Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen (2016)

‘This is Florida, the land of batshit, trigger-happy motherfuckers.’ (p.82)

Andrew Yancy

The most notable thing about Hiaasen’s 14th novel is that it is a direct sequel to his 13th, featuring the same protagonist (former Monroe County detective Andrew Yancy), the same girlfriend he ended that novel with (Dr Rosa Campesino), and the same running feud with the owners of the vacant lot next to his, on the island of Big Pine Key, who are threatening to build a mansion which will block out Yancy’s restful view of the sunset.

At the start of book 13 Yancy was kicked off the small Monroe County police force for assaulting the husband of his then-mistress. Bonnie Witt. The easy-going head of the Monroe police, Sonny Summers, had to drop Yancy after the press furore about the assault, but got him a job he cordially hates, as a health and safety or ‘roach’ inspector of local restaurants.

Yancy is ‘a tall, lean man with a baked-in Florida tan’ (p.134) in his early 40s. He is a regular smoker of dope, who sometimes does his job or gets involved in the novel’s various criminal escapades, half-stoned. Like other Hiaasen heroes he is too honest and blunt for his own good, ‘prone to an acid bluntness that produced poor results careerwise…’ (p.55)

As usual with Hiaasen, Yancy was soon joined by a blizzard of other characters, all of whom are given complicated backstories and then placed in ever-complexifying situations and interlinking storylines.

Buck Nance

The central thread which just about keeps all the complex storylines of this novel together concerns a popular reality TV show titled Bayou Brethren, about a family of rednecks who live and bicker on a chicken farm in the Florida panhandle.

The star of the show is one Buck Nance, a middle-aged redneck with a long salt-and-pepper beard, who runs the chicken farm and so has acquired the ironic nickname Captain Cock (p.58). He lords it over his brothers, has a tough bitching wife, Krystal, but is also screwing a ‘sex-crazed’ mistress with the porny name of Miracle, on the side. (It is a given in all Hiaasen novels, that American marriage entails infidelity.)

In reality, like everything in Hiaasen, the entire show is a meretricious fake and a scam. Buck’s real name is Matthew Romberg and he and his three brothers ( Bradley (TV name: Junior), Henry (TV name: Buddy) and Todd (TV name: Clee Roy, p.68) are actually from rural Wisconsin.

They were in an unsuccessful band named Grand Funk Romberg (a jokey riff on the actual American hard rock group, Grand Funk Railroad) when they were talent-spotted on account of their hick appearance and cast as the central characters in the new show (p.71). The brothers have had to be extensively coached in every aspect of the Florida redneck life which their adoring fans consider them to epitomise: the Cajun accent, the chewing tobacco, the down-home oaths and jokes, it’s all fake.

Lane is kidnapped

The novel opens with Buck’s agent, Lane Coolman, a no-nonsense, cynical New York talent agent working for Platinum Artists Management who owes his career and wages and expense account lifestyle to Buck’s success, arriving in Miami to supervise some ‘gigs’ Buck is scheduled to give. These ‘gigs’ consist of Buck sitting up on stage telling good ole boy stories and jokes while a guitarist noodles folk melodies behind him and Lane supports and whispers prompts from the wings.

Instead, as he drives from the airport to his hotel, Lane is kidnapped by the criminal Zeto (full name Juan Zeto-Fernandez) and his sexy, unhinged sidekick, Merry Mansfield. They use a technique known as ‘bump and grab’ whereby Merry bumps her (stolen) car into the rear of Lane’s hire car. When he pulls over and gets out to remonstrate, he notices her jeans are down to her knees and her knickers pulled down and she is shaving her pubic hair while she is driving. Merry is the Razor Girl of the book’s title.

Lane is speechless with astonishment and anger, as he watches Merry apologetically pull up her panties, then quickly becomes addled with lust. Thus, when Merry declares her car a write-off and asks if he can give her a lift to the nearest service station, Lane readily agrees. But when they get there, Zeto is waiting with a gun, climbs into the passenger seat and orders him to drive. He’s done gone and been kidnapped, the sucker.

Martin Trebeaux and beach renourishment

In fact, typically for Hiaasen’s comedies of accidents and misadventures, it turns out Zeto and Merry have grabbed the wrong guy. Zeto had been hired by a New York mobster, Dominick ‘Big Noogie’ Aeola, from the Calzone crime family (p.139) to kidnap a crooked businessman named Martin Trebeaux, who was scheduled to drive a similar colour car along the same highway at the same time and looks similar to Lane. Oops.

Why was Trebeaux the intended target of a grab? This requires a bit of explanation. Trebeaux runs a big company resanding Florida beaches in a process known as ‘beach renourishment’. This is because global warming and rising sea levels are washing away lots of Florida’s luxury sandy beaches. Trebeaux’s company, Sedimental Journeys, rakes up tonnes of sand from just offshore and replenishes vanishing beaches.

So far, so reasonable. But Trebeaux is a crook. His company has been dogged by scandal. Firstly, the resanding process tends to muddy up the water and produce thousands of dead fish which wash up ashore, putting off the very tourists it’s meant to attract. Discovering this early on, Trebeaux moved his  sand dredging operation to the Bahamas, shipping the sand back to Miami. But it had the same environment-destroying impact in the island and when this was reported on the news and even prompted a BBC investigation, he was forced to shut it down, too (p.32).

Then Trebeaux took some bad advice from a contact who told him he could use sand from a ‘burrow pit’ (something I think we would call a gravel pit) on the edge of the Everglades. This Trebeaux proceeds to excavate and ship to the beach behind the Royal Pyrenees hotel. But the sand from this source turns out to be not only hard and sharp but to contain recycled asphalt and even broken glass! Soon after it is laid, tourists start cutting themselves to shreds and trade to the hotel plummets.

And this is where the mob comes in because the Royal Pyrenees hotel is owned by them and managed by their man, Dominick ‘Big Noogie’ Aeola. This is why Big Noogie had hired Zeto to kidnap Trebeaux. But Zeto screws up and kidnaps Lane, who quickly makes it clear he’s the wrong guy. Nonetheless, Zeto and Merry tie and gag Lane while they ponder what to do with him, Zeto casually weighing the pros and cons of killing him.

Long story short, after failing to bump Len off on a boat, Zeto reluctantly agrees to take him along with them when they have another go at bumping and grabbing the actual Martin Trebeaux the next day and, during the confusion, Lane manages to wriggle out the window of the car he’s being held in and run off, eventually finding a payphone and calling his boss in LA.

Buck’s disastrous gig

Now the important thing about Coolman being mistakenly kidnapped is that he provides a vital psychological support to his TV star Buck Nance when the latter does his ‘gigs’. Buck has a guitarist strumming along in the background but it is Lane’s reassuring presence just offstage that gets him through the gigs, giving him confidence beforehand and prompting him if he dries, as he tells good ole boy stories and jokes to his redneck audience.

So Buck turns up for his ‘gig’ at a bar called the Parched Pirate on Duvall Street in Key West and, without either the guitar player (whose absence is unexplained) or Lane (who we have seen being kidnapped en route to the gig) Buck’s set goes disastrously awry. Instead of the usual stories he panics, forgets his script and ad libs some off colour jokes from Wisconsin about blacks and then about gays. This turns out to be a terrible idea because the Parched Pirate is actually a gay hangout.

The upshot is there’s a riot, Buck is grabbed, beaten up, has his shirt ripped off and his long grey beard forcibly chopped off with scissors before he can flee for his life, ducking through a maze of back alleys and eventually hiding out in the tangled branches of a huge banyan tree where he stays, thoroughly razzled, for the entire night.

During the ruckus he has lost his wallet and his mobile phone and he looks like crap. He has been reduced to bum status.

Enter Yancy

Believe it or not, this is where Yancy comes in, because next day he’s called to a restaurant run by Irv Clipowski (‘a long-distance runner with a goatee which he dyed goosewhite’), which generally has good hygiene standards, but where they’ve found hanks of grey hair in the quinoa vat. The hair has apparently been chucked there overnight and the reader quickly realises it’s the remnants of Buck Nance’s beard, forcibly cut off him by an enraged crowd and chucked through an open window.

Yancy clears up the sample of rogue hair cuttings and orders the restaurant owners to do a thorough deep clean of their kitchen.

As it happens, later that day, Rogelio Burton, a friend of Yancy’s who’s still a detective on the Monroe police force, mentions that a big fuss has kicked off about this TV star, Buck Nance, who’s gone missing and when, that evening, Yancey watches a few old episodes of Bayou Brethren out of boredom, he suddenly realises the grey hair in the quinoa looks identical with Buck Nance’s grey beard in the TV show. Huh. A clue!

Now, Yancy is bored with his job and pissed off because his long-term girlfriend, smart Dr Rosa Campesino, formerly of the Miami morgue (her job when he met her), now working in a hospital emergency room, has abruptly announced that she’s going to Europe, to Norway, without him. It feels like a snub and they part at the airport on bad terms. At a loose end, on impulse, Yancy decides, what the hell, he’ll have a go at tracking down this missing TV star.

Fallout from Buck’s bad gig

Meanwhile, the president of Platinum Artists Management, John David Ampergrodt, known as Amp, is going nuts because Nance’s homophobic, racist jokes were recorded by some of his audience and immediately posted on YouTube. Not only that, but Buck’s unhinged girlfriend, Miracle, becomes convinced that the missing Buck has run off with some other woman and so hacks into the Bayou Brethren‘s Facebook page, adding a photo of Osama bin Laden and making it look like Buck is jokily comparing his own beard with the famous terrorist’s.

So Amp finds himself in the midst of a major PR disaster, when Zeto lets Lane rings up desperately begging for a ransom to be paid so that mad Zeto doesn’t waste him (while Zeto and Merry are still holding him). You can see why Amp doesn’t immediately believe Lane or grasp the seriousness of the situation. 12 hours later Lane rings from a roadside phone box to say he’s managed, as we’ve seen, to free himself from his kidnappers but, again, Amp is too distracted by the crisis in hand to take him seriously.

(There’s a running thread that Lane has a wife, Rachel, who is planning to divorce him and is currently ‘revenge fucking’ her way through all the men in Los Angeles, notably Lane’s boss John David Ampergrodt, who routinely meets her at the Wilshire Hotel for quick cunnilingus and boning sessions [p.144]. We are given graphic descriptions of comic moments when Amp has his head rammed firmly between Rachel’s parted thighs and is slurping away when his phone goes off with an important business call. The hard life of a Hollywood agent, eh. Lane has a divorce lawyer working for him and trying to discredit Rachel. The lawyer’s name is Smegg [p.278].)

Pause for breath

So: what’s going to happen to Martin Trebeaux, who by now Zeto and Merry have successfully kidnapped? Where’s Buck Nance hiding out and what’s going to happen to him, now beaten up, penniless and beardless? Will Yancy manage to find Buck or will he get dragged into the whole Zeto-Merry-Trebeaux storyline? Will there be a happy resolution to Yancy and Rosa Campesino’s relationship, which seems to have fallen on hard times? Stay tuned, folks.

Main plot developments

There are so many complicated plot ramifications and complexifications it’s hard to keep track. Here are the highlights:

Zeto electrocutes himself trying to adjust the plug on the cable to an electric car he’s stolen, so he’s out of the story quite early on.

Trebeaux is handed over to Big Noogie who, with a hardass assistant (‘the man with the ivory toothpick’), attaches surgical clamps to Trebeaux’s ‘nutsack’ (scrotum) and then dangles him from a local railway bridge until Trebeaux admits the sand he rebeached the Grand Pyrenees with was sub-standard and promises to do everything in his power to fix it.

Merry astonishes Lane by bumping into Lane a few days after he escaped from her and Zeto and calmly asking if she can move into his motel room with him. Merry is a splendid fictional creation, a constant fount of unexpected and unpredictable behaviour. She refuses to conform to any conventions, kidnapping someone one minute then wanting to be their friend. She concocts extravagant and hilarious lies at the drop of a hat. After a brief period with Lane she then arrives on Yancy’s doorstep (see below). There’s a funny piece of dialogue where she explains to Yancy that she doesn’t regard herself as a criminal at all, but more of a performance artist (p.93).

Brock and Deb I need to mention Yancy’s neighbours. After he drove away the property developer who was trying to build on the lot adjacent to his house in the previous novel, the lot has now been purchased by a shyster lawyer, Brock Richardson, and his good-looking spoiled fiancée, Debbie. As with the previous owner, Yancy embarks on a campaign to drive them away, which includes drunkenly firing his rifle at beer bottles he lobs into the air close to the border fence when Brock and Deb are around. In a later gag he gets a buddy of his that he plays poker with to pretend to be a state archaeologist and ‘discover’ ancient teeth on the site, which he claims must have belonged to the Calusa native Americans who occupied this land thousands of years ago. The fake archaeologist immediately declares that all building works will have to be suspended while the site is fully excavated, much to Brock’s fury (p.177).

Pitrolux Worth mentioning that one of the book’s dozen or so storylines focuses on Brock’s role as the lawyer for a series of class actions he’s managing against a new wonder-product named ‘Pitrolux’. This is a combination underarm deoderant which also cures erectile dysfunction i.e. gives men boners which last for hours. Despite what he knows about its ill effects, Brock himself starts taking Pitrolux and his rock-hard, everlasting erections rekindle his love life with Debs, until he starts to suffer from the same side effects as all his clients, namely a) the erections won’t go away, last for hours and become really painful, and b) the growth of unsightly skin tags or polyps in the shape of tiny penises in his armpit, which Debs discovers and freak her out.

The diamond ring A simple incident occurs early on which turns out to become central to the plot. Yancy spies Deb poking around in the as-yet-unbuilt-on plot. He jumps over the fence and aggressively questions her. Turns out she has lost the massive engagement ring Brock gave her which cost him $200,000. She’s pissed off because it was slightly too big for her finger, Brock having originally bought it for an earlier, tubbier fiancée. Yancy pretends to help until Debs gets fed up and leaves, at which point Yancy picks it up from where it was lying concealed in long grass.

Yancy stores the monster ring in a tub of hummus in his fridge and what happens is, through various coincidences, a series of bad guys hear about the missing ring and come to pay Yancy visits. Thus, at one point Trebeaux and Richardson meet by complete accident in a bar and both mouth off about their woes. But when Richardson mentions the missing $200,000 ring, and that he thinks Yancy has stolen it, Trebeaux passes the news along to Big Noogie in a bid to impress his new mafioso boss.

Big Noogie immediately decides the ring will be just perfect for his son to give to his fiancée, and sends a couple of hard men round to Yancy’s to intimidate or, if necessary, torture its whereabouts out of him. They only have to start slashing up Yancy’s sofa before Yancy gives in and hands it over.

Merry moves in By this point half a dozen other things have happened. For a start, when Lane moves out of his motel into a smarter hotel, Merry has nowhere to stay and so turns up on Yancy’s doortstep. To his own surprise he takes a keen liking to her, for her independent, free-spirited sassiness. She’s great fun, an outrageous liar and flirt and fantasist. Some of her extended riffs are very funny and help to make this, at least in the first half, arguably Hiaasen’s funniest novel (for example, page 166).

‘You don’t know what to do with me, do you? I love that!’ (p.257)

There’s also broad comedy when Yancy’s estranged girlfriend, Dr Campesino, phones from Oslo and every time it seems, by bad luck, to be Merry who answers the phone. One time by bursting into the bathroom where Yancy is having a shower so that she answers the call from Rosa but then hands it over to an obviously naked Yancy (p.148). Yancy finds this (understandably) difficult to explain and Rosa for her part announces that she wants to stay in Norway.

Comedic though the shape of this storyline is, it contains a very serious social point. Rosa has worked all her life in either the Miami morgue or Miami emergency ward and she’s had enough. She’s snapped. She’s had a sort of breakdown. She just can’t face the sound of endless police sirens from morning to night, and she can’t face any more the task of patching up children – children – with extensive gunshot wounds. On one of their long, difficult calls Rosa tells Yancy how many murders there have been in Oslo that year. The answer: one. Two farmers got into a drunken fight and one hit the other with a shovel a bit harder than he meant to. Guns are illegal in Norway, so there is no gun crime, compared to:

a place as ethnically diverse and gun crazy as Florida. (p.298)

It’s a serious point about the stupidity of America’s gun laws and its out-of-control epidemic of violence and I read it on the same day there was a mass shooting in the very same Miami Rosa is talking about, Hiaasen’s Miami.

‘These people [the Norwegians] have evolved in a positive direction,’ Rosa said. ‘Americans are heading the other direction.’ (p.377)

Anyway, the fact that Merry seems to have moved in with him explains why she is present when Big Noogie’s goons arrive and why she helps to persuade Yancy to give in and hand over the diamond. Mind you, Yancy is easily persuaded because he is, at the time, lying on his sofa recovering from a bad knife wound to the gut. Knife wound?

Yes, because there is an entirely separate plotline which only really gets going in the middle of the book but then comes to dominate it. This rotates around a redneck cretin named Benjamin ‘Blister’ Krill who is a fanatical fan of the Bayou Brethren, so fanatical that he has a massive tattoo inked across his shoulders reading HAIL CAPTAIN COCK.

When Buck climbs down from the banyan tree the morning after the riot in the bar he sets about shoplifting a new shirt and hat and shades etc. But Blister Krill recognises his hero and tries to engage him in conversation. When Buck repeatedly rebuffs him (p.200), idiot Blister gets furious, whips out his knife and frogmarches Buck through the tourist crowds in Key West, out to the dock and onto a little put-put boat which he drives out to a knackered old boat he owns, a cabin cruiser named Wet Nurse. Here he handcuffs Buck to a bunk in the cabin until he learns some manners.

From this point onwards Blister becomes a sort of daemon ex machina, the wild card driving the plot. Things escalate when Blister, inspired by the kind of racist language Buck used at his ill-fated gig and which has triggered an outpouring of redneck bigotry across the internet, spots a foreign-looking guy on the tacky touristy Conch Train which weaves through Old Key West, goes up to him and starts yelling Islamophobic abuse.

This poor man, Abdul-Halim Shamoon, is from New York where he has a family and children and runs a harmless electronics retail shop (p.126). He’s loaded up on tacky souvenirs which he’s planning to take home for the kids when a rough redneck confronts him and starts spitting insults in his face. So Shamoon tries to get off the train while it’s still moving but falls awkwardly onto a tacky porcelain gewgaw he’s bought which pierces his sternum and punctures his aorta. There and then he bleeds to death all over his tropical tourist shirt and souvenir knick-knacks. Blister runs off into the crowd.

Hiaasen’s early novels feature some outrageously grotesquely violent incidents, such as the hitman who gets a dead pitbull attached to his arm in Double Whammy and the angry New Yorker who crucifies a crooked property developer to a satellite dish in Stormy Weather. Later novels try but, I think, generally fail to match the first fine careless insanity of these early incidents. Having Shamoon fall on some tourist gewgaws and bleed to death isn’t outrageous enough to be blackly funny. Instead it feels genuinely tragic and sad.

Anyway, Blister runs off, but some bystanders provide identification of sorts and the ‘murder’ of Shamoom gets mixed up with the ongoing disappearance of TV star Buck Nance in a whole load of complicated and twisted ways.

Yancy, bored and hoping to impress his ex-boss by solving the crime, picks up various clues which lead him to Blister in his crappy apartment, where he’s barely begun questioning him (with absolutely no authority; he is no longer a detective and the head of Monroe’s Police force has emphatically told him to stop interfering) when Blister takes a ‘spazzy’ swipe at him with a knife, not stabbing him but raking a cut across his stomach.

