It Can't Happen Here: Funny and Political Novels and Non-Fiction Books, or: Toward Putting the RNC in Some Perspective

If the image at extreme right makes you laugh, your mental health is better than mine, and perhaps being so darn well-adjusted means you don't need the constant reality check required by Mr. Bib in the form of journalism, essays, memoir, fiction and nonfiction, cartoons and jokes and commentaries, reassuring him that the more typical and perhaps (un)reasonable response is something darker than any laughter I, at least, can summon. Still, humor is a weapon, a reflex of intellectual and emotional self-defense, whether it arrives with screaming, weeping, anger or frustration and despair. Take last week's Republican National Convention (...please!), where rich white guys who stole from the commonweal can slam "collectivism" and Herman Cain (now that's funny!) can rant about high unemployment and then demand protesters "Get a job!"  If a joke falls in the forest, or in Tampa, and nobody gets it, is it still funny? Of course it is. A sick joke, sure, but, well, you know what I mean, bibliophiles. 

Indeed, the morbid unintentional satire of the RNC may mean that you don't require more cheering up. GOP delegates sure had fun, doing what reactionaries do: laughing at the wrong place, and at the wrong people, cumming in their pants over the porn fantasy of infinite wealth. The Democrats, up next week, are almost as bad, of course.  While both corporate capitalist parties pretend to acknowledge their (our) presumed desire for a social democracy, the Dems at least struggle just a little with how that's contradicted by the lack of an economic democracy. The Republicans don't even see the problem, or just don't give a shit.

But as regards the theater and culture of the Reaganoids' worldview, their showbiz problem is that they don't get the very basics of funny. Making fun of sick, poor, disenfranchised and victimized Americans ain't funny.

Teasing scientists, women, ethnic minorities? Nope. Responding to Code Pink activists, anti-war protesters, Occupiers and Iraq War combat veterans by screaming "USA, USA!" like brownshirts?  Not so high-larious, but these folks seem to have missed Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory and Sarah Silverman (with whom I am deeply in love!), and I am guessing do not watch Colbert and Stewart and Mahr, no, or read Thomas Frank or Senator Al Franken.


This morning, then, a (happily incomplete) list of some very funny and politically wise, satirical and smart novels and nonfiction, with genuine and humane wit, laugh-out-loud humor, a willingness to take on hypocrisy, most of it built on the ethical preference for challenging the powerful, illegitimate authority, bullies, nimrods, chauvinists, war-mongers, misogynists, rat bastards and the rich. Naturally, I welcome your suggestions.

Easy, fun place to start: Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here. Written in 1935, Senator Buzz Windrip, a variety of "populist," beats FDR for prez and quickly organizes his "Minutemen" and starts the "Corpo" regime, cuts women's and minority rights; well, it probably sounds familiar. Presumably Jim Gilchrist, founder of OC's own knucklehead militia, was absent the day they read this in 12th grade English class.

Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King. Explorer millionaire imperialist type goes to Africa, accidentally becomes a god-leader, fucks things up. 

Richard Russo, Straight Man. Possibly the funniest book ever written about academia. Where politics is so urgent, as they say ironically, because the stakes are so low. An unpleasant if benighted protagonist, lots of situational campus administrative comedy, and a joke on every darn page. You can't be a teacher without reading this novel. Or a student.



Stanley Crawford, Petroleum Man.  I've gone on and on in this blog bout Crawford's short,

 perfect, gently subversive novel The Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine already, but recommend all of Crawford's fiction, each book featuring a protagonist or narrator as obnoxious, unpleasant and completely winning as the previous. The premise of Petroleum Man is right out of "Drill, baby, drill" culture, although written twenty years ago.  A charmingly arrogant and self-involved "self-made" billionaire ("He built it!"), inventor of The Thingie, a totemically powerful, practically useless, environmentally dangerous and yet somehow essential consumer gizmo, gifts his unhappy, spoiled and unimpressed grandchildren totally unwanted small-scale reproductions of favorite automobiles which he once owned himself. Capitalism as fetishism, patriarchal arrogance as privilege, and hot-air self-delusion a la Newt Gingrich. He's also the intellectual author of the "General Theory of Industrial Sex."  His wife objects, in a cool plot twist, setting up a women's peace camp in the compound. Hijinks ensue.

