Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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There’s a story about Studs Terkel, true story, though you hear it a couple of ways, depending on where and who’s telling it. The gist is this: a burglar breaks in through a window, into Studs’s place, and Studs is there, middle of the night, sitting in a chair, reading or whatever, Scotch in his hand, and he talks with the guy.
He hands over the cash from his wallet, but then there’s some back and forth because Studs needs a cab the next day, has to get his wife to a doctor’s appointment, so the burglar gives him a twenty back. Then, when the burglar decides to call it a night, starts crawling back out the window, Studs shows him down to the front door, hushing him so they won’t wake his sleeping wife.
It’s not my story, and I don’t tell it right, but if you’re a Chicagoan you’ve already heard it, surely, and maybe even if you’re not, because the man was a legend and he was a legend for precisely this kind of thing, which maybe you just call decency, humanity, an empathetic reflex, a sincere curiosity and flat-out friendliness.
The story is one, too, of democracy, and Rooney’s book, the title of which is the opposite of ironic, takes a stand in the tradition of Studs, that almost-lunatic friendliness, the crazy curiosity about others, that mad empathy and insane heart. Democracy is not on the jumbotron, the teleprompter, the campaign ad; democracy is talking to the guy who breaks into your house—democracy, more than anything, is thinking that talking to the guy who breaks into your house not only makes sense but is the best, most natural, most human reaction to having someone come through the window in the first place. It is a radical ideal, one which we, at best, stumble toward.
Rooney includes a scene with Studs in this novel, based in part on her own real-life encounter with the man, near his end. Here he is described thusly: “Living proof that art might actually matter. / That the good fight might someday be won.”
Democracy is not the same as career politics, to which Rooney, here, contrasts “the good fight.” Career politics resembles the shell game played by con artist teams on the elevated train, some sleight of hand masked by insincere promises and fake compassion, witnessed by a whole car full of folks who know the score but who, despite some sense of sympathy, decline to intervene. Colleen, the heroine of O, Democracy! “can’t fathom why the kid couldn’t identify it as a short con,” but she’s equally baffled by the inaction of the crowd. Is this an instance, however warped, of “Politeness? Embarrassment? Fear of retaliation from the thuggy team?” or, she thinks, is the real reason for inaction the fact that “everyone knows that they are not much better—all dreaming for some magic, some impossible payoff.” We are all suckers for hope, she concludes.
This novel follows a young photographer named Colleen—idealistic, committed to the good fight, but cynical almost by default, having grown up in a generation wise to the con games practiced all around them (or, at least, wise to some of the cons). Colleen works for the noble senior senator from the state of Illinois—a role that doubtless draws on Rooney’s own work in Senator Dick Durbin’s office. She helps corral interns and run advance set-ups on sites for senatorial appearances, and, in between such practical ground-level work, she serves as a font for trivia about the state and its political history (though she’s paid plenty of attention on those architecture tours, too, reading often like the tour guide to Chicago you always wished you had).
The narrative voice is characterized by wit and verve and an uncanny knack for nailing details. The descriptions, here, of Mayor Daley’s tics in speaking or of a woman’s cultivation of her appearance to match a cultural ideal (“Her beauty is surrounded by air quotes.”) are as addictive as the linguistic games she plays to avoid brand names (“his MP3 plays with the biblical fruit logo,” for instance, or, in a better example of Rooney’s skill and intent, “store whose name suggests that if you by their flimsy, sweatshop-make runway knockoffs in yellow bags with ‘John 3:16’ printed on the interior, then you will be able to remain perpetually at the legal age for drinking in America.” On one page we read that the emoticon may have first appeared in a transcript of a speech by Lincoln; on another we hear our young protagonist describe the after-glow of a buzzed hookup: “And when they were done, Colleen felt sincerely what-the-fuck about it.”
There are other narrative voices, an occasional chorus of founders and dead presidents, framers and martyrs to the cause of democracy, flawed, to be sure (at one point they ask, among other unanswerable questions, “Why did we father children by our slaves, then decline to free them?” and “Why did we enlist men to break into the opposition’s headquarters, though we should have known that we were all but certain to be caught and that the election was already in the bag?”) but also portrayed as truly devoted to the ideals upon which our experiment of a country rests. Indeed, they have acquired some posthumous wisdom, as their regrets reflect. They speak like the legends they are: far from gods, yet also well above the realm of everyday humanity, particularly with its increasing emphasis on “politics” as power play, as status symbol, as shell game. Their interjections offer some further framing to Colleen’s minor misadventures in the senatorial campaign system, in which the senator she works for is running for reelection against an unsavory ideologue and which the other, junior, senator of her state is running for president on a platform of change we can believe in. The chorus watches this all with interest, American history witnessing the unfolding of the present:
Democracy is not the exclusive province of a specialized class.
Or rather, it is.
In our own eras, it was open only to wealthy white men, and as we regard Colleen’s story we can discern that not much has changed.
But democracy should not be conducted in this way. Anyone who is taken with the notion of being a good citizen, but who is not set upon doing so as a career politician, we in turn find ourselves quite taken with.