Luckily enough Yancy was accompanied by Merry, who manhandled him out the apartment, into their car and ran all the red lights to get home to a hospital ER in 6 minutes.

Being the tough guy hero of a thriller / obstinate failed cop and stoner (take your pick) Yancy refuses to stay in hospital overnight after he’s been stitched up, and insists on going home where he can lie on his own sofa and get pleasantly stoned while Merry tends to him. Which is precisely the moment Big Noogie’s hoods choose to arrive and threaten to turn over his house till they find the $200,000 engagement ring.

Complicated, isn’t it? There’s a lot more. Blister then kidnaps Lane Coolman as well as Buck and ends up with both of them handcuffed to bunks in the cabin of his rancid old motor yacht. The only way the two men can persuade Blister to let them go is with a plan which goes beyond any bounds of sanity or probability: the three concoct the idea that Blister will join the cast of Bayou Brethren as Buck’s long lost brother. It’s Blister’s idea, and he comes up with a long and extravagant backstory to justify his sudden appearance in the show. Lane is one tough, cynical agent and, despite having been kidnapped and handcuffed to a bunk in a rancid old boat, he can actually see Blister’s plot twist working.

The result is that Blister releases them from their handcuffs, takes them back to the mainland, Lane calls Amp at the agency’s office in Los Angeles, pitches the story and, to the reader’s increasing disbelief, Amp flies out to meet the (by now genuinely psychopathic and dangerous) Blister in person.

This storyline now spins way out of control leading to a scene where Blister is taken for a spin in Amp’s private jet along with his common law wife, Mona, and Lane and Buck as they drink champagne and discuss the finer points of the contract he’s going to be signed to. All is going well until Amp’s big black bodyguard, Prawney, makes a grab for Blister’s Glock semi-automatic which he’s been carrying round for the past hundred pages. The gun goes off, shooting Prawney through the cheeks and in the chest. Amp orders the pilot to turn the plane round and land back in Key West. Well, as business meetings go, that wasn’t a great success.

Trebeaux and Juvenile

Now he’s come all this way south to sort out the sand situation, Big Noogie likes it in Key West. After Trebeaux had been hung off the bridge and made the wise decision to co-operate fully with the mob, he’d been flown to New York to meet the heads of the Calzone family who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse i.e. took over his company wholesale (p.139). On the way Trebeaux had introduced Noogie to a scam he’d never heard of before, which was to get hold of a dog and dress it in a hazard jacket and pretend to be disabled so as to blag a better seat on the plane. Americans appear to call this a ‘service dog’ (p.410). When they fly back to Key West together, Trebeaux wants nothing more to do with the dog and the Noogie finds himself looking after it and slowly getting to like going for regular walks through the tourist crowds of Old Key West and along the beach. Yes, life here is nice and relaxing.

Anyway, Trebeaux is still orientating himself in his dangerous new situation vis-a-vis the mafia, and is unpacking in his hotel room when there’s a knock on the door and Big Noogie’s mistress, a big florid flake nicknamed Juveline (a name she acquired when a New York cop couldn’t spell ‘juvenile’ on her arrest sheet) walks into his room and asks whether he fancies a mind-blowing fuck. Trebeaux says yes and they go for it. Soon she has become his mistress, two-timing the Big Noogie.

Trebeaux knows this is a very bad idea but is turned on by the sheer outrageousness of the situation and they keep having regular sex, Juveline explaining that Big Noogie is such a big, fat, middle-aged guy that he isn’t that interested in it. Also, Noogie doesn’t get jealous if she disappears for days on end to her relatives’ houses or shopping and such, which gives her plenty of opportunity to be unfaithful.

This plotline reaches a peak when Trebeaux tries to pull a scam on the Big Noogie, bullshitting that he has heavyweight connections in Havana Cuba who will do a deal to supply world-class pink sand from Cuban beaches to make the Royal Pyrenees beach the envy of Florida. Unwisely, Trebeaux lets Juveline talk him into taking her on the 2-day jaunt to Havana.

Only trouble is that Juveline talks in her sleep and one night cries out ‘Harder, Marty, harder’, much to the surprise of Big Noogie lying next to her, who instantly realises what’s going on (p.389). Thus, when Trebeaux has landed and made himself at home in Havana, and goes to meet Juveline off a later flight, it is not Juveline he sees walking through passport control but the same hardman who applied the surgical clamps to his nutsack and helped dangle him off the bridge. Ah. Oh. Bad. In fact Trebeaux’s body is discovered a few days later, buried on a beach. So, that’s the end of him, then.

Funny

Razor Girls may well be Hiaasen’s funniest novel, meaning the one which made me laugh out loud the most. For two reasons: Yancy develops a really buddy-buddy routine with fellow detective Rogelio, which leads to lots of snappy repartee:

YANCY: ‘The human bloodhound is what they call me.’
ROGERIO: ‘A pain in the sphincter is what they call you.’ (p.87)

OK, so it’s not Oscar Wilde, but in the context of a fast-moving, American crime comedy caper, and in the context of the sustained backchat between the pair, it’s good, it works.

But the main reason is for the indefatigably unpredictable behaviour of fantasist and survivor Merry Mansfield. Almost everything she says and does is wonderfully confident, bluff and canny. Unquenchably amoral. At several points Yancy realises it would be wise to tell her to move out and make a break with her, but she’s just so much fun to have around.

It was hard to picture an even-keeled relationship with a person who took her last name from a  dead movie star and and crashed automobiles half-naked for a living. (p.284)

Men

Once again, as in many previous Hiaasen novels, the entire male sex comes in for sustained criticism, yet again, for their pitiful addiction to sex. Flash most men some boob or a whiff of your panties and they turn into drooling slaves. Most of this comes from the mouth if Merry, inventor of the shaving pubes scam, who has the lowest possible opinion of pathetic men.

  • Merry said, ‘Men. I swear.’ (p.44)
  • ‘Men are so pitiful.’ (p.93)
  • ‘his poor little pecker…’ (p.119)
  • ‘You men.’ (p.134)
  • He said, ‘Yeah, I know. Us men, we’re pitiful.’ ‘Totally, Andrew.’ (p.190)
  • ‘Men, I swear.’ (p.285)
  • She had had ‘a lifetime of being disappointed by men.’ (p.360)
  • ‘Men are the worst.’ (p.364)
  • ‘Men are so freakin’ predictable.’ (p.415)

One touch on the pecker and men become ‘immune to rational thought’ (p.388). I wonder if Hiaasen made the same kind of sustained criticism of women or Jews or blacks or Muslims, whether his liberal readers would take it all in good spirit and laughingly accept the sustained barrage of negative stereotypes.

American slang

Hiaasen’s novels are notable not only for their very dense plots, overflowing with colourful characters and garish incidents, but for the aggressive ‘attitude’ of the narrator himself, who freely uses street slang and swearwords to describe his characters and their doings, and liberally sprinkles the text with those handy terms for things and actions which Americans just seem to have and we Brits don’t. I found this novel particularly rich in new terminology, in fact I became addicted to collecting them.

  • app = short for appetiser. ‘His calamari app.’
  • baggie = a brand of plastic bag, Yancy uses them for stashing mank he finds on his restaurant inspections, such as rodent ‘scat’
  • baked = stoned
  • to ball = to fuck cf. to bone. ‘Is she still balling that dickface Drucker?’ (p.370)
  • to bang = to fuck, cf, to ball, to bone. ‘Don’t bang a stranger.’ (p.404)
  • bank = big money. ‘You saved the agency some serious bank.’ (p.63)
  • a beat-down = a severe beating. ‘So I can cancel your beat-down?’ (p.414)
  • berserk-o = adjective meaning wild, crazy. ‘The beserk-o side of the place [Miami] was basically all you saw, if you were a cop or a coroner.’ (p.190)
  • to bitch someone out = nag someone, generally a woman bitching out a man (p.252)
  • blow smoke = to bullshit, make something up. ‘… that didn’t mean Trebeaux wasn’t blowing smoke.’ (p.182)
  • to bone = to fuck
  • bonehead = ‘A stubborn, thickheaded and determined person that doesn’t think things through before acting upon them’
  • boner = erection (p.374)
  • to brace = to meet, to confront (p.393)
  • a bumblefuck = insult
  • Bumfuck = generic term for inconsequential settlement in the middle of nowhere, as in Bumfuck Wisconsin or any of the other anonymous mid-Western states.
  • a bump and grab = a type of criminal scam: one crim bumps their car into the back of the victims car; when the victim stops, they’re hijacked / kidnapped
  • to bus tables = to be a waiter
  • buy the farm = to die. ‘… a biker who’d bought the farm at Mile Marker 19.’ (p.304)
  • buzzed = adjective meaning ‘stoned’
  • to can = to fire. ‘No wonder the sheriff canned your ass.’ (p.188)
  • chunk-muffin  = fat person (p.36)
  • cockhead = variation on dickhead, an idiot, an annoying or vexatious person (p.367)
  • cold one = a beer (p.306)
  • cooch = pussy, fanny, vulva. ‘…shaving cream all over her cooch…’ (p.260)
  • to crack the blinds = of closed blinds, to prise them apart to spy through them (p.327)
  • courtesy fuck = a guy buys a woman dinner, chocolates etc, she owes him a courtesy fuck
  • cracker = term of contempt for poor whites, particularly of Georgia and Florida, dating back to the American Revolution, and derives from the cracked corn which was their staple diet
  • to dick around = to waste time (p.309)
  • dickface = loser, idiot (p.370)
  • dickweed = an asshole or idiot so pernicious they are like a weed (p.384)
  • dirtbag = person who is committed to an alternative lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other social norms i.e. washing
  • to do = have sex with. ‘I’d do her.’
  • Dogpatch = name of a fictional poor rural community in the U.S., especially in the South, whose inhabitants are unsophisticated and have little education. Hence its use as an adjective: ‘A Dogpatch moniker like Clee Roy should have stuck in his head.’ (p.188)
  • a doobie or doob = a joint, cannabis cigarette (p.328)
  • dopp kit = small bag made for transporting toiletries in a convenient and portable manner
  • douche, short for douche bag = ‘a dick, an asshole, a jerk, whose crass behaviour has led them to be compared to a cleansing product for vaginas.’
  • a dust bunny = ball of dust and fluff (p.326)
  • dweeb = abbreviation of ‘dick with eyebrows’, implying the person is a walking penis
  • flake = an unreliable person; someone who agrees to do something, but never follows through (p.311)
  • four-top = table for four in a diner
  • to frog = to punch someone in the upper arm or chest with the middle knuckle partially extended to inflict a sharp concentrated blow
  • fry cartons = generic name for the kind of flimsy, grease-stained cardboard cartons you get takeaway fast food in
  • fuckwhistle = idiot, moron, one who lacks the most basic common sense to make correct decisions
  • fuckweasel = person who behaves in a sneaky manner to create favourable circumstances for themselves at the expense of others
  • gank = to steal. ‘I think the asshole who lives next door might’ve ganked it.’ (p.181)
  • gas up = fill a car with petrol (p.346)
  • goatfuck = a monumental screwup. (p.410)
  • goober = term of affection for a lovable, silly, lighthearted person: ‘…a crew from ET [was] interviewing some sunburned goober’ (p.97)
  • googan = a person wearing trendy sports clothing that is completely clueless in the ways of fishing
  • goomah = a mafioso’s mistress
  • grab-ass = the act of wrestling or chasing another person with the intention to touch or squeeze that person’s butt
  • a grow house = a room or rooms or larger space where marijuana plants are grown (p.245)
  • a hardass = someone who takes no shit off anyone, someone who expects to get their own way and won’t take no for an answer; dominating (p.364)
  • hard chargers = party animals. ‘Rogelio didn’t screw around on his wife, never stayed out late with the hard chargers.’ (p.82)
  • hardcore = adjective meaning serious, intense, relentless. ‘This judge is hardcore.’ (p.370)
  • honcho = a person in charge of some group or function. ‘The network honchos…’ (p.247)
  • horn, on the = on the phone
  • horndog = a guy or girl that is always horny. ‘He couldn’t rule out the possibility that he was a hopelessly shallow horndog.’ (p.284)
  • iced = adjective meaning killed or completed, depending on context. ‘I’ll have [the contract] iced by the next time we walk.’ (p.238)
  • an innie = belly buttons come in two shapes, innies and outies
  • to jack = ​jack something or somebody (for something) to steal something from somebody, especially something small or of low value (p.322)
  • jackoff = a stupid, irritating, or contemptible person
  • jag = ‘To “be on a jag” or “go on a jag” means to be completely unrestrained, whether you’re on a drinking jag or a crying jag.’
  • jazzed = expression of extreme happiness. ‘I am totally jazzed to hear your voice.’ (p.238)
  • jewels = penis and testicles. ‘I mean she’ll kill me, cut off my fuckin’ jewels and kill me all over again.’ (p.90)
  • jizz = semen (p.268)
  • Johnson = penis (p.374)
  • junk = cock and balls. ‘Next she made him dunk his junk in a bucket of ice cubes…’ (p.287)
  • landing zone = woman’s genitals (p.331)
  • look fly = look smart, well presented (p.359)
  • mash = press hard. ‘He mashed the Lobby button half a dozen times…’ (p.309)
  • meathead = overmuscular man, too much time at the gym, can’t string a sentence together (p.292)
  • meat hog = muscle i.e. goons i.e. hired enforcers (p.322)
  • mick = Irish (noun or adjective) (p.373)
  • mo-fo = adjective, short for ‘motherfucking’, suggesting ‘big’ (p.180)
  • a mope = a person of any race or culture who presents themselves as uneducated and possibly criminal either by behaviour or clothes
  • a mouthbreather = a retard: someone so stupid they never learned to breathe through their nose
  • nooner = a sex session during a lunch break or around noon; made famous by Al Bundy of ‘Married with Children’. ‘She promised him that she was done with payback nooners at the Wlshire.’ (p.409)
  • nosebleed heels = heels so high your head is in the upper atmosphere, hence the nosebleed
  • a numbnut = someone who is a constant source of trouble, an individual who screws up, or constant makes mistakes
  • nut sack = scrotum; male characters in Hiaasen novels are always getting something bad happen to their nut sacks, in this novel Trebeaux has some surgical clamps (hemostats) attached to his balls
  • nuts = testicles
  • on the lam = on the run, very old slang
  • a peckerwood = used by Afro-Americans to describe a rural white southerner, usually poor, undereducated or otherwise ignorant and bigoted (p.381)
  • to peel out = to drive or go away. ‘Yancy grinned at the sight of the Taurus peeling out.’ (p.190)
  • to peel rubber = to accelerate an automobile very rapidly (p.364)
  • piece = gun (p.370)
  • poon = woman’s genitals. Short for ‘poontang‘, ditto (p.308)
  • a pop tab = the flip top on drink cans
  • to pop a tent = to have an erection that shows through your trousers, or erects a bedsheet
  • pussy hound = ‘a dude who’s main goal in life is balling ladies.’
  • rearview, to put someone in your rearview = get over someone, move on (p.302)
  • rebar = reinforcing steel used as rods in concrete.
  • revenge fuck = joins mercy fuck, courtesy fuck and sportfucking as categories of fuck. ‘Rachel was the undoubted queen of the revenge fuck in a town with many contenders for the title.’ (p.42)
  • the root prong = of a tooth (p.178)
  • salvor = ‘a person engaged in salvage of a ship or items lost at sea’
  • sawbuck = $10
  • scat = poo; ‘rodent scat’ (p.84)
  • schlep = noun: a long and tiresome journey; verb: to make a long and tiresome journey. Yiddish (p.373)
  • to screak = to make a harsh shrill noise : screech
  • shit-bird = a completely useless individual who is unaware of their own complete uselessness
  • shit-heel = adjective. ‘…his shit-heel brothers…’ (p.221)
  • shitkicker = insult
  • shitstick = insult
  • shitsucker = insult
  • shitweasel = person who is sly, sneaky, and opportunistic; someone who is looking to slip their way into a shitty situation and make it even shittier
  • a shucker = someone who shucks oysters, clams, corn, walnuts etc out of their shells
  • sick = adjective meaning really good, cool or very impressive
  • a slim jim = a tool used to open doors on cars, by ‘pulling up’ the lock within the door, hence the verb, to slim jim a car. ‘… content in mid-life to be slim-jimming cars…’ (p.275)
  • slut puppy = person who uses their adorable looks to attract a partner or partners for a casual sexual encounter
  • to snitch out = to betray. ‘A million bucks says you wouldn’t never snitch out your wife.’ (p.358)
  • to spazz out = sudden, fast movement(s); to go mental (p.373)
  • spazzy = adjective meaning clumsy or inept, with an overtone of demented or mad. ‘Benny Krill had made one spazzy swing with the blade…’ (p.192)
  • to stare down = verb: to look fixedly at someone in a hostile or intimidating way till they look away
  • a stare-down = noun: the act of looking fixedly at someone in a hostile or intimidating way till they look away (p.386)
  • stoner = someone who regularly smokes marijuana: there are many different types of stoner
  • swag = merchandise. ‘He promised to donate a truckload of Brethren swag to an auction benefiting the local kids’ baseball league…’ (p.248).
  • tanked = stoned
  • tank suit = a woman’s one-piece swimsuit with high-cut legs. Merry wears one (p.300)
  • a thundercunt = that much more cunty than an ordinary cunt. ‘She’s a major thundercunt.’ (p.62)
  • toot = to snort, generally cocaine (p.329)
  • to tune up = to give someone an attitude adjustment by beating their ass. ‘… the man who’d just tuned up Rick and Rod…’ (p.275)
  • a tweaker = a methamphetamine addict; derives from ‘tweak’ which is a slang name for methamphetamine’. ‘Mr Nance isn’t just some homeless tweaker.’ (p.47)
  • unspooled = adjective meaning unhinged, bonkers
  • weed = marijuana aka grass
  • a whack job = a nutcase, a lunatic
  • to whale at something = to hit something forcefully and repeatedly
  • to whorehop = to go from one (loose) woman to another, regardless of consequences (p.61)
  • to wig out = ‘to suddenly become unnecessarily worried, anxious, upset, or paranoid most often while under the influence of an intoxicating substance, especially marijuana’
  • wild-ass = adjective meaning crazy. ‘The van driver figured out they were being tailed, and made a wild-ass turn off Flagler Avenue.’ (p.362)
  • wood = an erect penis; thus ‘to get wood’, ‘to have wood’. Brock Richardson: ‘Never waste good wood.’ (p.288)

Englishisms

In among the blizzard of Americanisms I was struck by a handful of times Hiaasen uses what I think of as very English terms, such as nitwit (p.361) and thick (p.215). I wonder whether he was deliberately trying to include as much novel slang as possible in this book i.e. it has a conscious philological interest over and above the storyline.

Once again I note that the woman riding cowboy style is Hiaasen’s (fictional) sexual position of choice, Merry riding Yancy (p.254) just as Dr Rosa Campasino rode him on the morgue dissection table and, later, in his bath. Appropriate for the general ‘girls on top, men are pitiful’ theme of so many of his novels.

Handy phrases

  • Sonny Summers wasn’t the sharpest tack on the corkboard. (p.47)
  • ‘Not my circus, not my monkey.’ (p.185)

Credit

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2016. All references are to the 2019 Vintage Crime paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen (1986)

Reading the final novel in William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy was like having my teeth pulled out one by one. It was a gruelling slog. Several times, as I forced myself to crawl on across the shiny, beautifully engineered desert of Gibson’s prose, I caught a glimpse of a pile of old Carl Hiaasen paperbacks I bought in the 1990s lying around by my shelves, and began to fantasise about escaping from Gibson’s pretentious, globe-trotting, expense account narratives, with their exhaustive descriptions of every item of clothing every character is wearing, and the expensive cars they drive and the pretentious gadgets they use, and Gibson’s eerie absence of plot and disappointing denouements, for something simpler and funnier from a simpler, funnier time.

