuck
Deborah E. Kennedy
Reviewed by Alan Good
When I was twenty-three I wrote a short story with a pretentious title that no one can compel me to reveal. The story was told from multiple points of view: a teacher who gets fired unjustly, a young girl whose father is sexually abusive, that young girl's mother, her grandmother, probably some other characters, too—I just can't remember. One of the characters, I remember, sees a black dildo in the parking lot of a mall, a little detail I stole from real life. I saw a black dildo in the parking lot of a mall and it was like I was possessed; if I didn't put that displaced dildo in a story the Earth would explode. Like everything, the dildo had no real significance, other than I probably thought it would be edgy to have a grandma see a black dildo in a parking lot. All the voices in my unpublished, mostly forgotten story formed a disjointed narrative about how the town where I grew up is a shitty place to live. I've learned, over the years, that there are shittier places to live, like Colliersville, Indiana, the fictional but real enough town at the center of Tornado Weather, the first novel by Deborah E. Kennedy.
I hadn't thought about that story in years, but it came to mind a few times as I was reading Tornado Weather, which is better executed than that old story while using the same basic structure. Just as you get used to the voice of Fikus, the bus driver who drops off a wheelchair-bound student whose disappearance ties the whole disjointed narrative together, he disappears and you're getting the story (told in the present tense now) from the perspective of an investigative reporter who's about to publish a story that's going to take down an exploitative dairy owner and disrupt the lives of his workers. After that there's Renee Seaver, who comes from a family with a bad reputation, whose father doesn't help that reputation with his involvement in a half-ass militia. After that it's Shannon Washburn, who is dating Josh Seaver and works at the Laundromat. And so on and so forth, etc. The thing all the characters have in common, aside from where they live, is that they're all thinking about Daisy Gonzalez, the little girl who has disappeared. Who took her? Where is she? Is she still alive? It's so sad. Pray for her. The effect is not as disorienting as in Francine Prose's Mister Monkey, which I never got around to finishing. It's a very MFA type of thing; you challenge yourself to write about an event from the perspectives of the people around that event, both in the center of it and on the periphery, and you decide sometimes you'll write in the first person, sometimes you'll write in the third person but heavy on the free indirect discourse, and you'll switch tenses the way Donald Trump switches wives, and just because you can you'll throw in a chapter written in the second person and even—SPOILER ALERT—a chapter from a dead person who has been reincarnated as a—shit, I don't have to give it all away.
The book echoes, with some distortion, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, which I haven't read in at least sixteen years. Any decent American who read the books back to back would immediately apply for citizenship in any country that's willing to take Americans, if such countries still exist. To read Tornado Weather is to see where we are right now. I guess if you think Colliersville seems like a nice place full of reasonable, decent people, you won't be much bothered by where we are. Go to hell.
There was much to prejudice me against reading this book, but I read it anyway. I'm glad I did. I haven't read his more recent books, and he might go on to do wonderful things that I won't know about, but I'll never forgive Benjamin Percy for writing The Wilding—or maybe I'll never forgive Graywolf Press for publishing it. Seeing his name attached to the blurb at the top of the front cover could have put me off reading Tornado Weather. "Dark and dangerous," says Benjamin Percy, bestselling blurbist of Red Moon, "and strange and wonderful . . . Kennedy writes with the gritty poetry of Daniel Wodrell and misfit sensibility of Flannery O'Connor." I hesitated as I spotted the blurb while reaching for the book. There's something incestuous about that blurb, along with some of the back blurbs, considering that most of the authors quoted in praise of Tornado Weather were Kennedy's writing instructors at the University of Iowa (one of the downsides of including an acknowledgments page is readers can see the relationship between blurb-writers and the authors they're blurbing for), but what sets Tornado Weather apart from a useless book like The Wilding is its relevance: Tornado Weather is America.
