Novels of the Great Recession

For a long time, critics were in the habit of complaining that American authors had given up trying to write the Great American Novel. That is, they’d stopped trying to create plots and characters that embodied social trends with wide-ranging significance. In Balsamic Dreams, Joe Queenan writes: “Baby Boomer literati absolutely refused to go for the brass ring. Instead, they retreated into their gender, their ethnic group, their sexual demographic group, or their own individual selves.” In “The Judgment of Memory,” Joseph Bottum makes the point even more succinctly: “[Writers today] have a literary instrument ready to say almost anything. And they have almost nothing ready to say with it.”

By being so big, so inescapable, and such a goshdamned drag, the Great Recession may have prompted a few writers to take a stab at universality. Today in Salon, Jeff Martin dignifies Shann Ray and Philipp Meyer as “Our Modern Steinbecks,” and reviews their work favorably:

Meyer’s “American Rust” dives deep into the Rust Belt realities of working-class Pennsylvania. Echoes of John Steinbeck’s resonate in his prose — Steinbeck’s Depression-era migrants might have led bleaker lives, but the confusion and the uncertainty amongst those who aspire merely to pay the bills and attain a middle-class life can be startlingly similar.

Ray’s “American Masculine,” meanwhile, takes the story West, into the desolate landscape of Montana. The men and women in his stories seem to the bastard children of Jim Harrison and Raymond Carver, fierce but plain-spoken and adrift, fighting to hold addictions, violence and sadness at bay. It’s a book which redefines the myth of the West — Manifest Destiny is a thing of the past, the West now is a trap.

These authors share a visible reverence for an America that no longer exists. In Pollock’s view, American is “a much scarier place to live than it was, say, 30 or 40 years ago.” But that nostalgia should not be confused with the same flag-waving mindlessness that led Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign to use Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” without ever listening to the lyrics. The characters are rough, the portraits are unflattering, yet readers and critics are connecting with these books in a time when the initial urge might be to escape into some fantasyland of make-believe.

I’ll be interested to read these books, partly to see whether my own tastes have been conditioned by the age. I, too, may have unwittingly retreated into my own gender, age and ethnic group, or at least developed a Seinfeldian preference for fiction about inconsequential things. When I read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral — often praised as a good-faith effort at Great American-ness — I remember feeling overwhelmed. “Good Lord,” I thought. “This stuff is so epic. Who does this guy think he is, John Jakes?”

There’s a wonderful, pathetic story to be written about the fake middle class. By that I mean the sorts of hyper-ambitious people I knew in the mortgage industry. With the exception of a retired lawyer or two who closed loans as a lark, none were professionals; some, barely able to read, had scant hope of ever becoming professionals. But they had the kind of drive and optimism that gold rushes and empires are made of. For a brief moment, history dangled all their dreams — money, prestige, real estate — before them, then snatched it all back, tweaking their nose into the bargain. A book on these guys would read just like Gone with the Wind, only with more hot tubs.