Hiaasen’s books, by contrast, are quick and hilarious. Instead of Gibson’s laboured, carefully-wrought, burnished chrome sentences, Hiaasen just tells it quick and dirty.

‘Look at that crybaby,’ Jesús Bernal said, scowling at the heartsick Indian. ‘Somebody shot his pet lizard.’
‘You shut up,’ Viceroy Wilson hissed at the Cuban, ‘or I’ll nail your nuts to your nose.’ (p.218)

Hiaasen’s plots are outrageous and farcically convoluted (as opposed to Gibson’s plots which are contorted and obscure yet consistently disappointing). Hiaasen’s characters are varied, over the top and grotesquely colourful, unlike Gibson’s monotonously soundalike ‘cool’ characters who display as much personality as shop window mannequins.

Potted biography

Hiaasen was born in 1953 in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He graduated with a degree in journalism and, by 1976, was writing for the Miami Herald where he worked for the city desk, Sunday magazine and award-winning investigative team. In 1985 he became a thrice-weekly columnist for the paper. Meanwhile, the ambitious author had already published his first novel, Powder Burn, co-written with friend and fellow journalist William Montalbano, in 1981, followed by Trap Line 1982.

In 1986 came his first solo novel, Tourist Season. It’s a rip-roaring comedy crime thriller, by turns breath-takingly violent and gut-wrenchingly funny. The plot makes sense, albeit in a savagely satirical manner, and the characters are immediately colourful and entertaining.

The setup

The lead writer and columnist for the fictional newspaper the Miami Sun, ‘Skip’ Wiley, who had been writing increasingly savage satirical pieces against the ruination of Florida by mass immigration from other parts of the US of fat philistine retirees, finally goes postal and sets up a half-assed band of environmental ‘revolutionaries’, dedicated to acts of terror designed to wreck Florida’s reputation as a haven for the old and tasteless. They call themselves Las Noches de Diciembre and consist of Skip himself (aged 37) and:

  • Daniel ‘Viceroy’ Wilson (black, 36), previously a star fullback for the Miami Dolphins football team who, after being dropped from the sport, spent some time as a drug addict and a petty criminal, before reading up on history and realising how his people had been exploited, cleaning himself up and dedicating himself to the fight against the white-dominated Florida establishment
  • Jesús Bernal (Cuban, late 20s), a shifty, sneaky Hispanic, formerly a member of an anti-Castro group named the First Weekend in July Movement, who was their lead bomb-maker and letter-writer, but was kicked out for his farcically inept attempts at making and planting bombs (they’re always going off too soon or he blows up the wrong people) and in any case, his revolutionary politics are a pose, since he was born and raised in New Jersey, graduated from posh Dartmouth College, and has never been to Cuba in his life
  • Tommy Tigertail (mid-20s), a cool, looming, unspeaking member of the Seminole Nation who, in one of the novel’s thousands of ironies, are allowed to run gambling operations and so have made a fortune by catering to the infatuation of white retirees for bingo – like the others he is motivated by anger at white men’s over-development of Florida’s natural habitat, and also whitey’s victories over his forebears

Tommy keeps a ‘tame’ crocodile named Pavlov and in the early phase of the ‘revolution’, the Noches kidnap random tourists and feed them to the crocodile, starting with a blameless middle-aged tourist visiting Florida on a convention of Shriners, Theodore Bellamy, whose fez washes up on a Miami beach. The Noches crank things up a notch when they kidnap president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce, B.D. ‘Sparky’ Harper, dress him in Bellamy’s garish tourist outfit then have the crocodile tear him in half and stuff the remains in a tourist suitcase for the cops to find, with a a toy rubber alligator lodged in his throat.

So the novel is, in part, a satire on a terrorist group made up of cranks and, to some extent, ethnic stereotypes; but mostly a fierce satire on the tackiness of northern tourists in Florida, and the desperate and destructive commercialisation of the state and its fragile environment.

There are two other groups of characters, namely the cops and Wiley’s fellow journalists. Chief among the cops is Al García, Detective Sergeant for the Metro-Dade Police Homicide unit, who we see being routinely patronised by his predominantly Anglo colleagues and by the decidedly white, middle-aged men of the Chamber of Commerce. García is appointed head of a task force to catch the terrorists.

As to the journalists, at the Miami Sun were are introduced to two main characters, the paper’s long-suffering managing editor, Cab Mulcahy, and Ricky Bloodworth, a wet-behind-the-ears reporter. Energetic and ambitious, Bloodworth yearns for success in journalism, but lacks all the qualities necessary for a good reporter, including sensitivity, tact, and even basic writing skills. It is a running gag that Skip reads the articles about him and the Noches in the Sun and is professionally insulted when they fall below his own high standards and rings up the paper’d editor to shout down the phone at him. He is especially enraged when Bloodworth rewrites some of the copy he himself has submitted.

The joke being an ironic one about journalists as a profession, that Skip may have become a murdering fanatic but he still gets incandescent at poor writing style.

(It’s also a running gag that most of the white cops and journalists find it hard to pronounce Las Noches and don’t know what it means, finding it much easier to refer to the nachos, much to Skip’s exasperation.)

Sitting mid-way between these groups, and overlapping all of them is probably the central character of the book, Brian Keyes (32), a former reporter for the Sun and now a private detective, who gets caught up in the increasingly psychotic behaviour of Skip’s ramshackle band of would-be terrorists.

The victims

  • Theodore Bellamy, shriner
  • B.D. ‘Sparky’ Harper, president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce
  • Renee LeVoux, tourist from Montreal
  • Ida Kimmelman, retiree
  • Dr. Remond Courtney, shill psychiatrist
  • Pavlov: a giant American crocodile
  • Jenna: Skip’s girlfriend, Brian’s ex-girlfriend

Plot developments

Keyes is hired by the widow of Theodore Bellamy to find out what happened to him. Slowly it becomes clear the Noches, led by his old friend and star newspaper reporter Skip Wiley, murdered him. In her meeting with the widow, she introduces him to two burley Shriners, colleagues of Theodore, who volunteer to help him.

Keyes goes out into the Everglades in search of Las Noches and finds a derelict cabin on stilts. He’s captured by Las Noches and forced to watch the ritual killing of tourist Ida Kimmelman, as Viceroy and Tiger throw her to the crocodile, Pavlov. Brian tries to stop them but sneaky little creep Bernal stabs him in the back. The Noches motorboat Brian back to the mainland, dumping him on a highway, where he flags down a car and is taken to hospital to be treated.

Skip’s girlfriend is the flakey Jenna, who Brian used to go out with, so there is an immense tangle of emotions and relationship damage, particularly since her loyalties seem to waver between the two men.

Keyes tails Jenna from her apartment to the airport, where he discovers that two Shriners have been tailing him. With commendable professionalism, the Shriners identify that Jenna has caught a plane to Grand Bahama, and all three catch the next one.

Here Keyes tracks Wiley down to a beach where he is sunning himself and confronts him with his deeds. He tries to reason with him, but Wiley puts his side of the argument: 1,000 new Northerners arrive every day to foul up Florida’s beautiful countryside, the only way to protect it is to terrify them away.

Keyes seriously contemplates killing Skip there and then to prevent any more innocent civilians being kidnapped and murdered. But while he’s still figuring out the possibilities, Skip blows a whistle and a bunch of compliant Bahamian cops come running, arrest Keyes and the Shriners and deport them. Skip has lavishly bribed the local authorities.

Just before he blew the whistle, Skip portentously announced to Keyes that he is planning the biggest spectacular so far, and mysteriously announces he is going to defile the most famous virgin in Florida. Keyes spends the plane journey home wondering what this can possibly mean and, by the time he has another meeting with Cab Mulcahy, has come to the conclusion that Skip and Las Noches are going to disrupt the annual beauty pageant and parade which leads up to the climax of the state football season.

One of the consistent characteristics of Hiaasen’s novels is their artful construction, whereby he creates about 4 or 5 sets of characters and then stages their increasingly convoluted and frantic interactions with masterful skill. That and a steady stream of outlandish and grotesque incidents.

Ricky Bloodworth and the bomb

A good example is the bomb. Jesús Bernal is a short weedy guy who feels jealous of the tall manliness of the others in the Noches and is continually trying to prove what a real man and real terrorist he is. Inevitably each attempt is even more of a fuck-up than its predecessor.

This Bernal has the bright idea of posting a parcel bomb to Detective Al García who is doing a good job tracking down Los Noches. But unfortunately the parcel arrives on García’s desk at the police station as ambitious young journalist Ricky Bloodworth is hanging round waiting for a scoop. In García’s absence and convinced the package contains vital information, Bloodworth swipes it and nips down to the station toilets to open it. It is perched on his lap when he opens it and triggers the bomb, which explodes, blowing his fingertips off and scorching his penis. See what I mean by outlandish and grotesque.

The kidnap of Detective García

When he reconvenes with the other Noches Bernal is ridiculed for his abject failure and for  so he ups his ambitions and kidnaps García, driving him out to an isolated lake where he tries to get him to sign a document admitting he is a traitor to the cause of Cuban Liberation, the cause García kids himself he is a leading light in. The scene builds up to a gruesome climax when Jesús shoots Al in the shoulder with a shotgun and his body falls into the lake, but we have been following Brian Keyes as he tailed the car out to this isolated spot and now Keyes shoots Bernal dead.

The cruise ship full of snakes

Next evening Skip pulls off another of his anti-tourist stunts. He hires a helicopter and flies low over a cruise ship full of fat tourists, abruptly throwing from the chopper loads of shopping bags. Initially the tourists think it’s some kind of marketing game until the bags land and out of them slither thousands of swamp snakes. Panicking passengers dive off the ship which radios for the Coast Guard but as it begins to fly in in pursuit, there’s a big surprise for the reader as Skip’s helicopter unexpectedly crashes at sea before it reaches land. There’s realistic wreckage and no bodies are found.

The Orange Bowl Parade

Throughout the second half of the novel the city authorities, the cops and Brian had been assuming that Skip’s threat had meant he was going to attack the annual Orange Bowl parade. Central feature of this is the presence of the winner of the annual beauty pageant., so this prompts a lot of satire about the utterly impure and often seedy motivation of all concerned behind such parades.

At the final pageant the young woman chosen to be beauty queen is Kara Lynn Shivers who has only entered the pageant to please her father. The authorities had been thinking the Noches were going to  attack the parade and seize the queen, but they didn’t want to ruin it and wreck the start of the tourist season by either calling it off or stuffing it with heavy-handed cops. Instead Garcia suggested a compromise which is to hire Brian Keyes as personal bodyguard to Shivers. Initially wary of him, Shivers begins to appreciate his honesty and valour and the pair, unexpectedly, fall in love.

Although Skip’s helicopter appears to have crashed and the Noches been wiped out, the authorities take no chances and Brian’s personal protection of Shiver is accompanied by a strong undercover police presence, and the Orange Bowl Parade itself is described in great detail and the reader is genuinely on tenterhooks about whether something very bad will happen. But it doesn’t. The entire thing passes off without a hitch and there is a sense of anti-climax among all concerned.

The big game

It is only after the parade is over, Kara has gone home and Brian has gone off duty that it dawns on him that on the following evening Kara will make a brief appearance during half time at the big annual football game. He buys a ticket and goes along, but is helpless when the Noches do appear, outrageously and flamboyantly, using an airboat to skid across the football pitch and scoop Kara from the half time podium.

The black ex-football player ‘Viceroy’ Wilson had bribed one of the players to lend him his kit so that he can take part in the kidnap, scooping Kara off the podium and then helping her into the airboat, but Kara fiercely resists. The airboat is followed by none other than the two dogged Shriners we met right back at the start of the novel and, at the moment when Viceroy finally throws the squealing Kara into the airboat and turns and gives a black power salute, one of the Shriners shoots Viceroy dead.

Tommy Tigertail is piloting the airboat out of the stadium and hands Kara over to Skip waiting in a fast car, which roars off down the road before the stadium cops can catch up. Tigertail turns in the other direction and heads off to hole up with his uncle somewhere in the swamps, hoping to never see a white man again. (Note that Tommy makes a cameo appearance in Hiaasen’s 2006 novel, Nature Girl, which features his mixed-race nephew, Sammy Tigertail, as a lead character.)

In a fury Brian descends on Jenna’s flat. Up to now she has limply defended Skip’s actions and Brian has given her the benefit of the doubt because he still holds a candle for her. But now he is furious. One of Skip’s foibles was keeping all his cuttings in a real wooden coffin. Brian rips it open and leafs through all his cuttings.

Confrontation on Osprey Island

One of them gives a clue that he has taken Kara Lynn to a remote place called Osprey Island, a small nature preserve in the middle of Biscayne Bay.

Cut to Skip on the island with Kara Lynn who he has tied and gagged. He explains that a massive new condominium development has been planned for the island which is going to be ploughed flat. Step one was the developers have comprehensively mined the island with dynamite set to be exploded at dawn.

Now Skip explains to Kara Lynn that he is going to leave her here to be blown up along with the rest of the island’s wildlife and when her death is discovered it will cause such a stink that it will send a ‘revolutionary’ message to Florida’s greedy developers. As he explains all this Skip is impressed by the way Kara Lynn keeps her head and tries to reason with him. He begins to regret his plan, certainly taking her gag off and listening to her. Shame. She seems like a sweet kid.

He’s still talking to her when Brian arrives and shoots Skip in the leg. Brian tells him the boat he came is out of fuel, they need his one to escape in. Initially Skip refuses to tell Brian where he has anchored his boat and is ready for the dynamite to kill all three of them till Brian reveals that he brought Jenna along too. At which point Skip caves in, tells him where his boat is moored but, to Brian’s surprise, refuses to come along. He will see his crusade out to the bitter end.

Kara, Jenna and Brian run to Skip’s boat, fire it up and are motoring away as the seconds count down. As they come out into clear water they all see the Skip is climbing a tree because a bald eagle nesting there has returned to its roost and Skip is desperately trying to scare it away.

After so much comic mayhem the novel ends on a surprisingly moving note, just as the ‘all clear’ signal for the detonation sounds, with Jenna, Brian and Kara all praying for the eagle, a powerful symbol of the dignity of the Florida environment, to fly away and be safe.

Nostalgia

Ah the good old days, before the internet, before smartphone, before social media. When the only phones were in offices, private homes or payphone boxes on the street. When the height of digital technology was sending a fax. When there were computer monitors and keyboards on desks but only so you could send documents through internal systems, such as journalists sending their copy to the printing section of the Miami Sun. None of them were connected to the wider world. Nobody had heard of the internet let alone smartphones and social media. People were just as corrupt and violent but the technology they were corrupt and violent with was easier to understand.

Also, no mention of climate change. Hiaasen was writing from a time when green and environmental issues really were for a tiny minority of fruit loops and eccentrics. What everyone now knows about global warming and systematic environmental degradation (death of the corals, seas full of plastic) has tipped the balance in Skip’s favour. Doesn’t seem so mad now. This novel feels like a message from much simpler times.

Florida’s environment

In 1986, when this novel was published and Hiaasen was raving against the overpopulation and resulting environmental destruction of the state, Florida’s population was 12 million. Today it is 21 million. People means pollution, means degradation of the environment, destruction of habitats, obliteration of other life forms. Thus:

Sprawling development has carved wildlife habitat into smaller and smaller pieces, divided by highways or paved over altogether for shopping malls and office parks — threatening state symbols such as the Florida panther and the Florida black bear. Many of Florida’s coastal marshes and barrier islands — home to endangered wildlife such as manatees, wood storks and loggerhead sea turtles — have been transformed into marinas and condominiums. The Everglades, a unique ecosystem that is home to 68 federally endangered or threatened plant and animal species, has already lost half of its area to agricultural and urban development and continues to face pressure from South Florida’s booming development. (Floridian nature)

I wonder whether anything Hiaasen has written has had any impact at all in slowing the destruction of Florida’s environment. (If you read his most recent novel, Squeeze Me, his explicit reply is No. Squeeze Me explicitly despairs of saving the Florida environment, which he now [2020] sees as irreparably ruined.)


Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Spook Country by William Gibson (2007)

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself.
(Spook Country page 174)

The Sprawl trilogy

Gibson’s first three novels made up the Sprawl trilogy (1984 to 1988), science fiction stories set 50 or so years in the future (Gibson is on record as saying he thinks Neuromancer is set in 2035) in a society dominated by huge urban conurbations (the entire East Coast of America has ceased to be made up of distinct cities and is one endless dome-covered megacity known as the ‘Sprawl’). This future society is drenched in digital tech where hackers can plug their brains directly into the vast matrix of digital data flows. The narratives of all three Sprawl novels unfold grippingly complex plots, told in adrenaline-fuelled, cyberpunk prose, leading up to the revelations that these vast rivers of data are reaching an omega point whereby the combined power of the worldwide web is arriving at a transformational moment when it will gain full self-consciousness (exactly as the Skynet defence system does in the contemporaneous Terminator franchise of movies).

The Bridge Trilogy

Gibson’s next three novels formed the Bridge trilogy (1993 to 1999), set a more modest 20 or so years in the future, around 2010 or so, after a cataclysmic earthquake has struck California causing the state to be split in two. They take their name from the Golden Gate bridge which was so badly damaged in the quake that it was abandoned as a means of transport and was quickly squatted by all manner of lowlifes, the poor and marginalised, who turned it into a futuristic favela made up of home-made building units, streets and shops suspended from the bridge’s steel coils, a vivid and striking recurring image.

Against this backdrop were set the intertwining stories of Gibson’s quirky characters: a tough security guard down on his luck, a sexy bicycle courier, a mentally challenged digital ninja who spots patterns in the endless flow of data around the internet, a rock star who marries an entirely digital cyber-woman, a deaf and dumb street kid, a silent Taoist assassin. The techie ends of the plots involved digital headsets and some internet technology but there was a lot less of it than in the Sprawl novels and, similarly, the prose was still zippy and tight, but less densely street cool than in the earlier trilogy.

The Blue Ant trilogy

Then came the Blue Ant Trilogy (2003 to 2010) of which this novel is the middle instalment. These complete Gibson’s ‘retreat from the future’ and are set in the contemporary world, each one set more or less the year before they were published, so roughly 2002, 2006 and 2009 respectively.

I thought Blue Ant was going to refer to something cryptic and obscure and cool and so was very disappointed to discover it’s just the name of the secretive (fictional) advertising agency run by super-clever, super-rich philosopher-businessman, Hubertus Bigend. When I first read that name it struck me that Gibson was taking the piss out of his legions of fans and devotees in the book world, taunting them to swallow such a preposterous moniker. At that point, my willing suspension of disbelief in Gibson’s fiction snapped and I realised several things:

Irritating features

1. A little like J.G. Ballard in his final phase, Gibson has ceased being a writer of inspiringly visionary science fiction and has become the author of slick, very well-made but ultimately pretty traditional thrillers, with a bit of pop culture window dressing to tickle the style magazines, i.e:

Women

The protagonists are mostly young women (Cayce Pollard in book 1 of this trilogy, Hollis Henry in books 2 and 3).

Paint it black

Everyone wears black, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black shades, black underpants, black jeans, black socks, black shoes, because black is cool, daddy-o. Groovy, man. Dig your black shades, baby.

