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American gothic

U.S.! A Novel Chris Bachelder Bloomsbury: 306 pp., $14.95 paper

February 26, 2006|Rich Cohen | Rich Cohen is the author of "Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams" and "The Record Men: The Chess Brothers and the Birth of Rock & Roll." His new book, "Sweet and Low: A Family Story," will be published in April.

ANY face, viewed too closely, will appear as unreal as a face in a dream. In his second novel, "U.S.!," Chris Bachelder looks too long in the face of Upton Sinclair, the great muckraking socialist of the American past and author of 87 books, including "The Jungle," a seminal work that took readers inside the Chicago slaughterhouses. The real Sinclair died in 1968, mostly forgotten but still fighting. In "U.S.!," Bachelder imagines the muckraker exhumed from the dead, assassinated, exhumed and assassinated, again and again, each time sticking around just long enough to write one more book, give one more speech, promise one more revolution, get shot or harpooned or stabbed one more time.

It's Sinclair as an American version of the Hidden Imam, the lost monarch who will return from the desert to lead a final jihad. Here, the naked, bullet-scarred image of the author is a perfect symbol of the American left, a tattered old man who keeps getting resurrected and killed. "Another dingy motel room," writes Bachelder, "another strange-eyed visitor, another unregistered handgun."

"U.S.!" is divided into two parts. The first is a kind of mockumentary on the afterlife of the muckraker. In it, we get many views of Sinclair, most of them hilarious. We read fictional transcripts from police tip lines ("I just saw Upton at the Shoney's breakfast buffet. The one on Clifton, not the one out by the interstate. That one's disgusting"), reviews of his (new) books ("Quite aside from the naivete and artistic bankruptcy of his narrative mode, Sinclair proves himself, on nearly every page, to be woefully out of touch with contemporary culture, as when he calls a fax machine a 'Telepaper Device' or when he described one of the vehicles in a high speed chase as a 'Vanette' ") and even a memo regarding a Sinclair-themed video game called "Glorious Phantoms." ("Lyle, the kids who play our games don't want to make the world a better place.... They are unconcerned about the distribution of wealth and access to the means of producing. They want to shoot things.")

I guess you could call these postmodern effects, but to me, this section of the book resembles an old American folk painting, in which you see many versions of the same figure, from above and below, in and out of scale, as if through a shifting prism. It's like one of those Grant Wood canvases that at first glance looks straight-up real, but when you examine it, appears as familiar history retold as fairy tale with everything glazed and alien.

"U.S.!" is also akin to perhaps the greatest progressive work in American literature, the "U.S.A. Trilogy" by John Dos Passos. In addition to a play on Sinclair's initials (as well as those of the United States), the novel's title echoes Dos Passos, who, like Bachelder, sought a new way to get at the American experience. There is even a stream-of-consciousness section here called "The Camera Eye," a heading Dos Passos used in "U.S.A." In it, Bachelder emerges, as if the camera had swung wildly, catching the writer at work. We see him discussing a photo -- the only picture in the book -- of what appears to be himself and his siblings carrying picket signs in front of their suburban house. "[W]hen I am older than my father was then I say dad do you remember this day he says of course I do," Bachelder writes, "and dad what was written on those signs lisa says she can't remember and my father says nothing there was no writing on them they were blank the kids were playing protest just imitating it's what they saw all around them this was 1968 it's what people did." The fact that the signs are blank is not insignificant. Nor is the fact that the picture was taken in 1968, the year the old rabble-rouser died. By then, we as a culture were already moving from Sinclair-style mass movements into the current era, in which protest is often seen as an expression of style.

The second part of the book offers a suspense-filled run-up to one of the many assassinations, or attempted assassinations, of the often-assassinated Sinclair. It's a classic confrontation between hero and antihero: Sinclair versus the novel's most infamous assailant, a man named Joe Gerald Huntley, who has already killed the muckraker three times. When Huntley wonders why he should again kill Sinclair, whose movement has long since been relegated to the dustbin of history, he is reminded by his own biographer, the award-winning and bestselling Lionel T. Pratt, that other issues are at stake. "The Left may be dead, Joe," Pratt intones, "but the fear and hatred of the Left will never die. It's an American passion. Sinclair could write cookbooks and run for dog-catcher in Alaska, and he'd still be picked off, and we'd still get six figures for the gripping account."

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