Colleen came of age, in terms of political awareness, during the Bush administration. For her generation, the memories of presidential elections were what Colleen describes as “the doomed nightmare of 2000, the failed nailbiter of 2004.” She has a father serving in Iraq and associates “the robotic Vice President cackling his dry laugh” or his “thin-lipped rictus” of a smile with “flag-shrouded bodybags piled atop moneybags.” She’s signed up to work for the Senator in order to do something, “to be involved in the stupid democratic process,” but all she encounters is exclusion and harassment and “backroom double-dealing.” Despite the inherent goodness of the Senator for whom she works, Colleen’s experience in his office is a taste of the failure of democracy, its subversion, not its success. Indeed, his goodness, as presented here, leads to a certain naïveté: he’s blind to some of the cons going on around him, insisting on an optimistic read of the citizenry as informed and critical thinkers which Colleen finds harder and harder to share.
But the historical moment, of course, is defined by hope, change in which we can believe. The novel is not at its strongest in tackling the Obama moment; while the climax of the story is the rally in Grant Park, the night of the election, the night of the victory, I am not sure that a reader who did not already share memories of the experiences and feelings of this night would quite relate to what is described here as, for Colleen, “a rush of nostalgia, even as it’s happening. The windows of one skyscraper are lit up to spell USA in giant letters. The windows of another have become a glowing flag.” She loves her country, but what exactly does that mean? Obama’s victory feels like a reversal of a legacy of oppression and disenfranchisement, but how, precisely? The ghostly founders proclaim in these pages, a critique of the political status quo, stating that, among other things “Stasis is the system’s raison d’être,” that politics as an industry aims primarily “To protect those within it who have accrued small measures of power.” But are we to read Obama’s election as an overturning of all that? Are we even supposed to think that Colleen—still reeling from her own experiences, which play out in a far starker dichotomy of hypocrisy versus authenticity, an ideologue versus a man of the people, not to mention a harassing back-room-dealer of a boss who gets to yell a speech at her pretty much telling her that democracy is a sham, a puppet show—are we supposed to think that Colleen feels the Obama election is a toppling of the status quo? It sneaks up on us, this subplot of the junior senator: it’s background noise, more or less, a festival that springs up in Grant Park one night, a phenomenon which, to be sure, I found beautifully recollected in this text, but not really treated, not explained or even considered in terms of the ideas that are otherwise swirling around, as contentions and as open questions, in Colleen’s story.
Lest that it seem like I’m saying Colleen—and Rooney—are pulling a French exit from these questions, however, let me say that this, despite its cover photograph, is not the novel of the Obama moment. That is not an intention recognizable here. But by placing that phenomenon—those hopes, those fears, those claims, that history and iconography and audacious rephrasing of the same old system, the same old game—in the background, Rooney is able to deepen, by proximity, some of the questions raised in relation to Colleen’s adventures. For instance, there’s an undercurrent of attention to race, primarily tied to Colleen’s nominal Irish descent, about which another character makes much noise, taking pride in his own Irish-ness, but about which Colleen remains willfully ambivalent, enjoying Saint Pat’s as much as the next Chicagoan but “consider[ing] herself just American, whatever that means.” In a room full of white privilege, that whatever is plenty dismissive; but the historical moment here buzzes with the legacy of racism and the ramifications of attributed “race.” Elsewhere Colleen muses, “This is America, so it’s supposed to be possible, but can anyone ever truly overcome the accident of birth?” It is unclear whether Obama’s election is supposed to be considered as offering anything like an answer to this, but one cannot not think about the black man from Hawaii with the middle name of Hussein who grew up in the absence of his father and later raised two daughters in a house built by slaves, where he worked as the most powerful person in the world.
So Rooney’s book is about Colleen, not Obama, and that is, I feel, a strategic, I would even say a moral, choice. Rooney no longer works “in politics,” but has taken another path, that of art. And while Colleen, too, is an artist, a photographer, and Rooney has some great moments describing visuals, looking through the lens of such an eye, it is language that matters most here, and story. To circle back, of course, to Studs, this is a book that takes seriously the idea that democracy is about story, about, as the chorus of founders say, not “a series of abstractions” but rather a series of individuals. The ideal, they tell us, is that American democracy is “300 million people acting mindfully each day,” aware that “everyone, every day, in everything they do, is responsible for democracy.” That is, of course, the sort of notion that could tilt quickly toward abstraction; Rooney pulls it back by looking to the example of Studs Terkel, his work. What might it mean to be mindful of democracy? To talk to people, to listen, to hear their stories and keep those stories alive. If the failure of democracy is a professional class of power-brokers and deal-cutters and shell-game-con-artists, the success of democracy comes in what Colleen identifies as a particular mode of communication: “Colleen has always been impressed by people who, when asked a direct question, don’t provide a direct answer, but instead tell a story.”
Imagine someone breaks into your house. He’s hungry, he needs some money. Might not one way to respond be to talk with the guy, tell him about yourself and get to know him, treat him with basic respect and listen to what he has to say. Maybe that is a crazy, even a self-destructive plan for confronting a burglar, but it’s worth recognizing it, too, however seemingly unwise, as a potential triumph not only of democracy but of that thing that Studs and Rooney claim is essential to it: art. Because what is democracy but humans acting in awareness—“mindfully”—of the humanity of others, and what is art but the practice of listening to and speaking with humans. Rooney says here, of Studs, that by documenting the lives and words of ordinary citizens he offered “Living proof that art might actually matter,” that it might actually make a difference in that “good fight” toward the ideals of a just and free and equitable society, the America that has always been envisioned as possible and yet always remained out of reach.
Official Kathleen Rooney Web Site
Official Fifth Star Press Web Site