Ethnic characters

There’s a lot of ethnic minorities involved, gesturing at our modern multicultural, cosmopolitan societies although, noticeably a) nearly all of them are East Asian – I mean Japanese or Chinese – with very few, if any people, of colour, and b) none of the lead characters are not Caucasian. In this, as in so many other ways, despite the superficial gloss, pretty traditionalist.

Digital

There’s still quite a lot of hi-tech digital gadgetry but it’s got more and more meh. Also, instead of being a prophet, his books have started to be wrong and misleading when it comes to the digital world. He is writing quite limited ideas of virtual art but this was overtaken even as Gibson wrote his books by the far more revolutionary impact of smartphones and social media.

In both Spook Country and Zero History the lead character, Hollis Henry, is researching and writing about a small group of ‘cutting edge’ artists who are creating holographic art works which exist in public spaces, on street corners, but can only be seen by people wearing the right hi-tech headgear. It’s called ‘locative’ art. Well, that never caught on, compared to Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so on. The central revolution of social media is how mass it is, how many people have taken up, with plenty of anti-social and negative effects. None of this is anticipated in Gibson’s books.

Instead he is a) working on a very outdated cultural model that new developments will come among a tiny cohort of avant-garde artists and b) much more telling is the fact that the ‘locative artist’ Hollis first meets and interviews, Alberto Corrales, has gone to this enormous time and effort in order to create 3D holographic images of…. Jim Morrison and River Phoenix, the latter an image of Phoenix’s body lying dead of a drugs overdose outside the ‘legendary’ Viper Rooms in Los Angeles. In other words, fantastically dated and retro. Creating 3D images of dead rock gods and movie stars struck me as the opposite of cutting edge.

Rock music

I find it almost unbelievable how tiresome, dated and crappy Gibson’s obsession with rock music and rock bands is: characters constantly reference Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison as if they released their latest discs last week instead of having been dead for half a century. But far more important in terms of making the books almost unreadable is the fact that the central character of the second two novels, Hollis Henry, was actually in a rock band – she is the ex-singer of a now-defunct fictional rock band called The Curfew.

We learn next to nothing about how the Curfew actually omposed their songs or recorded or performed them because Gibson isn’t actually interested in music at all. As someone who plays piano and guitar and has played bass in various bands, I know something about these processes and feel embarrassed for Gibson as he fills his books with would-be ‘cool’ insights about the world of rock music and the practicalities of music making, which feel as they’re copied from the pages of naff style magazines from the 1980s.

There is nothing, nothing, about the actual music. No description of the chord structures, the guitar or piano or bass sound, the tempos or dynamics of any of the songs, the challenge of performing highly produced music live, nothing. If you are actually interested in rock music (as I am) these books are a desert, a black hole of zero information on the subject.

Instead rock music is used by Gibson as a marker of hip, of cool. It allows the characters to make endless ‘cool’ references, to be hip to drugs, man, and bleat about the traumas of being endlessly ‘on the road’ and smashing up hotels and having immense fights and then ‘breaking up the band’, man.

This isn’t an incidental detail, it’s central to the other characters Hollis meets and interacts with. During the novel she taps up the other members of ‘the band’: guitarist Reg Inchmale, drummer Heidi Hyde, and makes countless wistful references to Jimmy Carlyle, the bassist who managed to kill himself from a heroin overdose, his death bringing the band to an end.

It’s bad enough having to meet the ‘wise’ and dependable Inchmale and the super-angry, over-emotional Heidi Hyde in Spook Country but when all three characters are relocated to London in Zero History we have the added indignity of meeting other members of the ‘rock elite’ from other crappy, made-up bands, who are all as insufferably ‘cool’ as each other and all know all about the local ‘scene’, man.

You’d learn more about the dynamics of an actual band and actual music-making from watching Spinal Tap. Or The Blues Brothers in which actual music is actually performed. No music is performed in any of these books. God forbid. It would upset the hang of the characters’ black designer jackets.

Disappointing lack of insight into the present

Concurrently, Gibson has ceased writing about the future. Step by step each trilogy has retreated from the future and now Gibson is just writing about… the present, just like ten thousand other novelists and columnists.

The first two novels in the Blue Ant trilogy heavily referenced the big events of their day, namely 9/11 (2001) and the war in Iraq (2003). This should be riveting to someone like me, a close follower of contemporary politics, but, very disappointingly, Gibson’s novels have almost nothing to say about international or domestic politics or contemporary society. Contemporary society is a consumer paradise and, behind the scenes, it’s a bit corrupt, seem to be his big discoveries.

By now there are no ideas at all in his novels, which are really showcases for a 50-something’s Dad ideas of ‘cool’ – rock bands and rock chicks wearing black t-shirts and black leather jackets and black shades, impressing each other with snazzy gadgets, flying round the world on Hubertus Bigend’s bottomless expense accounts, on wild goose chases which have a disappointing tendency to fizzle out at the end.

The trouble with writing a ‘neat, up-to-the-minute spy thriller’ (as the London newspaper Metro described Spook Country when it first came out) is that neat, up-to-the-minute spy thrillers quickly go out of date. Who wants yesterday’s papers?

For example, Gibson seems proud of the way some of the characters ‘Google’ something on the internet, as if that’s a super-early use of the verb. His lead character is shown hacking into other people’s wifi rooters, as if how to do that is a big discovery. Bigend gives his employees bolt-on scramblers to attach to their phones. A central element in the plot is people using iPods as containers for contraband information. 14 years later this all seems very, meh, very yawn.

In interviews Gibson said the novel is set in the spring of 2006, before the financial crash and, more importantly, before the advent of Facebook, twitter and the rest of the social media programs. It is, therefore, a novel which claims to be with-it and futuristic, but now reads like a relic from an antiquated, pre-social media world.

The plot

As usual with all Gibson’s novels, there are three distinct storylines each featuring small groups of characters, appearing in self-contained, alternating chapters. For over half the novel these separate storylines appear to have nothing in common, so part of the book’s entertainment value is wondering how they will eventually impinge and collide, and being on the qui vive for the clues the author drops as he slowly weaves them together.

1. Hollis Henry

Hollis Henry is a young freelance woman journalist who’s been engaged by a magazine named Node, a fictional European version of the real-world tech magazine Wired (p.39) (so you have to have a feel for what Wired is about to fully place her. It is worth noting that Gibson has been a regular contributor to Wired magazine and featured on its cover in its first year, 1994 so he knows whereof he writes, and his writing in general confirms me in my suspicion that I never need to read a magazine like Wired.)

Hollis’s job is to write a piece about a digital artist named Alberto Corrales who uses ‘locative’ technology to create cutting-edge digital artworks in Los Angeles (you put on a headset and see 3-D versions of the corpses of famous Hollywood characters in various downtown locations).

Hollis was a member of the ‘legendary’ fictional band, The Curfew, alongside band drummer Heidi Hyde, guitarist Reg Inchmale and bassist Jimmy Carlyle, which impresses the people she meets, including the ‘locative artist’ Corrales, as well as the owner of Node, advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

2. Tito

Tito is aged 22 (p.11) and Alejandro (aged 30) are cousins, part of an extended family of immigrants to America.

‘They’re one of the smallest organised crime families operating in the United States. Maybe literally a family. Illegal facilitators, mainly smuggling. But a kind of boutique operation, very pricey. Mara Salvatrucha looks like UPS in comparison. They’re Cuban-Chinese and they’re probably all illegals.’ (p.230)

Tito lives in a crappy apartment in Manhattan. They are refugees from Havana, Cuba where, improbably, their grandfather seems to have been something to do with the KGB (p.72). Their aunt, Juana, is a devout believer in Afro-Cuban pagan gods of Santería, with numerous incense-laden shrines to them in her apartment.

It’s only a third of the way into the novel that we come to realise that both Tito and Alejandro are well-trained operatives in a Russian spy methodology. They have been raised in the way of the systema, the Russkie name for cutting-edge spycraft. It slowly emerges that they are following the orders of someone referred to simply as ‘the old man’ (we never learn his name but we do learn that ‘he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate’ (p.296), a characteristically dated, Beatnik reference.)

3. Milgrim

Milgrim (no indication whether this is his first name or last name) is an unusually literate drug addict who is fluent in Russian, and in particular an Anglicised form of Russian which is referred to as Volapük by the shady secret operative, Brown, who has sort of kidnapped Milgrim and keeps him dosed up with the prescription tranquiliser he’s addicted to, Ativan. (Milgrim’s drug dealer when was at liberty was Dennis Birdwell, p.100)

Having no money of his own, and being utterly dependent on the daily doses of drugs which Brown allows him, Milgrim is forced to tag along while Brown plants listening devices on what he refers to as an IF (short for Illegal Facilitator, page 17). Early on we learn that the apartment Brown is going to the effort of bugging, and the figure he is spying on from a camouflaged van full of surveillance equipment, is none other than Tito the Cuban refugee. Why? That’s precisely the question the reader is meant to ask, and which draws us into the ensuing 350 pages of tangled plot.

The MacGuffin

The pointless goal

According to Wikipedia:

“In fiction, a MacGuffin is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself. The term was originated by Angus MacPhail for film, adopted by Alfred Hitchcock, and later extended to a similar device in other fiction.”

In most of Gibson’s novel there is some secret which brings together the 3 or 4 separate groups of characters, in an elaborate interweaving of storylines towards whose revelatory climax the narrative hurtles with ever-increasing speed.

The incessant travelling

Something which isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article is that the MacGuffin often requires an extraordinary amount of travelling to find it. This is as true of the Holy Grail in the original medieval Arthurian legends as it is of, say, the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark or the endless driving and traipsing around Los Angeles required by Philip Marlowe, at the more humdrum end of the spectrum.

In hundreds of thousands of other narratives like these, the seekers after the MacGuffin must travel far and wide and undergo various perils in order to track it down.

And so it is that, in the second half of this novel, the three sets of characters make substantial journeys across America to arrive at the slightly unusual location for the denouement of the plot, Vancouver docks.

1. Tito and the old man are taken from New York by van to a private airfield, and flown in a plane which stops numerous times to refuel en route at remote rural locations across America, arriving on an island where they pick up a jeep concealed in brush, drive to the coast and are in turn collected by a boat which transports them by sea into Canada.

2. Hollis and Odile fly from Los Angeles to Vancouver, are greeted by a Blue Ant functionary who drives them to the astonishingly luxurious Blue Any apartment, complete with free cars and a hover bed.

3. Milgrim and Brown go by train from New York’s Penn station to a safe house in Philadelphia and then by swish Jetstream private jet to an island from where they are taken by boat across the border into Canada.

Trains and boats and planes. The extent of this gee-whiz travel and the fact that everything is paid for and pre-planned is one aspect of the novel’s fantasy escapism. How lovely to have someone lay on all this expensive travel without a moment’s hassle.

The mastermind paymaster

I still think naming the impresario who sets this and the previous novel in motion Hubertus Bigend is Gibson making a calculated snub to his readers. It is both a joke for those with the right sense of humour, but also a not-very-subtle way of saying, ‘If you suckers’ll buy this guy’s preposterous name, you’ll buy anything.’

The idea of this character is that Bigend is a fabulously rich, fabulously successful advertising guru, who is interested in off-the-wall activities which lead him into realms far outside advertising accounts, partly out of pure curiosity which he is rich enough to indulge, and partly because it helps maintain his ‘edge’ (Daddy-o) and sometimes inspires ideas for new campaigns. This motivation supposedly explains why Bigend is prepared to provide bottomless funding for the two sassy young women protagonists of Pattern Recognition and Spook Country…

(To justify the idea that the wild goose chases in these novels do have some kind of practical payoff, we learn on page 108 of this novel that the outcome of Cayce Pollard’s prolonged search for the video footage being released snippet by snippet in the previous book, Pattern Recognition, was that Bigend developed a thing called ‘Trope Slope… our virtual pitchman platform’ (p.108). I wonder if this is intended to sound as lame as it does. Maybe a similarly global quest featuring mysterious video footage was necessary to develop Tesco’s strapline, ‘Every little helps’.)

So there’s this elaborate justification woven around Bigend’s character and business practices but, at the end of the day, this is just the basic James Bond setup. Whatever fake passport and fake identity and flash gadgets and fast cars and plane tickets Bond requires to do his job, he is given. It’s exactly the same with the two women freelancers working for Bigend – they want it, they get it, and they fly off somewhere exotic.

In fact the novel contains a number of conscious echoes of James Bond and his world of glamour, gadgets and girls. Bigend’s enabler, the person Cayce or Hollis ring up to get plane tickets or a new car or laptop or whatever, is another supremely capable young woman, in this case named Pamela Mainwaring. She appears in all three novels in the trilogy as Bigend’s super-efficient fixer and she’s basically an updated version of Miss Moneypenney.

That Gibson realises at various points that he is, in effect, writing a Bond novel for the 2000s, Bond with a laptop, is acknowledged in several explicit Bond references, on pages 160, 166 and 344.

Personally, the idea of slightly puzzled agents in the field reporting back to an avuncular, all-seeing older man, who works from a series of secret locations equipped with vast screens, maps of the relevant cities and advanced tracking technology, reminded me of the Man from UNCLE TV series, and the mastermind paymaster figure of Alexander Waverly played by the lovely Leo G. Carroll. Despite all the shiny prose style and laptops, Gibson’s novels feel, deep down, that dated.

The payoff – spoiler alert!

In the end the entire plot turns out to be about Iraq and corrupt United States government money.

A hundred pages or so into the text we learn that Tito is being ‘run’ by an old unnamed man, who claims to have known Tito and Alejandro’s grandfather back in Havana. This, combined with lots of references to the KGB, and a couple of mentions of the surprising fact that Tito and Alejandro learned their ‘tradecraft’, their systema, from a Viet Cong-era Vietnamese operative, these are all, I think, deliberate red herrings dropped by Gibson to suggest that the plot is all some spooky global conspiracy involving the successor to the KGB, the scarey FSB. But no, in the end…

The old guy who is in charge of the entire scam which lies at the heart of the story, is just a retired US secret service guy who is pissed off at the grotesque amounts of US government money being wasted and siphoned off in Iraq (all explained in chapter 71).

(In fact, I later find out, ‘the old man’ is referenced in this novel’s sequel, Zero History, and one of his operatives there suggests that he is motivated ‘by some sort of seething Swiftian rage that he can only express through perverse, fiendishly complex exploits, resembling Surrealist gestes.’ Something like the Situationist ethic so beloved of media and literature students, and dating back, like so much in Gibson’s worldview, to the 1960s. [Zero History, chapter 51].)

Hacked off at the way billions of US dollars are being poured into the bottomless pit of Iraq and wondering what to do about it, ‘the old man’ and others like him have got wind of a particular shipping container containing $100 million in cash which had been sent off to Iraq by sea. However, something in the Iraq situation changed and the container got rerouted, then delayed and then cleverly ‘lost’ by the bad guys who wanted to steal it.

By ‘bad guys’ Gibson does not appear to mean Iraqis or Russians, but the kind of ‘rogue element’ within the US’s many security services and military operations who feature in movies like the Bourne series, bad guys based deep in the heart of Langley or the Pentagon or wherever. The plot then, once you get it straight, appears to be the very, very tired one of rotten apples inside the US Administration itself.

(It’s one of the many disappointing things about Gibson, once the facade of supercool hi-tech gadgetry is stripped away, that there is so much to say and think and write about how the sudden eruption [as it seemed to people who hadn’t been following it for years] of Islamic fundamentalism in 9/11, a decisive event which for years afterwards appeared to have tilted the entire world of geopolitics, security and culture on its side, but that Gibson has next to nothing to say about it. He has infinitely more to say about the minutiae of made-up rock bands and long-dead rock gods and fashion brands than about the fascinatingly shifting sands of international affairs. I find this deeply bathetic and disappointing.)

Anyway, the unnamed, retired, pissed-off ex-US secret service guy knows people who’ve hacked into the $100 million container’s tracking beeper, and so knows that it’s arrived in Vancouver, Canada. So he devises a scam and takes Tito in a plane across the States from New York to Vancouver, picking up a super-competent operative, an Englishman named Garreth (why not?) along the way.

After umpteen long-distance flights and boat trips this trio finally hole up in an arty loft conversion near the docks in Vancouver where they know from the tracker that the sky-blue container containing the swag has been unloaded, presumably to be shifted across the border into the States at some time.

They have hired this loft conversion because it gives an unimpeded view of the container across the way in the fenced-off dock area. That evening Garreth makes a big deal out of setting up one of those supercool sniper rifles with a tripod and telephoto lens which feature in every spy thriller of this type, up in this loft conversion, and fires nine bullets in a row along the bottom of the container.

Why? Because these are no ordinary bullets, they contain radioactive caesium stolen from a hospital or some similar cock and bull source. The idea is that the radioactivity will irradiate the entire container full of hundred dollar bills and make it impossible for the money smugglers to offload, launder or in any way use the stolen loot.

That’s it, that’s the scam, the MacGuffin and the climax to the novel. Why did the old man go to 360 pages worth of elaborate ruses to achieve this pretty simple goal? As he himself admits to Hollis, it’s a trivial amount in the grand scheme of things, but it makes him feel better. It doesn’t change anything in the real world, it just pisses of some super-criminals and makes the old man feel better.

See what I mean by Gibson’s novels having a tendency to hurtle in their supercharged prose towards a Grand Conclusion which is…er… a bit disappointing.

And Tito? He’s been brought along because if the container had a set of neat bulletholes in it officials would become suspicious. Tito’s role is to be smuggled into the waterfront container port on the same evening as the radioactive bullet shooting, with a coil of rope under his shirt and a hard hat to fit in with all the other stevedores, and to make his way among the milling dock workers till he’s just below the target container as Garreth shoots his 9 magic bullets… Then Tito’s job is to swarm up the side of the containers (the target one is the top one of a pile of three) and use a rope harness suspended from the top of the container to abseil carefully along the row of bulletholes and plug them each with a set of small, supermagnetic metal disks he’s been given for the job. Then slip back down, loosen the rope with a whiplash movement of the wrist, dump it and all other incriminating gear in a ‘dumpster’, scramble over the barbed wire and so to safety.

Actually into the arms of a rock band who happen to have been passing by (the docks are right in the city so there are roads running alongside the perimeter) and, when Tito says he can play keyboards, drive him off for a beer and a jam with the band. Seriously. You begin to wonder if Gibson’s obsession with rock bands might be a recognised mental disorder.

And Hollis Henry? Her assignment to interview the ‘locative’ artist (who creates holograms of dead celebs in Los Angeles streets) had led her to the hyper-secretive tech wizard, the man who actually enables and produces these holograms, one Bobby Chombo, ‘an expert in geospatial technologies’.

Hubertus Bigend, who has by now introduced himself to Hollis so she knows exactly who she’s working for and what he’s looking for (namely, intellectual thrills), explains to Bigend that it is Chombo he really wants to meet and/or work with. But only days after Corrales takes Hollis to Chombo’s pad to meet him for the first time, the paranoid genius disappears along with all his kit leaving an empty loftspace.

Where has he gone? Well, Vancouver, where he’s been summoned by the ‘old man’ supervising the scam. How does Hollis discover that’s where he’s gone? Well at the start of the story Hollis is staying with Odile:

‘A curator from Paris who specialises in locative art’ (p.251)

Gibson concocts a ridiculous coincidence whereby Odile turns out to know Chombo’s sister, Sarah Ferguson, who one day phones her to say she’s just seen her brother, Chombo, in their home town Vancouver (chapter 62), news which Odile passes onto Hollis. Pretty convenient coincidence!

