Two Mexican nationals cross the border illegally on their way to the Promised Land. Sound familiar? Well, this time it's not Tijuana to San Diego. The year is 2013, the promised land is the newly chartered state of Milwaukee (yes, Milwaukee), and the two Mexicans are the heroes of anthropologist Dakota James' second novel. An engaging, incisive satire on America's extremes set in the not-distant future, "Milwaukee the Beautiful" demonstrates no small insight into the foibles of contemporary AmeriThink, the machinations of big business, and the contradictions of corrupt politics. In a fast-paced, witty narrative reminiscent of the best of Kurt Vonnegut, James has the reader's chuckle from one line tripping over the one from the line before.
In his previous novel, "Greenhouse: It Could Happen in 1997," James outlined in broad strokes the elemental features of his future-history. Unchecked population growth has intensified worldwide pollution, finally breaching an atmospheric "tip-over point," and precipitating a global "greenhouse" effect.
By the year 2013, a resurgence of the "States' Rights" movement has allowed for the creation of new states: Buffalo, Duluth, St. Petersburg, the Idaho and Alaska panhandles and, of course, Milwaukee. The greenhouse effect has abated slightly, convincing Americans that their wanton disregard for population and environmental issues was, after all, entirely justified. But to the Southwest, the failed foreign policies of one American President after another have resulted in the continued influx of vast numbers of Central Americans and the creation of a border-length Rio Grande Wall. As with the fence that today separates Mexico from the United States, the Rio Grande Wall is useless in stemming the ever-present tide of humanity.
To the border come "Milwaukee's" two protagonists: Diego Rivera Garcia Lorca Grenada, a middle-age magical-realist writer turned farmer and nicknamed "Pooch," and his traveling companion, an 18-year-old aspiring artist named Charles (Rico) Far. Both of these Mexicans, through fortuitous circumstance of birth, speak fluent English--Rico because his father was an Americano , and Pooch because he was adopted as a child by the British consul to Mexico. Their English, and tenacity, enable them to outwit the migra . They escape from a detention center for illegals fashioned out of the Carlsbad Caverns, and eventually reach their destination, Milwaukee the Beautiful.
And what do Pooch and Rico find in Milwaukee? Nothing less than Dakota James' alternative to a world future based on overpopulation, overproduction, shoddy workmanship, ICBMs, foreign debts and disregard for human life.
Milwaukee is a state built on the premise that "Small Is Beautiful," whose flag bears the motto, "There Are Limits," whose building code reinforces the craftsmanship of traditional architecture, where pornography is outlawed and where child and elder abuse have been entirely eliminated by the strict and public enforcement of the "Tar and Feather Emergency Provision of Public Law 466LR."
As Pooch and Rico soon find out, Milwaukee, above all, is a State of Mind, one in which the governor unabashedly proclaims the important things in life to be, "grandma's recipe for rhubarb pie," a pair of suspenders that, "won't let you down," feeding the ducks in park lagoons. . . . " If this sounds too Utopian, too sentimentalist, perhaps it's because we have grown accustomed to having these same traditional American values misused to sell us hamburgers, automobiles, beer and life insurance. We have cause to be suspicious.
"Milwaukee the Beautiful" may be only an unattainable state of mind, but one we musn't lose sight of, for the sake of our collective future