 
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.  A classic, of course, by the gonzo daddy-o of reliably unreliable narrative and simultaneous truth-telling, the book that made crazy politics fun. For more, if perhaps better of same, see Matt Taibbi, below. 

Julia Sweeney, Letting Go of God. My absolute favorite funny line in the former Saturday Night Live comedienne and actress's one-woman atheist monologue?  "Deepak Chopra is full of shit!" Sweeney is whip-smart, intellectually honest, and yet generous in her take-down of faith, spirituality, organized religion, superstition. She is a good person, if not nearly vindictive or angry enough for me. But wicked funny. I play the audio book in the car, delighting my ten-year old. It's good for children to see adults laughing along with smart people at idiocy. Otherwise you don't know that's okay, even required. "Dad, do those people really believe what they are saying?"

Robert Reich, Locked in the Cabinet.  My biblio-pal and fellow pedagogue (Irvine Unified, retired), Jim Mamer, recommends this one, the former Clinton Labor Secretary's witty tell-all about his time struggling with the evil triangulators. He's old-school funny, laughs at himself as much as others, and does pretty good stand-up when he is not writing serious books, teaching at Cal, commenting on Marketplace or hanging at Occupy and student protests:  "An economist is somebody 

who did not have the personality to become an accountant." 

Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics and Religion.  Rolling Stone journalist and truth-teller Taibbi sings and prays with evangelicals in Texas, goes to Iraq, and hangs out with 9-11 Truthers so you don't have to!  Like Hunter Thompson, he is hilarious, but unlike HT, he seems sober and is into fact-checking, is a serious explainer of the so-called financial sector, and yet still a smart-ass!

Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot. Speaking of smart asses, the clever gal with the cute voice who made her perfect writer-radio personality name performing personal and sociological essays on This American Life.

and, later, in a series of excellent books including this one, where she travels America toward figuring out where it all went, Gettysburg, PA civil war to Salem, Mass witch-hunting.  

J. Robert Lennon, Happyland.  Serialized in Harper's because his publisher, it seems, cowered before corporate threats of a law suit, this novella tells the story of a millionaire entrepreneur who tries to make over an entire town in her own image, and toward replicating for sale the atavistic pretend history Ms. Vowell skewers, including co-opting its residents. Like Disney's weird suburban tract homes in Florida or the real-life efforts of the real-life lady CEO who scared the publishers, she encounters some resistance. 

Harry Shearer, Not Enough Indians. Lots of gags, set-up, with a sharp and mean critique of gaming in the city of Gammage, which answers its fiscal crisis with, well, you get it.  Farce and funny you'd expect from the all-around brilliant host of KCRW's Le Show, and Renaissance dude: musician, feature and documentary director, actor, voice mimic genius, civil liberties advocate and once, long ago, a Los Angeles Times columnist.  Besides being a child actor, Shearer worked briefly at the California State Legislature so he knows, as they say, from politics.

Penn Jillette, Sock.  Presto, magico. Smart alec meets wise-guy in the weird, wonderful fictional memoir of, yes, a sock monkey named Dickie, the special friend of an NYPD cop who scuba dives for stiffs. I haven't yet read Jillette's newest, a nonfiction book called God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales and approached this book with all the skepticism (!) you might imagine, but Jillette is a terrific writer and I am totally thinking I will mail a copies of this amazing, weird book and the new one, too, to Rick Santorum

I know, I know, I didn't mention everything by Alison Lurie (Foreign Affairs)Jerry Stahl (I, Fatty), David Foster Wallace (A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again), George Saunders (CivilWarLand in Bad Decline) or Steve Almond (God Bless America).   And will save for another time an appreciation for Dorothy Parker and S.J. Perelman and E. B White

I hope this list gets you through the next convention and the upcoming weeks of whimsical kno2no-nothingism, herd journalism and, well, stupid lies. Perhaps my favorite all-time real-life political moment? Trying to get a nice old lady to sign a petition to limit military spending in Los Angeles thirty years ago. She looked at the initiative on my clipboard, looked at me, then explained that "her husband takes care of that." It had been a long day. I couldn't help myself. "Well, thanks anyway, Mrs. Reagan," I said.

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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