When Hollis tells Hubertus that’s where this reclusive tech guru has gone, he immediately authorises whatever she needs, plane or train or automobile, to get her to Vancouver, so off she flies with Odile tagging along.

And a a day or two later, Hollis has only just tracked down Chombo’s new location to a building down a back alley in Vancouver when she is spotted and swept inside by calm omni-competent Garreth, and into the briefing meeting being given by the old man to Tito and Garreth. Because, as luck (or the conveniences of thriller fiction) would have it, Hollis has stumbled on their secret hideout only hours before they are scheduled to go on the big radioactive shoot.

Just about the one real divergence from action thriller clichés is that, rather than just ‘waste her’ as the bad guys would in any number of the shockingly brutal American thrillers we’re nowadays used to, these guys make Hollis feel right at home, order her takeaway pizza (while they have curry) and ask if she’d like to come along and witness the climax of the whole story.

Which, as an aspiring journalist, she willingly does, going along to the hired space opposite the docks, watching Garreth set up his super-duper gun, fire the radioactive bullets, dismantle the gun, and returning with him to the others. At which point they simply let her walk away once she’s given her word she won’t tell anyone. And she doesn’t. Aren’t people nice? What a lovely story!

And Brown and Milgrim? In the middle of the story they are involved in a complex red herring / distraction / bit of cooked-up plot surrounding iPods. The unnamed old man has known for some time that Brown, a disaffected member of some other branch of the vast and many-headed US security services, has been on their tail. So the old man has concocted a preposterously complicated red herring whereby Tito or others in his ‘family’ send iPods packed with geospatial information about the whereabouts of the $100 million container, carefully coded amid reams of harmless music so as to appear highly secret and terribly important, to a poste restante address in San Juan, before being forwarded on to another, secret location.

Brown and his people have been taken in by this elaborate ruse and are willing to go to any lengths to get hold of what are, in fact, completely worthless iPods. Not only that but Hubertus Bigend was also taken in by this elaborate and completely irrelevant red herring, and we the readers are also forced to put a lot of energy into piecing it together until we’re told, towards the end of the book, that it was all an elaborate waste of time. Completing a Sudoku puzzle would be more rewarding.

But Brown is told by his controller about the other team (old man, Tito and Garreth) making for Vancouver and so he drags drug-addicted Milgrim with him on a long complicated journey by train to a safe house in Philadelphia, then by plane on to somewhere else, ending up at an island on the US-Canada border, and then finally arriving in Vancouver itself.

Here, by another incredibly far-fetched coincidence which the narrative tries to gloss over, they are driving along in their rented SUV when they, by complete coincidence, accidentally see Tito walking along the road. He is in fact on his way, as the reader knows, towards the Vancouver docks because this is the evening when the radioactive shooting will take place.

In a flash, the easily-angered Brown floors the accelerator and tries to run Tito down, but the boy is agile and leaps out of the way, while Brown rams his rental car into a fire hydrant and injures himself. Brown is limping around on the sidewalk as they hear the sirens of approaching police cars but when he calls Milgrim (who was in the car with him) to heel, Milgrim, for the first time in the novel, simply says ‘No’. In the confusion of the crash he had simply reached over to Brown’s briefcase, for once unattended, and helped himself to a substantial supply of the tranquilisers he’s addicted to (brand name Rize), grabs the coat Brown had supplied him and an envelope full of hundred dollar bills they’ve been using as petty cash, and simply walks off in the opposite direction.

There’s a bit more: Milgrim stumbles into the empty loft space soon after Garreth had fired his shots from it, (watched by Hollis) and discovers Hollis’s handbag which she had carelessly left behind, steals her money and phone, dumps the rest. That’s the last we hear of this strange and attractive character, Milgrim…

Meanwhile Hollis has made it back to her hotel in one piece and her old bandmate Reg Inchmale turns up for coffee and conversation. In a sudden switch of focus, Hubertus loses all interest in the locative art and now makes Hollis and Inchmale a massive offer if they’ll re-record their greatest hit but with new lyrics, for a Chinese car commercial he’s doing…

But basically it’s a happy ending. No-one gets killed, hardly anyone really gets hurt, more or less everyone gets what they want. These My Little Pony happy endings are an unexpected feature of Gibson’s fiction.


Things which drive me nuts about William Gibson’s later novels

Young women protagonists

This and its predecessor, Pattern Recognition, both have young female lead protagonists. So, come to think of it, did some of the Bridge and Sprawl novels. Presumably this is intended to be very liberated and modern and manga, but I find Gibson’s impersonations of women significantly younger than him (half his age, in this book) a bit creepy.

In this novel the lead character is Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist who discovers that she (like the young freelance fashion expert, Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition) is working for a company owned by advertising guru, Hubertus Bigend, himself a creepy, domineering character who takes Holly for a long car ride without explaining where they’re going, making her considerably anxious, exactly as he did to Cayce Pollard in the previous book.

It feels very close to an abduction, and although Gibson moves to neutralise him (Hollis describes him as ‘like a monstrously intelligent giant baby’) episodes like the creepy car drive made me envision Bigend as looking and behaving like Harvey Weinstein.

Dad rock

This lead woman character, Hollis Henry used to be the singer in a rock band (oh dear) named The Curfew, yawn, which had a female drummer (like the Velvet Underground, like Talking Heads). Gibson hasn’t grasped the obvious truth that all fictional rock bands sound stupid. This rock band background goes on to become a central theme of the book, as various people she meets are bowled over to be meeting the Hollis Henry, singer with the Curfew. But this is not impressive, I found it tiresome.

Leading off this central premise are other creaky old ‘rock’ references. One of Alberto Corrales’s virtual reality artworks is of Jim Morrison, which gives rise to a little flurry of learnèd analysis of the appeal of The Doors (1967 to 1971) and the band’s internal dynamics (Ray and Robbie, man, how they managed to keep the surly old drunk in line, man).

There’s many more laboured rock references: half a page of ponderous humour about rock stars having big noses in the Pete Townsend-Keith Moon tradition (p.56).

He mentions Kurt Cobain, not bad going considering Kurt killed himself in 1994 only 13 years before the novel was published, although that is getting on for 30 years ago from today’s perspective (p.63).

More typical is the reference to a Grateful Dead concert (p.323). And Gibson namechecks Anton Corbijn (p.85), superfamous rock photographer of the 1970s and 80s (and, his Wikipedia entry tells us, ‘creative director behind the visual output of Depeche Mode and U2’) who is also thanked in the Author’s Thanks at the back of the book and so is, presumably, a buddy of Gibson’s.

Presumably this is all meant to press the buttons of ageing rock fans (U2! Depeche Mode! Jim Morrison! The Grateful Dead!) Gibson was pushing 60 when this book was published and it shows: all these Rolling Stone-type references feel incredibly dated and old.

It’s a tremendous irony that Gibson is marketed as a prophet of the future and yet so many of his cultural references are to a dusty old era of rock music from forty and fifty years ago.

Black

Gibson is obsessed with the colour black, everything is coloured black, black leather jackets, black jeans, black socks, black pants, black shades, black Range Rover, black Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, black leather pork pie hat, black-painted plastic spyhole covers, black conference table, black thigh-length leather coat, black wool watch cap, black knit skull caps, black, button-studded leather, a black Passat, black trash bags, heavy duty black masking tape, high-topped black shoes, loose black cotton shirt, black shirt and tie, black Oxford shoes, black vinyl hanger bag, black three-button jacket, black leather wallet, black nylon carryall, Bigend’s magnetic bed is a perfect black square supported by braided cables of black metal, a black Zodiac boat, made of black inflated tubes, a hard black floor and a black outboard motor, black plastic Pelican case, black-framed sunglasses, black filter-mask, a large black pickup, a black t-shirt under a black jacket, black tripod, black climbing rope, black respirator, black badge case, spring-loaded black flap, black tanks, black bungees, black lens cap, black SUVs, bulky black-clad special forces officers, black doors, black houses, black streets (blacktop), black sky, and some heavy-duty, enormous black dudes in New York (chapter 41), because big black guys in this kind of white man fan fiction are, well, just cool cf Live and Let Die, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and every blaxploitation movie ever made.

A few other colours occasionally make an appearance but the relentless foregrounding of black everything gives the text a laughably old rock journalist chic, black shades, man, black leather, man, just like the Velvet Underground, man, characters wear black coats, black leather jackets, black t-shirts, drive black cars up to the jet black facade of fashionable bars (the Viper Rooms where River Phoenix died). Sooo achingly cool if you’re a child of the 60s and 70s but otherwise… so lame.

Brand namechecking

Almost as big as Gibson’s Dad rock and his infatuation with all things black, is Gibson’s obsessive brand namedropping.

Gibson is described as a pioneer, and he certainly was in his first half dozen novels, set as they are in gripping sci fi futures. But by the time of Hubertus Bigend he had settled into producing pretty mainstream Yank thrillers with a twist or two of digitech gimmicks, and one of the most tedious aspects of your modern American thriller is their obsession with brands, their compulsive need to know exactly what brand of car, gun, phone, jacket, handbag, jet, or phone etc which every character is toting, driving, flying, wearing or dialling. Thus in just the first 30 pages or so we have references to:

a Philip Starck elevator, Bluetooth, Adidas trainers, a classic VW beetle, iPod, Red Wing boots, counterfeit Prada, the Ikea couch, the Casio keyboard, Paul Stuart overcoat, Ziploc bag, Yohji Yamamoto, Tower Records, Virgin records, Chesterfield cigarettes,  Hamburger Hamlet, Schwabs, Aeron chairs, Lacoste golf shirt, Nyquil, Marlboro cigarettes, winkle-picker Keds shoes, faux Oakley keds, Adidas GSC9s, Starbucks, Cuisinart

The names of umpteen cars are reeled off: Passat, Econoline, Grand Cherokee Laredo Jeep, Ford Taurus, Phaeton, Ford. The planes include a vintage 1985 Cessna Golden Eagle described in some detail (p.221). There’s even careful brand naming of the Zodiac motorboat which Brown hires to take him and Milgrim up to Vancouver.

One way of viewing this obsessive naming of branded products is as an extension of the basic thriller idea of competence. The classic thriller hero, from Philip Marlowe to Jack Reacher, is not only physically strong and resourceful but knows everything – he is an expert at guns, cars and the ways of the underworld, can explain what’s going on to all the sidekicks and dames he picks up along the journey, is savvy and streetwise in ways you and I, dear suburban reader, can only gawp at in admiration.

The modern thriller’s obsession with brand names is, from one perspective, just an extension of that expertise, of that whip-smart super-awareness, into the over-saturated world of American consumer capitalism. The modern thriller narrator can name and identify any brand of anything. It is part of his omnicompetence.

That said, an equal and opposite way of interpreting it might be as satire on the super-saturation of American life with brands and endless adverts; a satire on the way that 21st century American culture is nothing but products, and American citizens are increasingly secondary to the master brands they purchase. A world in which human beings are the disposable appendages of the brands which now own their lives: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram et al.

At some point early in the history of The Thriller this brand obsession may have been an innovative device for positioning both narrator and characters and the action itself, for quickly describing and placing them in the evermore complex mid-twentieth century society. But in Gibson’s hands the obsessive iteration of brand names becomes really irritating. It’s like being stuck inside a ten-hour-long ad break, like being locked up for a week in an American shopping mall lined with huge glass windows full of lifeless models demonstrating an endless array of glossy, vacuous products. Gibson knows this. At one point he refers to:

another concourse of heavily trademarked commerce (p.367)

But nowadays this brand obsession doesn’t convey anything at all except the complete lack of depth in American life, which has slowly and steadily become almost entirely about surfaces. Even in politics, anything resembling ‘ideas’ is being squeezed out of public life, until all that matters is appearances. Are you black or white? Are you a man or a woman? These seem to be almost the only two issues left in American political or cultural life. It represents the triumph of surfaces and the death of depth. ‘If you’re white you can’t understand…’, ‘if you’re a man you can’t understand…’ Until eventually there is nothing left beneath the surface of the American mind except people squabbling about their ‘identities’. Until it’s just Kim Kardashian in culture and Black Lives Matter in politics. All ideas are annihilated in a world of appearances.

And thus it is that, although he lost the 2020 Presidential election, the certifiable dunce Donald Trump actually increased his vote. Mind-boggling evidence that America has become a nation of dunces, but dunces who know their brands to a T, who can spot the difference between a Prada and a Ted Baker and a Gucci handbag, or an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, a Jaguar I-PACE or a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, at a hundred paces.

For me the obsession of American thrillers with ‘brands’ and products long ago lost any rationale in terms of either authorial ‘competence’ or biting satire, and simply became one more extension of the empty world of style magazines and TV makeover shows. It represents an apotheosis of empty-headed consumerism, the kind of mindless consumption which is eating up the planet and turning Yanks into the tens of millions of depthless cretins who voted for Donald Trump. Twice. Gibson is aware of it, the drowning consumerism of American society. There’s a little dialogue between Brown and Milgrim:

‘People say Americans are materialistic, do you know why?’ ‘Why?’ asked Milgrim… ‘Because they have better stuff,’ Brown replied. (p.256)

So you can see why Gibson’s brand obsession is a big problem for me. In interviews he claims to be ‘analysing’ or ‘critiquing’ contemporary society but, for me, his books are just another embodiment of flashy, empty American shallowdom. Completely in thrall to designer labels, ageing rock references and flashy digital gimmicks, Gibson’s novels are part of the problem, not the solution.

The odd good thing about Gibson’s later novels

Gibson’s command of language

Gibson still has a wonderful way with words, although he has got noticeably less zingy as the years have gone by. Still, there are plenty of places where he makes the English language turn on a sixpence, expressing neat insights with tremendous style.

  • Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure. (p.222)
  • Nature, for Milgrim, had always had a way of being too big for comfort. (p.263)

Although he is not above what you might call fairly obvious druggy jokes in the manner of Tom Wolfe:

The sky had a Turner-on-crack intensity… (p.154)

And, above all, his consistent thing is using language to suggest edges, spaces of the mind, perceptions on the periphery, weird angles just on the edge of consciousness or perception. These crop up regularly and are very pleasurable. Thus when our heroes arrive at the huge warehouse loft where they’re going to set up the sniper rifle, Hollis notices:

It generated white noise, this place, she guessed, on some confusingly vast scale. Iron ambients, perceived in the bone. (p.329)

Interesting word, ‘ambients’. Gibson takes a lot of trouble to make his prose special, to find the phrases to express the peripheral insights he is trying to capture and he does capture this, these fleeting perceptions, with dazzling fluency, and this effort and prose achievement should be celebrated. At the end of the adventure Hollis returns to Bigend’s enormous apartment in Vancouver with its huge windows overlooking the bay:

She went upstairs. Dawn was well under way, lots of it… (p.350)

He can throw this kind of thing around with apparent ease, every page has generous doses of stylish phrasing. But, imho, the zingy style doesn’t make up for the disappointingly lame content.

Medieval mysticism

Milgrim is a drug addict and steals things but he is also a university graduate who once had a respectable career as a Russia translator before he became addicted to prescription drugs. He is, in other words, a perfect invention for a book like this, a man who combines lowlife street drug knowledge with extravagant flights of scholarly fancy.

Milgrim’s adbductor, Brown, gives him an overcoat to wear which has been stolen from somewhere and in it Milgrim unexpectedly finds a dog-eared copy of a serious history book about Christian heresies and millenarian sects of the Middle Ages. This is an unlikely subject to find in a techno-thriller. But this pretext gives Gibson no end of scope to have Milgrim get thoroughly stoned and have all manner of psychedelic fantasies or make long fantastical associations about weird and wonderful religious leaders and colourful practices. Sometimes Milgrim dreams of specific named medieval millenarians, or has waking visions of Hieronymus Bosch-style scenes. It lends the novel a pleasing patina of literacy and depth.

Kidnap psychology

In fact, arguably the best thing about the novel is the description of the peculiar bond between Brown, the renegade security operative, and Milgrim the drug-wrecked Russian translator he not so much abducts as rescues and then keeps like a stray dog. Brown feeds and doses Milgrim with his pills and orders him to carry out (pretty innocuous) tasks, like translating the occasional text they’ve intercepted being sent to or from Tito, or accompanying him to change the battery in the listening device he has (very amateurishly) hidden in Tito’s New York apartment.

All that stuff, the spook stuff, is a bit crap compared to either the Master of Spy Glamour (James Bond) or of Shabby Espionage (John le Carré). What is good and is almost worth reading the novel for in its own right, is the peculiar, undefined and shifting nature of the strange master and servant or kidnapper and abductee psychology which runs through the Brown-Milgrim storyline. This is unusual, unexpected, strange and worth the read.

The Orishas

Another notable strand or flavour in the book is the fact that Tito and Alejandro’s ‘aunt’, who brought them to New York from Havana when they were babies, Aunt Juana, worships a set of occult Cuban gods. They are referred to as the Orishas, who are deities in the Santería religion (named deities include Ochun, Babalaye, He Who Opens The Way, p.70, Orunmila, Elleggua, p.94).

There’s more detail on page 163. Oshosi gives Tito power in chapter 42. Oshosi saves Tito from Brown’s car ramming in chapter 75. Ochun helps him dangle from the harness beside the contained and seal the bullet openings in chapter 77.

Looking it up online we learn that the gods of the Santería religion are ultimately derived from the beliefs of the black slaves who were brought over from Africa to Cuba and, forbidden to practice their own beliefs, were forced to superimpose them onto the permitted icons and figures of Christianity. Thus in this belief system, shrines may contain images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary but these are ‘fronts’ for the older pagan gods.

What makes this more than local ‘colour’ is that at key moment in the book – namely when Tito is sent into Vancouver docks to patch up the bullet holes in the container – the text suggests that the Orishas literally take over his body and mind, giving him reflexes which keep him out of danger and a sense of purpose which guarantees the job will be done.

This is weird and powerful, although it actually has precedents in Gibson’s work. Something very similar happened with the voodoo spirits which appear in the second and third Sprawl novels, as somehow voodoo embodiments of the personas of pure data flow within the web. In both that and this novel, the irruption of voodoo gods into the mind of the protagonists doesn’t really make any sense but is nonetheless very compelling, as a weird, uncanny experience for all concerned.

No sex, no violence

Given the rather harsh things I’ve said about Gibson’s addiction to brands and the way the narrator’s omnicompetence with brands and travel arrangements and scrambled phone lines and surveillance technology and safe houses makes him sound exactly like every other contemporary thriller writer… one big thing certainly does distinguish Gibson’s thrillers from the competition, and it’s not the use of cutting-edge ‘locative’ or ‘geospatial’ technology. It’s the almost complete absence of sex and violent death in his books.

Actually, really high-end thrillers as a genre generally underplay sex. Characters may have sex, but it is rarely described, in fact most thrillers draw a Victorian veil over the act itself. Does Jack Reacher have much sex, I can’t remember. This, I guess, is because sex or, shall we say, making love, is generally quite a slow sensuous affair which can leave both participants feeling mellow and blissed out. Well, that is precisely the opposite of the jittery, hard-edged tone most modern thrillers strive to achieve. It would be like having a big ad break in the middle of an action movie. It would last just long enough to undermine the edgy atmosphere, the sense of constant threat, and the fast-moving action. Hence – surprising absence of sex.

What makes it more notable in Gibson’s novels is his penchant for female protagonists which sort of, at moments, might lead you to expect a flash of boob or some such sexual reference. But no nothing like that, nothing tasteless or porny ever, ever happens in a Gibson novel. He never refers to the sexuality of his women protagonists.