The book is set fairly early in the Obama era, and one assumes much of the book was written while Obama was president, but Tornado Weather is probably, to date, the best book about the Trump presidency. It's about Trump people, people who are decent-hearted—in some cases people who only think that they are decent-hearted—but bad at causal reasoning. "They talked about what was ruining this country." "They," in this quote, being the worst people in the book, the people responsible for Daisy's death; on this subject, though, they think the same things as everyone else. This is a theme of the book, the ruination of America, and while the people of Colliersville can all identify the effect, that Colliersville is a shitty place to live and Colliersville is America, none of them is able to pin down a real cause. They're always chasing red herrings, like immigrants, trans people, and Obama. Here's Helman, a prominent citizen of Colliersville, reflecting, toward the end of the book, on where everything went wrong:
Once I had two sons. Now I have none. One son died. The war. He didn't know I existed. The other thinks he's a girl so I guess in a way you could say I have a daughter but she won't talk to me—considers me the devil incarnate—so there you go.
Once I had a whole farm, a booming business. That can be taken away, too. Even here in America, land of the dream and the free and the brave, what you work so hard to build from the ground up can be snatched away and given to someone else. Just like that. All my cows. The machines. Years and years of labor. My father's land, in my family since William Henry Harrison was governor of the Indiana Territory, gone. Frannie said she heard the farm was going to be cleared for a shopping center, a tacky strip mall with a Wal-Mart and a Shoe Carnival and a Subway. A once noble plot turned into a playground for the poor. I don't know where Frannie gets her information, but I guess that's what's called "spreading the wealth." Robbing from the rich and giving to the undeserving. Hey, Robbing Hood. Hey, Barack Hussein Obama, why don't you go back where you came from?
That's Helman, a Real American, a greedy fuckup who ruined his business all by himself, with a little help from some shady dealers who don't seem to have any ties to the Obama administration, reflecting on the wrongs done to him as he flees Colliersville, on his way to join some militia group living in a fortified compound with their own 3-D printer for manufacturing guns. His wife, Birdy, sees more clearly. Helman has sent her for a stay in a mental hospital: "He could blame the overzealous cops and the over-reaching government all he liked, but neither the cops nor the government forced him to transform their respectable and reputable family business into something illegal and shameful." But Birdy can afford to be rational: she's got someone to blame. Helman's got to hang his shame and resentment on someone. No better target than the government. Don't hold it against him. Blaming your own mistakes on other people and then getting mad enough to go live with a group of well-armed angry paranoiacs is American as fuck.
Tornado Weather might be the only book (aside from the novelization of Rudy) I've read that is set in Indiana. It is possibly the only book I've ever read that wasn't written by Kurt Vonnegut that even mentions Indiana. You could expect this book to be embraced by the so-called forgotten people, except they probably wouldn't like the way they're portrayed. Kennedy writes about highly flawed, often unlikable characters without condescension, but she also doesn't convert their bellies to Batman pecs the way Trump's artistic fanboys do when they draw him. It's a warts-and-all book. There are racism warts and paranoid warts and depression warts and general dumbass warts. It's not the type of hagiography that the people who are mad about not being the subjects of enough New York Times profiles even though they're now the subjects of ninety-seven percent of New York Times profiles have been asking for. It's just real. And it's probably ruined Parks and Rec for me.
Tornado Weather* is a book about fuckups. That's us. If you're an American, you're a fuckup. It's your inheritance. We are all descendants of misfits and fuckups, fanatics, criminals, outcasts, people who for whatever reason didn't belong. What other word describes a country that fights a war in the name of freedom but doesn't free its slaves? Nothing but fuckup will serve. Richest country on the planet and we can't provide free preschool or healthcare? Fuckups. We don't think Hillary Clinton is trustworthy enough to be president so we elect a pathological liar instead? Bunch of fuckups. We are Americans. This is our country. This is our book. Just to be clear, who's ruining everything? We are!
*I accidentally wrote "Tornado Country," like a fuckup, and I've since corrected my mistake. Deborah Kennedy saw this review and shared it on Facebook. Someone commented on the irony of me fucking up the title in a section on American fuckups and quite charitably suggested that my fuckup was intentional. It was not. It was just the consequence of not having an editor and of writing under a deadline of trying to finish and publish a piece before my two-year-old wakes up from his nap, but I'm grateful that someone on the internet put the best spin on my mistake rather than the worst.
Deborah E. Kennedy
Note: if you order the book via the link in the image below, Malarkey Books will receive a small fee as part of the IndieBound Affiliate program.