The book is dying. The publishing industry is in decline. Or so we’re told by countless newspaper and magazine articles. Yet a glance at the bestseller lists makes one wonder: why, under these dire circumstances, can reality television stars publish novels, memoirs, and how-to guides on everything from weight loss to etiquette, while a fiction writer as talented as Charles McLeod has to find a home for his debut novel, American Weather, in England? The novel’s narrator, Jim Haskin, helps answer this question when he describes America as “ten million Hungry Man dinners, the brownie dessert burning the roof of one’s mouth, and not quite enough, and way too delicious.” McLeod has crafted a biting satire of a society that, by ceding all control over its crass consumerism, has left no room for literature that challenges the status quo. Sadly, American publishers have so far proven unwilling to take on such an unflinching portrayal of contemporary life.
American Weather is both the title of McLeod’s book and the name of Jim Haskin’s advertising firm, which focuses on the Green movement: “We do organic and solar and cruelty-free. We do hybrid, upcycled and hydro. We sell exercise bikes that can power light bulbs. We sell shoes made of hemp and car tires. If it doesn’t use gas, or the parts of dead beasts, or damage our streams or our air or our soil, we design ads and we sell it.” But as this niche isn’t as lucrative as it once was, Haskin must also take on “back room” clients like the Bleach Boys, who have been dumping hazardous waste into Oakland’s harbor, causing a public health crisis. Unbeknownst to his employees, it’s the ad campaign that Haskin devises to rehabilitate the Bleach Boys’ image that brings in the real money: “This is how cash is made hand over fist. This is how my ad firm affords vegan foie gras on birthdays.”
Herein lies an example of the image-versus-reality dichotomy that McLeod revels in exposing: without Haskin’s decidedly eco-unfriendly deals, his impressively multicultural staff of “dilettante, liberal capitalists” would not be able to afford their Priuses, four thousand dollar mountain bikes, or clothing “handmade by a collective of Peruvian weavers and sold by white people at PC Boutique.” Haskin himself relishes this role-playing, describing his American Weather self as “both simple and comfortable. All I must do to pass off this disguise is be spineless and nearly retarded with glee and hold no opinion that might be considered offensive to any disenfranchised person or entity.” Such an attitude, so bluntly expressed, is jarring. It is reminiscent of the greedy architects of our economic crisis, the same compartmentalization that allowed the Bernie Madoffs to bilk investors and taxpayers while presenting themselves as family-first philanthropists.
Haskin’s duplicity extends to his private life as well. One Jim Haskin dutifully cares for his comatose wife, the victim of a horrific drug interaction, and worries about his troubled son, Connor, who suffers from a General Anxiety disorder that manifests itself in a gruesomely violent outburst. Another Jim Haskin opens the novel in conversation with his mistress Yi-Yi, a professional tennis star. McLeod uses these contradictions to keep the pressure on his narrator — who then uses a computer hacker to do the same to his employees. With the hacker’s help, Haskin meddles in his staff’s lives to keep them from becoming too content. Contentment is anathema to the consumerist mentality that Haskin must cultivate to stay afloat. Addressing his employees in his mind, he offers a raison d’être that could just as easily be McLeod’s credo as a writer: “Know I am here to nip at Your legs, to guide You back home through the fog and the darkness.”
For Haskin, that nipping at heels takes the form of a need for more and more money. No matter where we sit on the economic food chain, McLeod reminds us, we cannot escape it altogether. Like the “Lambs” Haskin looks down upon in their search for “the salvation of endless consumption,” he must generate enough cash to keep himself afloat and the companies that hire him in business. Getting his son into boarding school, and insuring that he will graduate, requires a beachfront house on the Atlantic for a bribe. On top of this, his insurance company decides that a genetic condition, not a bad drug reaction, is the cause of his wife’s coma, leaving him on the hook for millions of dollars in medical bills.
Haskin’s solution to this problem is the Omnicast Execution Event, the specifics of which I do not want to spoil for readers. In typically ambitious fashion, the event has the potential to generate tens — if not hundreds — of millions of dollars for various corporations and the state of California, in addition to “affirming to [his] bank balance and sad, diseased mind that [he is] a person of worth and importance.” But the risk of failure is great enough that he must oversee each detail himself. This gives the book’s second half a streamlined focus that is missing from the first, in which set pieces offer opportunities for jaded commentary without ever quite coalescing into a whole.
If the novel has a weakness, it lies in Connor’s interspersed letters to his father. While they provide breaks from Haskin’s misanthropy, they also seem as though the author was unsure if his points would come across without a second point of view. For instance, when two of Connor’s soccer teammates notice a third smoking in the middle of a training run, Connor explains that they “start running faster. As if to say: we are scared of what we don’t know but if we keep running we don’t have to know and will probably wind up better for this lack of knowing. Someday they’ll hawk T-bills from skyscrapers.” Fear and uncertainty drive economic productivity, as Haskin has already made clear. Such underscoring is more effective when Connor begins to question his father’s opinions. On a trip through Gary, Indiana, for example, he realizes, “This is what it means to be American, now: our dicks in our hands, our minds lost to conjured, self-serving realms while our gas tanks fill up and the numbers turn over. We’d be arrested but we’re the police; we’d be tried and sentenced, but we are the judges.” The ideas in this passage are not new, but Connor’s passion is a welcome counterbalance to his father’s smug satisfaction. Perhaps this is mere youthful rebellion; nevertheless, it is a relief to see that someone is still willing to challenge Haskin’s view of the world.
Why, then, is American Weather available in the UK and not the US? The book is clearly topical — including references to Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and a “UniTeeFest” complete with a Guns ‘N Roses reunion and appearances by “a tipsy Jim Lehrer and a wasted John Mayer,” among others. And McLeod’s prose is as lively as any American writer’s, at once blunt and pared down yet bloated with lists of consumer goods. The sticking point is Jim Haskin and McLeod’s treatment of him.
Haskin is more than just an unlikeable narrator — a liability in its own right for some readers — he is a man who revels in his unpleasantness, in his ability to interfere in people’s lives. In most cases, this meddling is designed to keep others in their places, but occasionally, as in the case of an artist whose work he purchases so that he may destroy it in front of the man, he interferes simply out of spite and a need to assert his dominance. Even more galling for some readers: McLeod allows Haskin to get away with it. Without going into specifics, it should come as no surprise that Haskin survives his ordeals relatively unscathed, not to mention unencumbered by cheap, feel-good epiphanies. How can a man do everything that Jim Haskin does without being punished? The same question could be asked about any number of figures in the economic meltdown that occurred at the same time as the fictional events of this novel.
McLeod resists the temptation to offer a meaningful alternative to Haskin’s way of life. Virtually every other significant character is just as self-centered and materialistic as the narrator. Even those employees of American Weather who remain unsullied by Haskin’s secret machinations are obsessed with the latest eco-trends and flit from one cause-of-the-month to the next. Avoiding simplistic solutions and a satisfying conclusion makes for a bleak read, and in its skewering of our consumer culture, American Weather fits most comfortably in the dark satiric tradition of Swift and Beckett, or more recently of Brett Easton Ellis. But it also shows the type of courage we should expect from American writers but rarely find. Hopefully, an American publisher will soon demonstrate similar courage and provide American Weather the audience it richly deserves.
Matthew Duffus is a fiction writer whose work has appeared in journals such as /nor, Cimarron Review, and Valparaiso Fiction Review.