Instead, Chevette Washington in the Bridge trilogy, Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition and Hollis Henry in Spook Country function just like robots, like androids. They don’t seem to have any of the emotions I associate with women, or indeed people generally (love, compassion, empathy, fear, worry) nor any of the bodily functions experienced with female biology; they don’t seem to have periods, stomach cramps, any of the other physical conditions which women of my acquaintance experience.

At most they briefly pee or shower but this is referred to in, at most, a sentence before they dress quickly and efficiently and get on with the action. Gibson’s female protagonists are curiously sexless. It’s like reading the adventures of a shop window mannekin.

Ditto the violence. Nobody gets killed during the narrative of Pattern Recognition and nobody gets killed in this novel, either. It’s remarkable how, for a modern thriller writer, Gibson manages to keep the body count right down. He maintains a constant sense of threat and anticipation and yet… almost nobody actually gets hurt in a Gibson novel, nobody at all in this one.

It’s one more thing which gives them their distinctive flavour, along with the sexless women, the voodoo gods, the tangential psychology of many of the characters, the obsession with Dad Rock and flashy brands, and the consistently disappointing climaxes when the hurtling tension of 350 pages give way to a happy ending, in which no-one is hurt and more or less everyone gets what they wanted:

  • Tito and Garreth and ‘the old man’ successfully pull off their job
  • Milgrim walks free from bondage to Brown
  • Hollis gets enough detail to write her magazine story about ‘locative art’
  • and Hubertus, never really sure what he wanted except the thrill of the chase into unknown areas of the matrix, appears to be satisfied and swiftly moves on to ask Hollis and Inchmale to record a version of their only hit single which he can use on an ad for a Chinese car

So everyone is home in time for tea and an early night. In the end, it’s an oddly comforting book, in its politics-free, product-obsessed, shiny, sexless way.


Credit

Spook Country by William Gibson was published by Putnam’s in 2007. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon but it wasn’t too badly damaged, only the back cover covered in marks and the last 15 or so pages bent and folded.

Other William Gibson reviews

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography @ the Barbican

Barbican Art does things big – exhaustively and exhaustingly BIG. To quote the press release:

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is a major group exhibition that explores how masculinity is experienced, performed, coded and socially constructed as expressed and documented through photography and film from the 1960s to the present day.

The exhibition brings together over 300 works by over 50 pioneering international artists, photographers and filmmakers such as Richard Avedon, Peter Hujar, Isaac Julien, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annette Messager and Catherine Opie to show how photography and film have been central to the way masculinities are imagined and understood in contemporary culture.

300 works! I wonder if anyone’s ever done a study of the optimum number of works which should be included in an exhibition. Or the optimum number of contributors.

The Piranesi exhibition I went to last week contained 60 images and that was too many to process: I ended up studying about ten of the best. But 300 images! And over 50 contributors! Each with a long and detailed explanatory wall label explaining their career and motivation and the genesis and point of their particular exhibit.

It’s less like an exhibition than a degree course!

Untitled from the series Soldiers (1999) by Adi Nes. Courtesy Adi Nes & Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles

A degree course in Gender Studies. because Masculinities: Liberation through Photography tends to confirm my sense that, for many modern artists and for most modern art curators, gender and sexual identity are the only important subjects in the world. Thus, according to Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican:

‘In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the resurgence of feminist and men’s rights activism, traditional notions of masculinity have become the subject of fierce debate. This exhibition could not be more relevant and will certainly spark conversations surrounding our understanding of masculinity.’

In fact quoting this much makes me think it might be most effective simply to quote the entire press release, so you can see exactly where the Barbican Art curators are coming from, without any editorial comment by me. So here it is:

With ideas around masculinity undergoing a global crisis and terms such as ‘toxic’ and ‘fragile’ masculinity filling endless column inches, the exhibition surveys the representation of masculinity in all its myriad forms, rife with contradiction and complexity. Presented across six sections by over 50 international artists to explore the expansive nature of the subject, the exhibition touches on themes of queer identity, the black body, power and patriarchy, female perceptions of men, heteronormative hypermasculine stereotypes, fatherhood and family. The works in the show present masculinity as an unfixed performative identity shaped by cultural and social forces.

Seeking to disrupt and destabilise the myths surrounding modern masculinity, highlights include the work of artists who have consistently challenged stereotypical representations of hegemonic masculinity, including Collier Schorr, Adi Nes, Akram Zaatari and Sam Contis, whose series Deep Springs, 2018 draws on the mythology of the American West and the rugged cowboy. Contis spent four years immersed in an all-male liberal arts college north of Death Valley meditating on the
intimacy and violence that coexists in male-only spaces.

Untitled (Neck), 2015 by Sam Contis © Sam Contis

Complicating the conventional image of the fighter, Thomas Dworzak’s acclaimed series Taliban consists of portraits found in photographic studios in Kandahar following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, these vibrant portraits depict Taliban fighters posing hand in hand in front of painted backdrops, using guns and flowers as props with kohl carefully applied to their eyes.

Taliban portrait. Kandahar, Afghanistan by Thomas Dworzak (2002) © Collection T. Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Trans masculine artist Cassils’ series Time Lapse, 2011, documents the radical transformation of their body through the use of steroids and a rigorous training programme reflecting on ideas of masculinity without men.

Elsewhere, artists Jeremy Deller, Robert Mapplethorpe and Rineke Dijkstra dismantle preconceptions of subjects such as the wrestler, the bodybuilder and the athlete and offer an alternative view of these hyper-masculinised stereotypes.

The exhibition examines patriarchy and the unequal power relations between gender, class and race. Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, comprised of 26 black and white photographs taken inside men-only private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from snatched conversations, parliamentary records and contemporary news reports, invites viewers to reflect on notions of class, race and the exclusion of women from spaces of power during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

“Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have Standards fallen” from the series Gentlemen, by Karen Knorr (1981-83) © Karen Knorr

Toxic masculinity is further explored in Andrew Moisey’s 2018 photobook The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual which weaves together archival photographs of former US Presidents and Supreme Court Justices who all belonged to the fraternity system, alongside images depicting the initiation ceremonies and parties that characterise these male-only organisations.

With the rise of the Gay Liberation Movement through the 1960s followed by the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, the exhibition showcases artists such as Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowiz, who increasingly began to disrupt traditional representations of gender and sexuality.

Hal Fischer’s critical photo-text series Gay Semiotics, 1977, classified styles and types of gay men in San Francisco and Sunil Gupta’s street photographs captured the performance of gay public life as played out on New York’s Christopher Street, the site of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising.

Street Fashion: Jock from the series Gay Semiotics, 1977/2016 by Hal Fischer. Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant London

Other artists exploring the performative aspects of queer identity include Catherine Opie’s seminal series Being and Having, 1991, showing her close friends in the West Coast’s LGBTQ+ community sporting false moustaches, tattoos and other stereotypical masculine accessories.

Bo from Being and Having by Catherine Opie (1991) © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Elle Pérez’s luminous and tender photographs explore the representation of gender non-conformity and vulnerability, whilst Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s fragmented portraits explore the studio as a site of homoerotic desire.

During the 1970s women artists from the second wave feminist movement objectified male sexuality in a bid to subvert and expose the invasive and uncomfortable nature of the male gaze. In the exhibition, Laurie Anderson’s seminal work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity), 1973, documents the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side, while Annette Messager’s series The Approaches (1972) covertly captures men’s trousered crotches with a long-lens camera.

German artist Marianne Wex’s encyclopaedic project Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures (1977) presents a detailed analysis of male and female body language, and Australian indigenous artist Tracey Moffatt’s awkwardly humorous film Heaven (1997) portrays male surfers changing in and out of their wet suits…

Thus the press release for this huge exhibition. I’ve quoted it at length so you can:

  • get an overview of the exhibition’s contents
  • get a sense of the thinking behind the exhibition
  • get familiar with the dated sociological jargon which is used throughout – ‘interrogate’, ‘challenge’, ‘disrupt’, ‘heteronormative’, ‘male gaze’, ‘patriarchy’

So you can see the curators’ point of view and intentions before I start critiquing them.


The complete irrelevance of any of these ‘masculinities’ to my own life and experience

Almost none of the art or artists in this exhibition bore any relation to my experiences as a boy, teenager, young man, adult man, working man, husband, and then father of my own son. I thought it was quite an achievement to feature so much work by so many artists claiming to speak for or about ‘masculinity’ or men, but which managed to touch on so little of my own personal life experiences of ‘masculinity’.

I took photos of the wall captions as I went round the exhibition and so, as a sample, here are the subjects of the first 15 or so displays, with the exact subject matter of the sets of photographs highlighted in bold:

  1. Taliban warriors by Thomas Dworzak
  2. Beirut fighters by Fouad Elkoury
  3. Israeli soldiers by Adi Nes
  4. a video of a close-up of the trousers of a man who urinates in his pants and trousers, so you see the wet patch spreading by Knut Asadam (Pissing by Knut Asdam)
  5. American, German and British soldiers by Wolfgang Tillmans
  6. American cowboys by Collier Schorr
  7. a film by Isaac Julien about American cowboys, The Long Road to Mazatlan
  8. American photographer Sam Contis’s photos of a liberal arts college in the mid-West
  9. American photographer Catherine Opie’s photos of American footballers
  10. American artist Andy Warhol’s movies of male fashion models
  11. American photographer Herb Ritt’s photos of buff Hollywood garage attendants
  12. American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon
  13. Akram Zaatari’s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters
  14. 100 black and white photos of himself wearing y-fronts taken from all angles by Canadian transmasculine performance artist and bodybuilder Cassils
  15. a series of photos by a British photographer of London Fire Brigade firefighters at work and in the showers

Men I know

Down the road from me lives my neighbour Nigel. He regularly goes folk dancing with his wife. At weekends they go for long cycle rides in the country. I helped him with a bit of guerrilla gardening last autumn when we planted daffodils on a patch of waste ground at the end of our road, which are now flowering. Nigel tended one of the allotments at the end of our road, and we’d have lengthy chats about the best plants I could put in my back garden to encourage more birds and butterflies.

Occasionally, we see old Richard go slouching along the road to his allotment where he tends his bee hives and chain smokes. A few years ago he was in the papers, in a photo showing him wearing full beekeeping rig and handing a letter into Number 10 asking for more government help to protect bees.

I shared a house with two friends in my last year at university who did science subjects: Nowadays Tony works for the Worldwide Fund For Nature trying to save the rainforests, and David is a microbiologist who helps develop micro-devices which can be installed within the human body to secrete medicine at regular or required intervals, for example in diabetics.

My boyhood friend Jonathan runs a puppet theatre for schools. Tom works for a seaman’s charity in the East End. Adam works for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland, monitoring bird populations, nesting habits, tagging birds to follow their migration patterns.

My son is studying biology at university. He’s considering doing a PhD into plant biology with a view to developing more sustainable crops. We play chess when he comes home at the holidays, although I’m always nagging him for frittering away so much of his time playing online video games.

These are ‘masculinities’, aren’t they? These are ways of being male? At least I think Nigel and Richard and Tom and Jonathan and Tony and David, Adam and Luke and I are men. Aren’t we?

But there was nobody like us in this exhibition, what you could call ‘normal’ people. Not a hint of men who like birdwatching, or gardening, or keeping bees, or study plant science, or like folk dancing, or are helping the environment.

Instead this exhibition’s view of masculinity is almost deliriously narrow: alternating between ridiculous American stereotypes of huge steroid-grown athletes or shouting fraternity members, and equally stereotyped images of flamboyant, make-up wearing gays working in nightclubs or part of the uber-gay communities of downtown New York or San Francisco’s Castro district. It is an exhibition of extremes and stereotypes.

Rusty, 2008 by Catherine Opie © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

Paul, who I worked with for all those years in TV, wasn’t camp or flamboyant, he was just a guy who liked a beer and a laugh and happened to be gay. As was his boyfriend. As was Edwin, the Viking-looking giant with a beard who I worked with at a government agency, who also just happened to be gay, it was no big deal, and really hated the way everyone expected him to conform to ‘gay’ stereotypes.

Exactly the kind of dated gay stereotypes which exhibitions like this promote and propagate.

Slavish worship of American culture

Once again I find it weirdly unself-aware that an exhibition which so smugly uses words like ‘transgressive’, ‘interrogate’, ‘disrupt’ and ‘subvert’ about its exhibits, is itself so completely and slavishly in thrall to American photographers and American subject matter and so utterly kowtows to the cultural dominance of The Greatest City in the World (if you’re an art curator) – which is, of course, New York.

The Barbican is in London. Which is in England. Not in New York or San Francisco. And yet only one of the first fifteen or so of the featured photographers was British, and I can only remember two or three other Brits among the remaining 35 or so exhibitors.

The art élite

So by about half way through the exhibition it had dawned on me that there is a very strong political element to this show, just not the one the curators intend. It is that:

Once again an exhibition about gender and race and identity proves beyond doubt the existence of a transnational art élite, made up of international-minded, jet-setting artists and photographers and film-makers, and their entourage of agents and gallery curators, who have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the populations of their host countries.

What I mean is that the curators and critics who’ve selected the works and written the catalogue of a show like this have much more in common with their counterparts in the art worlds of New York or Berlin or Shanghai than they do with the men or women in the streets of their own cities. They speak the same art language, use the same art theory buzz words and jargon, all agree on the wonderfulness of New York, and all share the same supremely woke and politically correct attitudes to LGBT+ and transgender and BAME rights which, the exhibition strongly implies, are the most important political or social issues anywhere in the world.

They liberally throw around words like ‘elite’ and criticise pretty much all white men for their ‘privilege’. It obviously doesn’t occur to them that being part of the jetsetting, international circuit of artists and art curators is also to belong to a privileged élite.

As a small symbol of this, after having read a host of wall labels castigating élite, men-only, members-only clubs and fraternities – which had the result of hyper-sensitising me to the the wickedness of these restrictive organisations – I couldn’t help smiling when I read on the Barbican website about an ‘exclusive Members’ talk’ which is available to Barbican members only.

Preaching to the converted

And so when I watched the curator of the exhibition speaking to the assembled journalists, critics and reviewers about #MeToo and toxic masculinity, and watched the approving nods and murmurs of her audience, I realised she was praising the values and priorities of the art world and its ferociously politically correct denizens, to exactly the kinds of journalists and critics who inhabit that world and attend these kinds of launches. And it crossed my mind that I had rarely in my life seen a purer example of ‘preaching to the choir’ and reinforcing entrenched groupthink.

Horseshoe Buckle, 1962 by Karlheinz Weinberger © Karlheinz Weinberger

Initial summary

To summarise so far:

  • It felt to me that the exhibition is wildly, almost hallucinatorily partial, misleading and inaccurate about its purported subject matter – masculinity. It simply ignores and neglects almost everything I think about when I think about my own and other men’s masculinity.
  • But what it undoubtedly is, is a handy survey of the deeply entrenched anti-heterosexual, anti-male, anti-white, pro-feminist, pro-black, pro-queer attitudes which now dominate universities, colleges, the art world and art galleries. So the exhibition has this additional layer of interest which is as a fascinating sociological specimen of the current attitudes and terminology of the über-woke.

I’m not against or opposed to those positions and views, in fact I broadly support them (pro-feminism, pro-LGBT+, anti-racism etc). I’m just modestly suggesting that there’s more to the world of men than this polemical and extremely limited exhibition – either American footballers or street queens of New York – gets anywhere near suggesting. In fact there is much more to culture, and politics, and the world, than a relentless obsession with ‘gender’.

Highlights

Having got all that off my chest, you may be surprised to learn that I really enjoyed this exhibition. There’s so much stuff on show they can’t help having lots of really good and interesting art here, and – as usual with the Barbican – it is presented in a series of beautifully designed and arranged spaces. So:

I loved Herb Ritts‘ pinup-style black-and-white photos of incredibly buff and sexy (male) garage hands, stripped to the waist.

What’s not to love about Robert Mapplethorpe‘s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lisa Lyon in their bodybuilding prime?

I really liked Akram Zaatari‘s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters: he found a trove of badly degraded, faded, marked and damaged photos, then blew them up to wall size, warts and all. The weightlifters are dressed in loose loincloths, a world away from the slick professionalism of Schwarzenegger et al, and then further removed by the spotty blotchy finish of the damaged negatives. I like all art which shows the marks of industrial processes, decay, found objects, Arte Povera etc, art which records its own struggle to emerge from a world of chaos and war.

Bodybuilders Printed From A Damaged Negative by Akram Zaatari (2011)

I liked the work of German feminist photographer Marianne Wex. In the 1970s she made a whole set of collages where she cut out magazine images of men sitting with their legs wide apart and juxtaposed these with magazine images of women sitting primly with their legs tight together. This was funny for all sorts of reason, but also had multiple levels of nostalgia: for the black and white world of 1960s and 70s magazines (and fashions – look at the hair and the flares on the men).

There was a room on the ground floor which I nicknamed ‘The Grid Room’ which contained three massive sets of images laid out as grids, and which I liked simply because I like big grids and matrices, geometric and mathematical designs, in the same way as I like Carl Andre’s bricks. The grids are:

1. German-American photographer Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, consists of 26 black-and-white photographs taken inside men-only, private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from conversations Knorr claims to have overheard.

a) they’re strikingly composed and arranged photos
b) the overheard conversations are amusingly arrogant and pompous, if a little too pat to be totally plausible
c) but what makes this funniest of all is that Knorr is surprised that the inhabitants of expensive, members-only private clubs will be a bit, you know, pompous

2. Back in the 1990s Polish-American photographer Piotr Uklański created a vast, super-wall-sized collage of A4-sized publicity photos of Hollywood actors dressed as Nazis from a host of movies.

It is 18 columns by 9 rows, which means it shows the images of 162 actors playing Nazi. The wall label suggested that the work is an indictment of Hollywood and its trivialisation of atrocity and, in the context of this exhibition, it is also meant to be an indictment of ‘toxic masculinity’ and the hyper-masculinity promoted by the Nazis.

But look at it. It isn’t really either of those things. What it obviously is, is an invitation to identify the actors and the movies they’re in, lots of fun in a Where’s Wally kind of way. Can you spot Clint Eastwood from Where Eagles Dare, Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, Leonard Nimoy from the spisode of Star Trek where they beam down to some planet which is having a Nazi phase?

And then, for me, any serious intention was undermined when I noticed that two of the belong to Monty Python actors Michael Palin and Eric Idle dressed as Nazis (6 rows down, 10 and 11 across). And when I noticed the face of Norman Wisdom (from his 1959 movie, The Square Peg, where Norman is asked to impersonate a Nazi general he happens to look like), I couldn’t help bursting out laughing.

(Having googled this artwork and studied the results, I realise that Uklański changes the arrangement of the photos from site to site, with the order of the faces different in each iteration. The version below gives you an immediate impression of the work’s overall impact – imagine this spread across an entire wall, a big art gallery wall – but in this version Norman’s photo, alas, is absent.)

The Nazis by Piotr Uklanski (1998)

3. The third big grid is a set of 69 black-and-white photos taken by American photographer Richard Avedon and ironically titled The Family, each one depicting key politicians, military men, lawmakers and captains of industry who held the reins of power in America in the Bicentennial year of 1976.

The overt aim is to shock and appal the modern social justice warrior with the fact that almost all the movers and shakers are white men (though I did, in fact, count six women in the grid and two or three black people). But it just didn’t seem too much of a surprise to me that nearly fifty years ago the make-up of the ruling class was different from now or, to put it another way, over the past fifty years the representation of women and black people at the highest levels of American power have changed and improved.

Anyway, any political message was, for me, eclipsed by the hazy memories of the 1970s which these photos evoked – the era when Gerald Ford hastily replaced that excellent American president, Richard Nixon and when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize (1973). There’s a youthful Jimmy Carter (elected Prez in 1977), a serious-faced Ronald Reagan (another most excellent American President), and gorgeously handsome Teddy Kennedy, for so long the poster boy for liberal Democrats.

Americana

As you can see from the three works in The Grid Room, even when I was trying to overlook it, I couldn’t help noticing the American subject matter or the American provenance of most of the photographers.

The America worship continues into the next room, which is devoted to the American tradition of the college fraternity, and the secret initiation rituals they apparently hold.

Thus artist Richard Mosse made a film by asking members of an American fraternity house to have a shouting competition, with the young student who could shout loudest and longest winning a keg of beer. Having contrived this artificial situation in which he films the faces of young American men shouting their heads off till they’re red in the face, Mosse then described his film as ‘a performance of masculinity and elite, white male rage’.

Is it, though? I’d have thought it was a highly contrived set-up, Mosse bribing the men to act out a certain kind of behaviour which he then turned round and criticised using his modish sociological jargon.

Also note how the word ‘white’ in sentences like that is slowly becoming a term of abuse. Mosse is, of course, himself ‘white’, but he’s the OK sort of ‘white’. He’s artist white.

Next to it is a work by American photographer Andrew Moisey, who spent seven years studying college fraternities and putting together The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual. This, you won’t be very surprised to learn,

explores the relationship between hegemonic masculinity and the toxic culture of American fraternities.

Toxic men. Toxic masculinity. White male rage.

The gay American photographer Duane Michals is represented by a series of photos depicting a grandfather and grandson with an eerie, surrealist vibe.

There’s a sequence of photos by American-based Indian photographer Sunil Gupta, who recorded New York’s gay scene in the 1970s.

Untitled 22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976 by Sunil Gupta © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Reclaiming the black body

Upstairs, in the section devoted to Reclaiming the Black Body, there’s a series by American photographer Kalen Na’il Roach which are described as explorations of ‘the construction of the African-American family and the absent father’.

Nearby is a set of brilliant photos by black American photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode, who arranged human bodies in all manner of creative and interesting poses, all shot as clear and crisply as anything by Robert Mapplethorpe. There was a really beautiful, crystal clear and vivid and intimidating and erotic photo of a black man holding a pair of large scissors against his thigh, wow.

Untitled, 1985 by Rotimi Fani-Kayode © Rotimi Fani-Kayode

Queering masculinity

There’s an entire section of the exhibition devoted to gay masculinity titled Queering Masculinity. Among many others, this contains a set of photos by American photographer George Dureau, ‘a prominent figure in the queer and non-conformist communities in New Orleans’s French Quarter’, which included some disturbing images of a handsome young man with a hippy hairdo who had had both legs amputated right at the top of the thighs, images which didn’t make me think about masculinity at all, but about disability.

A corner is given to the technicolour experimental underground film Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) by rebel film-maker Kenneth Anger, which explores the fetishist role of hot rod cars among young American men, and whose soundtrack – Dream Lover by Bobby Darin – wafted gently through the galleries as the visitors sauntered around, looking at these collections of cool, gay and black American photography.

And also upstairs was a fabulous series of black and white shots by American photographer David Wojnarowicz, who got his friends to wear a face mask of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and pose in unlikely locations around New York.

And there’s work by Peter Hujar, ‘a leading figure in New York‘s downtown cultural scene throughout the 1970s’ who photographed its various gay subcultures.

David Brintzenhofe Applying Makeup (II) 1982 by Peter Hujar © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC; Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

There’s photos by Paul Mpagi Sepuya, an American photographer from who explores ‘the studio and darkroom as a site of homoerotic desire’.

And photos by Elle Pérez from America which are concerned with ‘the artist’s relationship with their own body, their queerness and how their sexual, gender and cultural identities intersect and coalesce through photography’.

While ‘in her meticulously staged photos, American artist Deanna Lawson (b.1979) explores black intimacy, family, sexuality and spirituality.’

Then there’s American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director Laurie Anderson who is represented by her 1973 work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) which records the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side.

One of my favourite sections was black American Hank Willis Thomas’s ironic and funny collages, Unbranded: Reflections In Black by Corporate America which cut and paste together tacky old adverts featuring black people from the 70s, 80s and 90s. As the wall label explains:

Thomas sheds light on how corporate America continues to reproduce problematic notions of race, sexuality, class and gender through the white male gaze.

(Note: ‘the white male gaze’. The male gaze is bad enough but, God, it’s twice as bad when it’s the white male gaze. Just as male rage is bad, but white male rage, my God, that’s unforgiveable. You don’t have to read many of these wall labels to realise that everything is so much worse when it’s white.)

There are photographers and artists from other countries – from the Lebanon, Cameroon, Holland, Ghana, Norway and so on. Even, mirabile dictu, some British artists. But in every room there are American artists and wherever you look there are images of New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles, while an American pop song drifts over the images of American cowboys and American bodybuilders and New York gays.

It is a very America-dominated exhibition.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the woke, LGBT+-friendly, feminist, anti-patriarchal and anti-white curators are willing to disrupt, subvert, interrogate and question every received opinion, stereotype and shibboleth about the world today except for one – except for America’s stranglehold on global art and photography, except for America’s cultural imperialism, which goes unquestioned and uncommented-on.

Before this form of imperialism, British art curators bow down and worship.

Second summary

Well, if you’re a white man and you enjoy the experience of being made to feel like a privileged, white racist, elitist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist pig by lots of righteous black, gay and women photographers, this exhibition will be right up your street.

But having said all that, I did, ultimately, and despite everything, really enjoy it. In fact I might go back for seconds. There is a huge amount of visually interesting and varied work in it and, as I’ve explained – to take the whole thing on a completely different level – it is a fascinating sociological study of up-to-date, woke and politically correct attitudes and sociological terminology.

And also because the picture of Norman Wisdom dressed as a Nazi was so utterly unexpected, so surreally incongruous among the rest of the po-faced, super-serious and angry feminist rhetoric that I was still smiling broadly as I walked out the door.

Norman Wisdom as General-major Otto Schreiber in the hit movie, The Square Peg (1959), subverting seriousness


Dated

Not only does the exhibition mostly deal in types and stereotypes, but so many of them are really dated.

The concept of the male gaze was invented in a 1975 essay by film critic film critic Laura Mulvey. Not one but two quotes from it are printed in large letters across the walls of feminist section of the exhibition, rather like the Ten Commandments used to be in a church.

Karlheinz Weinberger’s photos of leather-clad rebels date from the early 1960s.

Kenneth Anger’s film Kustom Kar Kommandos is from 1965.

Annette Messager’s series The Approaches is from 1972.

Laurie Anderson’s piece is from 1973.

Richard Avedon’s set, The Family, was shot in 1976.

Sunil Gupta’s street photographs of gay New Yorkers are from the mid-1970s

Hal Fischer’s amusing photos of gay street fashion are from 1977.

Marianne Wex’s project ‘Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures’ dates from 1977.

David Wojnarowicz’s briliant series ‘Rimbaud in New York’ was taken between 1977 and 1979.

Andy Warhol’s film about Male Models is from 1979.

Hank Willis Thomas’s funny collages use magazine photos from the 70s and 80s

Karen Knorr’s series about knobs at posh clubs were shot from 1981 to 1983.

Herb Ritts photos of stunning hunky men date from 1984.

Now of course a lot of the other pieces are from more recently, from the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, and I am deliberately cherry-picking my evidence, but you get my point.

If the whole issue of gender and masculinity is as hot and urgent and topical as the curators insist, why are they going back to the 1960s and 1970s to illustrate it? My answer would be that, although many of its details have been subsequently elaborated and extended, the basis of the curators (and most of the artists’) liberate worldview date back to the late 60s and early 70s, the era which saw the real breakthroughs for modern feminism, gay rights, and a more ambitious form of black civil rights.

In other words, when you go to a contemporary exhibition of feminist art or gay art or lesbian art or politically motivated black art, you are in fact tapping into movements which have been around for about fifty years. This what gives them a curiously dated, almost nostalgic feeling. The artists and the curators may try to dress these tried-and-tested approaches up in the latest buzzwords or drum up some fake outrage by mentioning the magic words ‘Donald Trump’, but I remember going to exhibitions by gay and lesbian and feminist and black artists in the 1980s, and 1990s, and 2000s, and 2010s which all said more or less what this one does: Blacks are oppressed, women are oppressed, gays and lesbians are oppressed.

For an exhibition which is claiming to address one of the burning issues of our time it seemed curiously… dated. All these carefully printed photographs and films, how very retro, how very 1970s they seem. It’s as if the internet, digital art and social media have never happened. I described the exhibition to my daughter (18, feminist, studied sociology, instagram and social media addict) and she said it sounded boring and preachy.


Counting the countries of origin

It’s good to count. Actually counting and analysing the data about almost any subject almost always proves your subjective impressions to be wrong, because all of our unconscious biases are so strong.

Thus when I looked up the countries of origin of all the photographers represented in this exhibition, I realised the raw facts prove me wrong in thinking that most of the exhibitors are American. Out of 54 exhibitors, some 23 were born in the States and another 3 or 4 emigrated there, so the number of ‘American’ photographers is only just about half of those included.

This exercise also highlighted the true range of other nationalities represented, which I had tended to underestimate. There are, for example, seven Brits, double the number I initially remembered.

However, these figures don’t quite tell the full story, since a number of contributors might not be from the USA, but are represented by their images of the USA. Thus Sunil Gupta is from India but is represented by a suite of photos from 1970s New York (as well as a second series of photos about gay life in India).

Isaac Julien is a British artist but is represented by two movies, one about American cowboys and one – a big one which has one of the Barbican’s entire alcoves devoted to it – a black-and-white movie set in a glamorous American cocktail bar, and set to evocative American cocktail jazz.

To really establish the facts on this one issue of American influence, I suppose you’d have to itemise every single one of the images or films on show and indicate whether they were American in origin or subject matter – which is a little beyond the scope of the present review, and possibly a little mad.

Here’s the complete list of photographers represented in this exhibition with their country of origin, which can be roughly summarised as: the exhibition includes as many American, American-based, or America-covering photographers as those from the rest of the world put together.

  1. Bas Jan Ader (Dutch)
  2. Laurie Anderson (USA)
  3. Kenneth Anger (USA)
  4. Liz Johnson Artur (Ghanaian-Russian)
  5. Knut Åsdam (Norway)
  6. Richard Avedon (USA)
  7. Aneta Bartos (Polish-American)
  8. Richard Billingham (UK)
  9. Cassils (Canada)
  10. Sam Contis (USA)
  11. John Coplans (UK emigrated to USA)
  12. Jeremy Deller (UK)
  13. Rineke Dijkstra (Holland)
  14. George Dureau (USA)
  15. Thomas Dworzak (Germany)
  16. Hans Eijkelboom (Holland)
  17. Fouad Elkoury (Lebanon)
  18. Hal Fischer (USA)
  19. Samuel Fosso (Cameroon)
  20. Anna Fox (UK)
  21. Masahisa Fukase (Japan)
  22. Sunil Gupta (India)
  23. Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola)
  24. Peter Hujar (USA)
  25. Isaac Julien (UK)
  26. Rotimi Fani-Kayode (Nigeria)
  27. Karen Knorr (German-American)
  28. Deana Lawson (USA)
  29. Hilary Lloyd (UK)
  30. Robert Mapplethorpe (USA)
  31. Peter Marlow (UK)
  32. Ana Mendieta (Cuba, moved to New York)
  33. Annette Messager (France)
  34. Duane Michals (USA)
  35. Tracey Moffatt (Australia)
  36. Andrew Moisey (USA)
  37. Richard Mosse (Ireland)
  38. Adi Nes (Israeli)
  39. Catherine Opie (USA)
  40. Elle Pérez (USA)
  41. Herb Ritts (USA)
  42. Kalen Na’il Roach (USA)
  43. Paul Mpagi Sepuya (USA)
  44. Collier Schorr (USA)
  45. Clare Strand (UK)
  46. Mikhael Subotzky (South Africa)
  47. Larry Sultan (USA)
  48. Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany)
  49. Hank Willis Thomas (USA)
  50. Piotr Uklański (Polish-American)
  51. Andy Warhol (USA)
  52. Karlheinz Weinberger (Switzerland)
  53. Marianne Wex (Germany)
  54. David Wojnarowicz (USA)

Third summary – why American influence is so malign

The reliance on exaggerated American stereotypes of masculinity explains why the exhibition simply omits the vast majority of male experience

American attitudes to masculinity – American images of masculinity – are grossly exaggerated, hyper-commercialised, and do not represent the experience of masculinity of men from other countries.

(Possibly they don’t even represent the experience of most men in America itself: just on the curators’ favourite subject of ethnic minorities, about 18% of Americans are Latino, compared to only 12% or so who are black. But I don’t think I saw any images of Latinos, or the names of any Latino photographers or artists anywhere in the show. To adopt the curators’ own values of diversity: Why not?)

So one way to sum up this exhibition (it’s so huge I’m aware that there are, potentially, lots of ways to do this – a feminist take, a view which focused more on the gay or black or non-western perspectives) is to posit that the Americanness of half the exhibition, photos and photographers – and the overall sense you have of the exhibition’s cultural narrowness and exaggeration – are intimately connected.

Reading my way carefully around the exhibition reminded me all over again – as hundreds of documentaries and articles and news reports have over the past few decades –

  1. just how polarised American society has become
  2. how a great deal of this polarisation is in the realm of culture
  3. and how exhibitions like this tend to emphasise, exaggerate and exacerbate that atmosphere of poisonous polarisation

The relentless criticism of toxic masculinity and the male gaze and manspreading and men-only organisations, along with the continual suggestion that being white is a crime, have their ultimate source in the turbo-charged feminism, political correctness and woke culture of American universities, art schools and liberal media.

My point is that the the poisonous cultural politics of America are deeply rooted in the extremes images of masculinity which America developed since the Second World War – and that these extremes, along with the anger and vilification they prompt on both sides of the political and cultural divide – are just not applicable outside America.

Does Norway have a massive film industry devoted to promoting impossibly buff and hunky images of super-tough men? Is French culture dominated by the ideal of the gunslinging cowboy? Is Czech sporting life dominated by huge, testosterone-charged American footballers? In 1950s did Greek husbands throw open the doors to their suburban houses and shout, ‘Hi honey, I’m home!’

No. Since the war many European countries, led by France, have vehemently resisted the bubblegum stereotypes and crass vulgarity of American culture. The American example just doesn’t apply to Swiss watchmakers and French winegrowers and Greek hotel owners and Italian waiters.

Obviously accusations of patriarchy and sexism and toxic masculinity and the male gaze and white anger can be, and routinely are, levelled at all men in any Western society, but my suggestion is that the level of anger and rancour which politically correct and woke culture have reached in America is unique.

America has morphed during my lifetime into a violently aggressive and angry society which stands apart from all other industrialised countries (look at the levels of gun crime, or the number of its citizens which America locks up, 2.2 million adults, more than all the other OECD nations put together).

The anger of American liberals against Trump has to be witnessed to be believed, but so does the anger of American conservatives and the mid-West against the tide of immigrants and liberals who they think are ruining their country. America has become a swamp of hatreds, and it is an American civil war, it is not mine.

And here’s my point – an exhibition which defines ‘masculinity’ very heavily through the lens of such an unhealthy, sick and decadent society is giving a wildly twisted, biased, partial and inaccurate impression of what the word ‘masculine’ even means because it is deriving it very heavily from a culture which is tearing itself apart. We are not all American footballers or New York gay pioneers.

So although only half the exhibition is made up of American photographers and American subjects, nonetheless the poisonous rhetoric of the American cultural civil war (‘toxic masculinity’, ‘white rage’, ‘the male gaze’) infects the conception, selection and discourse of the exhibition so thoroughly from start to finish, that it helps explain why the vast majority of much more humdrum, down-to-earth types of non-American, everyday masculinity – the kinds you or I encounter among our families and friends and at work, the kind I experience when I help Nigel plant the daffodil bulbs in the waste ground at the end of our road – are so utterly absent from this blinkered and biased exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics @ the House of Illustration

Fidel Castro’s revolutionary 26th of July Movement and its allies defeated the military dictatorship of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. The new revolutionary government enacted a wide array of new domestic laws and policies, but Castro always saw the revolution in Cuba as just the beginning of the liberation of the oppressed masses in not just Latin America but war-torn Africa and around the world, wherever the poor and downtrodden were oppressed by colonial or neo-colonial masters.

OSPAAAL

And so the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (in Spanish the Organización de Solidaridad con los Pueblos de Asia, África y América Latina – abbreviated to OSPAAAL) was set up to fight globalisation, imperialism, neoliberalism and defend human rights, in Havana, in January 1966, after the Tricontinental Conference, a meeting of over 500 delegates and 200 observers from over 82 countries.

One of the first things the organisation did was establish a magazine to publicise its causes and titled Tricontinental. From 1966 into the 1990s more than fifty designers working in Havana produced hundreds of posters and editions of the magazine which expressed solidarity with the U.S.A.’s Black Panther Party, condemned apartheid in South Africa and the Vietnam War, and celebrated Latin America’s revolutionary icons, as well as criticising the ongoing existence of U.S. military bases in Guantanamo Bay, calling for the reunification of North and South Korea and many other radical causes.

The exhibition includes some 33 of the total of 50 or so artists and designers who worked for OSPAAAL, including leading lights such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Helena Serrano, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila.

Unlike artists in the Soviet bloc the OSPAAAL designers weren’t shackled by the deeply conservative doctrine of Socialist Realism, but were free to pick and choose from all the best streams of current art, including Pop Art and psychedelia. They also co-opted images and ideas from capitalist adverts into what they called ‘anti-ads’.

The plan was for the posters to be stapled into copies of Tricontinental, and so distributed around the world. Because the posters were intended to be internationalist they had to use strong primal languages or find inventive ways of conveying their message. If any writing was used it was generally in the three major languages of Spanish, English, French, and sometimes Arabic.

By the mid-1980s heavy trade embargos and sanctions imposed by American had created such shortages that it ultimately forced the organization out of production. By that time approximately 326 OSPAAAL posters had been produced.

Altogether it’s estimated that some nine million OPSAAAL posters were distributed around the developing world. At its peak the magazine had more than 100,000 subscribers, mostly students. At one time, it was common for posters from issues of Tricontinental to be put up on the walls of student community centres.

This exhibition brings together 170 works (100 posters and 70 magazines) produced by 33 OSPAAAL designers, created between 1965 and 1992, which are not only striking and dramatic art works in their own right but shed unexpected insights onto the long history of the Cold War.

The Mike Stanfield Collection

While originally distributed freely in editions of thousands, OSPAAAL posters and magazines are now rare and highly sought-after. The works in the exhibition are all drawn from a single UK private collection – The Mike Stanfield Collection, the largest collection of OSPAAAL material in the world, gathered by British collector Mike Stanfield over a 25-year period. Every work in the exhibition is drawn from his collection.

Posters

The poster designers used every trick in the toolbox of capitalist advertising plus a lot more they invented. The diversity and inventiveness of approaches is astonishing. Obviously the cause, the fundamental political aim of the posters, was deadly serious – but this didn’t stop them using scathing satire to make their points.

And above all they didn’t limit themselves to one aesthetic but seized an extraordinary freedom to experiment, with the result that you see everything from bold typography and photomontage to psychedelic colours and pop culture-inspired graphics, iconic modern imagery or ancient native objects pressed into service, silhouettes, psychedelic reverberating, cartoons and biting satire.

Cuba

The first edition of Tricontinental included an article by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and a folded poster by Alfredo Rostgard, thus inaugurating its two-pronged approach to radical propaganda: text for those who could read, stirring images for those who couldn’t.

Che Guevara (1969) © Alfredo G. Rostgaard, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

It’s almost too obvious to point out but, in the Soviet bloc, the canon of revolutionary heroes from Marx through Lenin, Stalin on down, were all portrayed in real, or heroically socialist realist style. It takes a moment’s reflection to realise how utterly unlike that dull stifling tradition the OPSAAAL images are, freely taking from contemporary pop and op art and psychedelic art.

Africa

The designers were tasked with distilling complex anti-colonial conflicts down into simple but striking images, symbols which would require little or no explanation. This image of African women in traditional costume and carrying their babies in baby-carriers is made vivid and powerful by the addition of the semi-automatic rifles slung over their other shoulders.

The all-consuming nature of the struggle, the need to balance ordinary life with the struggle, the empowered role of women in the struggle, and the lack of facial features indicating that these are just two out of millions and millions anonymous fighters across the continent, are all brilliantly conveyed.

After Emory Douglas (1968) © Lízaro Abreu Padron, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Apartheid

Apartheid was a sore on the conscience of the world throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Many of the OPSAAAL posters were simple images of oppression. This is unusual in being a more narrative image, with its four pictures showing the progressive, and inevitable, collapse of the repressive regime. Note the use of the four cardinal languages, Spanish, English, French and Arabic.

Day of Solidarity with the Struggle of the People of South Africa (1974) Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Asia

The Vietnam War came to symbolise neo-imperialist Western super-violence against nationalist independence struggles and crystallised America’s reputation as the great enemy of freedom for many Third World countries.

This clever poster shows the word Saigon slowly morphing from being dominated by the Stars and Stripes to bearing the flag of the communist North, suggesting that the rebels would win in the end. As they did.

Saigon, International Week of Solidarity with Vietnam (1970) © Rene Mederos Pazos, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Anti-America

Cuba is just 90 miles from the American mainland.

From the moment Castro’s revolution succeeded, the Americans tried to overthrow it. In 1961 they launched the embarrassing Bay of Pigs invasion which ended in humiliation, but continued making intermittent attempts to assassinate Castro, as well as imposing crippling sanctions on its tiny neighbour.

In response Cuba helped to focus the world’s attention on America as the heartland of neo-colonial oppression. Some of the most powerful images in the exhibition distort and subvert imagery and symbols central to American culture, such as the Great Seal, the Bald Eagle, the Statue of Liberty or, as here, Uncle Sam himself, zapped by the power of the World Revolution.

World Solidarity with the Cuban Revolution (1980) © Victor Manuel Navarrete, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Using native cultural heritage

As a way into contemporary liberation struggles in Latin America, Asia or the Far East, some OPSAAAL designers had the idea of taking traditional indigenous artefacts and giving them a modern spin, mostly putting a machine gun in their hands. Some of these aboriginal peoples also represented the very first resisters to the colonial oppression which their distant descendants were now fighting against.

This approach tapped into nationalist feelings in the respective countries, and also made contemporary protesters feel, or realise, that they were in fact part of a long, long lineage of resistance and protest. The ten or so images which used old imagery like this were among my favourites.

Guatemala (1968) © Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Magazine covers

To some extent the designers’ style was dictated by a shortage of materials, including good quality paper and printing ink, embargoed by the United States. This encouraged the designers to eschew subtlety in shade and contour and favour high-contrast photography and large areas of clearly defined colour. Tricontinental’s often starkly simple covers were printed in four colours by offset lithography.

Anti-America

Although little Cuba suffered badly from American sanctions, during the 60s and 70s there were many radical American supporters of the revolution. The San Francisco-based People’s Press published a North American edition if Tricontinental, and images created by Emory Douglas for the Black Panther Party newspaper were adapted for use by OPSAAAL.

There are posters here supporting the imprisoned black activist Angela Carter, as well as memorials for various black radicals shot or imprisoned in America. But in a way, it was the imaginative symbols of American oppression which make the most impact.

Tricontinental magazine 33

Anti-apartheid

Apartheid was in force in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. It was only the most extreme version of institutionalised white racism, which also included the segregation laws in America, so vehemently protested by the Civil Rights Movement.

For me the OPSAAAL posters and Tricontinental cover art are at their best when they embody a really strong design idea, as in this simple but scathing image, a piece of Pop Art collage used to withering effect.

Tricontinental 76

Thoughts

1. Taken together they make up a fascinating review of visual styles and approaches available to political poster makers in the late 60s and 70s. In many ways the magazine covers are even more inventive and biting than the posters. Lots and lots of them have a really strong visual and intellectual impact, like the image – blown up, here, into a wall-sized hanging – of an American astronaut reaching out to the moon while standing on the backs of two prone African Americans.

2. It’s a reminder of just how much conflict there was around in the world in the 1970s when I grew up, with military dictatorships running most of South America, with colonialist regimes and apartheid South Africa still repressing millions of Africans, while millions of others were caught up in brutal civil wars, and then topping everything the nightmare of Vietnam which was promptly followed by the living hell of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

When you factor in that half of Europe was under Communist tyranny and there was an endless diet of scares about whether this or that incident might trigger World War Three, the world I grew up in seemed a much more violent and dangerous place than it does today.

3. This is embodied in the way there are so many guns in the posters. Almost all the native artefacts-updated ones simply put guns in the hands of tribal gods. In the last room in particular, almost every poster seemed to feature a man or woman or sometimes an inanimate object, holding a sub-machinegun. Stepping back from the rights and wrongs of the causes, the final room in particular gave me a claustrophobic sense of violence and fighting going on in every part of the world.

That’s maybe the main feeling the exhibition gave to me, but other visitors will find their own threads and meanings. Above all I defy you not to be thrilled by the sheer inventiveness and exuberance of so many of the works on display.

Installation view of Designed in Cuba at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

And it’s worth pointing out that the curators of the exhibition flew to Cuba specially to interview the surviving OPSAAAL designers and that the exhibition includes the resulting video, in which leading designers such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila explain at length their motivation and approach, the design ideas and technical constraints, which lay behind the Tricontinental phenomenon.

This is another brilliantly conceived and beautifully laid out exhibition from the House of Illustration.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Raúl Cañibano: Chronicles of an Island @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Downstairs at the Photographers’ Gallery is the print shop, whose function is to put on displays of work by contemporary or modern photographers in quality prints which are for sale. The print room is currently hosting the first UK solo exhibition for Raúl Cañibano, one of Cuba’s most famous and prolific photographers.

Malecón series: Havana, 1994 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

The room contains fifteen of Cañibano’s prints (more are available to view on request) and they’re all marvellous.

Cañibano is a people’s photographer, down and dirty among peasants and workers. There’s no studio work or models or posing. He works in black and white capturing the grit and feel of life for ordinary, generally pretty poor, Cubans.

Tierra Guajira series: Manatí, 1999 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

So first of all I responded to them as gritty images of the labour and enjoyments of the Cuban working classes. Only slowly did certain patterns or approaches to emerge.

There are two obvious tricks or techniques he uses. The first is the use of multiple levels. In the photo above there are, pretty obviously four levels: the old guy’s face right up close to the lens, the guy on the right swinging an axe, the horse in the middle distance, and then the mountains on the horizon. You could say these multiple levels draw you into the image, but they also emphasis the photos’ artificiality: an odd combination of the naturalistic and the heavily contrived.

Secondly,  there is Cañibano’s use of shadows. In the photo below the shadow of the woman washing her hair is reasonable enough. But the shadow of the horse and rider is unexpected, suggesting all sorts of interesting stuff going on outside the frame, and adding an air of mystery, of almost symbolic power, to the image.

Vinales, Cuba, 2013 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

What Cañibano’s use of both shadows and the multiple levels or depths do is to disrupt the predictability of the images. To disconcert and decentre them.

By comparison, behind the sales desk in the Print Room are photos from previous exhibitions, including some by the great Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Bravo’s compositions tend to have a lovely flat, calm and classical feel. They are artfully composed.

The Daughter of the Dancers (1933) by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Comparing the Bravo images with Cañibano’s brings out the dynamism not only of the Cuban’s subjects (all his people are generally doing things) but the dynamism of the compositions themselves, starting with the two elements mentioned above – the multiple levels and the shadows. His people are doing things, but the image is doing things as well.

Another favourite disruptive element in Cañibano’s photos is translucent fabrics. Sometimes kids are wrapping it round themselves for fun, or making a cape out of it. Or it is just there in the background or as a feature, maybe mosquito netting or fine muslin used as an awning, as in this photo which seems to be depicting age and youth, at least we think it’s a child silhouetted in the window. (Note the multiple levels: foreground, sheet, background silhouette and, very faintly in the distance, the horizon of trees.) The woman friend I went with said it reminded her of a pre-natal scan.

Raúl Cañibano, Tierra Guajira series: Manatí, 1999. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

Cañibano was born and raised in a poor family in the rural province of Las Tunas on the eastern side of Cuba. He had little formal education and worked as a welder until 1989, when a visit to an exhibition of Alfredo Sarabia’s surrealist photographs at the Fototeca de Cuba inspired him, at the age of thirty, to consider a career in photography.

It paid off. In 1999 he won the Grand Prix in the Cuban National Photography Exhibit for his project on the life of rural workers, Tierra Guajira.

Thus Cañibano had little or no formal training and picked it up as he went along. His first art photograph, depicting the shadow of an equestrian statue cut off in the middle to reveal an array of modern lamp-posts against a clear cloudless sky, established his style but also hints at his socio-political concerns.

After the collapse of communism in 1990 Cuba’s role as the pioneer of communism in Latin America lost its rationale. For generations the population had put up with travel restrictions and the shortage of consumer goods because they were told they were building a better society. Then communism collapsed. Now what? In Cañibano’s photograph the general riding his proud horse into the dream of a perfect future has been cut in half.

De su serie Ciudad (1992) © Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

The print gallery assistant explained to me that, because of the restrictions on imports of photographic equipment into Cuba, Cañibano initially had to use expired film and materials, and didn’t have the correct printing resources to hand when starting out. So he tended to convert the negatives straight into digital images which could be stored and distributed.

And so, this year, the Photographers’ Gallery made the decision to fly Cañibano to England, bringing his precious negatives in a cigar box. Once here the negatives were turned into limited-edition silver gelatin prints in collaboration with master printer Robin Bell, who has worked with such big name photographers as David Bailey, Don McCullin and Terence Donovan. So this exhibition is a real first, creating high quality prints of Cañibano’s work, and making them available in the UK, for the first time.

All the prints are for sale, starting at £1,250 + VAT. I can’t afford anything like that but I can well imagine people who would pay that sum for a limited edition, high-quality print of one of these wonderful, vivid and evocative images.

Malecon Habanero, Cuba, 2006 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography 1959-2016 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The history of Latin America has fascinated observers as much as it has mystified them. There is something apparently alien about the continent, an exoticism that derives perhaps from it having once been perceived as a ‘new world’, although there survive monuments and relics of ancient societies whose cultures remain poorly understood by us even today. This elusiveness – hinting simultaneously  at a former state of grace and some original corruption – has rendered interpretation of Latin American history peculiarly vulnerable to speculation and myth-making.
(Edwin Williamson in the introduction to his Penguin History of Latin America, 1990 revised 2009)

Urban Impulses

This is an epic exhibition, if not quite in scale, then certainly in scope. Across four rooms and two floors, the Photographers’ Gallery is showcasing some 200 works by 73 photographers from all across Latin America.

They use a wide range of techniques and approaches to chronicle every aspect of the continent’s violent politics and conflicts, its transition from a predominantly rural to a mostly urban population, its music and fiestas and cultures and traditions, its signs and streetlife, its nightclubs and dancehalls.

Most of the photographers are represented by only one or two images and so as you move from photo to photo, you are presented with a blizzard of names and biographies, not to mention a bewildering variety of countries and decades, which I found it quite challenging to get a handle on.

Cuba in the 1950s was very different from Nicaragua in the 1980s, and different again from Mexico now.

(N.B. In this review the texts in italics are copied from the thorough and very useful free handout which accompanies the exhibition.)

Calle Alameda, Santiago, 1983 by Álvaro Hoppe © Álvaro Hoppe. Courtesy of the artist

The history of Chilean photography over the past thirty years is above all that of a rupture, or a ‘tectonic shift’ caused by the military coup of 1973. Until that time, democracy had allowed the history of the medium to evolve without major disruption, but what happened in September 1973 created a generation of photographers committed to documenting the urban tragedy that subsequently emerged on the streets of Santiago during the 1970s and 80s.

As I wandered among this cornucopia of images and histories and countries and events, it struck me that there are many ways to group and arrange it – by subject matter, grouping together themes such as politics, street activism, street scenes, commercialisation, religion and, of course, every curators’ favourite topics, gender and identity.

Or you could divide them up by technique – grouping together black-and-white photos (most of them are, in fact, in black and white), colour photos, montages, collages, photojournalism, photocopies, and art works made of photos chopped up and attached to canvases. The curators back up the visitor’s sense of an impressive diversity of medium and approach:

Here a hybrid iconography emerges where photography exists in tandem with other media of mass circulation such as graphics, photo-copying and print media, often involving the marking, cutting and defacement of images where the notion of appearance and disappearance exist in tandem.

Take this striking artwork which features a collage of commercial adverts cut with urgent news photos, and then treated and painted over.

Equis (1985) by Herbert Rodríguez © Herbert Rodríguez. Courtesy of the artist

Rodriguez denounces the injustices suffered by the populations of the Andean and Amazonian regions, dominated by a process of gradual urbanisation, and, more generally, the exploitation of one part of Peruvian society by another. The approach is experimental, the materials – often salvaged from public spaces – are banal, and the collage technique allows them to be gathered together and reordered in different ways.

Another approach would be to zero in on a handful of the most famous photographers who won international reputations during the period and seek them out first – such greats as Alberto Korda from Cuba who created the iconic images of Che Guevara, or Graciela Iturbide (b.1942) from Mexico, or Sergio Larrain from Chile.

Again you could group the photographers by country because many of the photos are political, in the broadest sense, and require a knowledge of the political history of the country in question, foe xample the military dictatorships in Chile or Argentina.

In fact I realised I needed to stop and remind myself just what countries actually make up ‘Latin America’. Upon looking into it I discovered there’s a surprising amount of ambiguity about defining and framing the geography.

The term ‘Latin America’ can be taken to refer solely to ‘South America’, or to also include the many nations of Central America and the Caribbean. (Cuba always gets included, despite not being in South or Central America.)

Nations of South America by population

  1. Brazil
  2. Colombia
  3. Argentina
  4. Peru
  5. Venezuela
  6. Chile
  7. Ecuador
  8. Bolivia
  9. Paraguay
  10. Uruguay
  11. Guyana

We know these nations all have one big thing in common which is that they were colonnised by Spain or Portugal in the 16th century, and administered for centuries as key parts of their empires. So they speak the ‘Latin’ languages of Spanish and Portuguese, and hence the umbrella term ‘Latin’ America – as opposed to ‘Anglo’ America, settled by English speakers in the later 17th and 18th centuries.

Flying low, Mexico City, 1989 by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio © Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. Courtesy of the artist

Mexico is a post-apocalyptic city. It has refused to accept the many declarations of its death. it survived the devastating earthquake of 1985, and has withstood overpopulation and pollution beyond the assumed threshold of human tolerance. The country has attempted to enter the twenty-first century without yet having solved the problems of the sixteenth. – Mexican poet, essayist, novelist and short story writer José Emilio Pacheco Berny

To my surprise there’s debate about whether Mexico should be included in Central America, with lots of people, including many Mexicans, considering themselves part of North America. Incorrectly, I have included Mexico in this list of Central American nations.

Nations of Central America by population

  1. (Mexico)
  2. Guatemala
  3. Honduras
  4. El Salvador
  5. Nicaragua
  6. Costa Rica
  7. Panama
  8. Belize

Maybe the curators should have included a map, a big map, to help remind us of the precise location of all these places. (But then I’m biased. I love maps.)

Most of these nations gained their independence in stormy conflicts against the colonial powers in the early 19th century only to find themselves saddled with legacies of huge inequality and grinding rural poverty.

It was the enduring legacy of these inequalities which led to the revolutions, counter-revolutions, and military coups of the twentieth century. I well remember the era of military dictatorships in Argentina (1976-83), Brazil (1964-85), Chile (1973-90), and Paraguay (1954-89). Back in the 1970s we associated Latin America (and Greece and Spain and Portugal) with semi-fascist military dictatorships such as the notorious rule of General Pinochet of Chile. In one sense, then, many of these images fro the 1970s felt nostalgic to me.

Pinochet, 1987 by Fernando Bedoya © Fernando Bedoya. Courtesy of the artist

Fernano Bedoya is a key figure in the artistic activism of Peru and Argentina, involved notably in the latter country in the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group formed by mothers of young men who went missing during the military dictatorship. An irreverent artist, he plays with mass production – photography, screen printing, photocopying – and employs a hybrid iconography strongly influenced by pop culture. Committed to the democratisation of art, he has worked with several artists’ collective on participative projects with a distinctly political focus.

The nations of Latin America all have ethnically diverse societies, beginning with the fact that the native peoples of most of the colonised countries lived on, working as serfs or slaves for their European overlords, sometimes interbreeding with them, a racial mix which was then added to by large-scale importation of African slaves from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and then by migration from other, non-Iberian European countries – mostly in the 19th century.

This much most of them have in common. But each of the countries has its own geography and history and ethnic mix and traditions, which are hard to capture in such a variegated display. That’s the problem talking about this ‘region’, it’s so big and encompasses such a confusing diversity of peoples and places that it’s too easy to fall back on casual stereotypes – machismo, military dictatorships, Che Guevara guerillas, remote villages up the Amazon, the destruction of the rainforest, oh and a collection of cheesy dances that your grandparents used to like – the foxtrot, the tango, the cha-cha-cha.

In fact three or four of the photographers here are represented by pics they’ve taken of more or less the same scene, namely unglamorous, middle-aged couples from back in the day, dancing in (presumably hot and sweaty) dance halls. It’s a recurring topic.

Untitled, from the series Tango (1988) by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz. Courtesy of the artist

‘The tango image of Paz Errázuriz, without words, music or movement, frozen at one of those key moments when the dance danced by the dancers comes into its own, affirming the authenticity of the representation of a representation.’ – Chilean poet, playwright, and novelist Enrique Lihn

In fact all this pondering and wondering how to make sense of the profusion of countries and images and artists which I spent some time trying to group or arrange, has already been partly done by the curators themselves. They have divided the exhibition up into just two big parts (one on each of the two floors across which the show is presented), and titled them Shouts and Pop-ular.

1. Shouts

To quote the curators:

Shouts considers photography’s role not only in documenting identities and presences, but also to explore absences: in the face of kidnappings and forced disappearances carried out by authoritarian regimes, photography has been a weapon against silence. Public spaces and the city walls have also played an important role: when pen and paper, laws and rights, courts and judges have failed to obtain justice, the walls of the cities have taken on a life of their own. And photographers have portrayed these walls, covered with the slogans and cries of protest of those demanding political, social, and economic recognition, and reflecting the anger and cynicism, the hopes and frustrations of the cities’ residents.

Thus a raft of images depicting street protests, street fighting, street riots, protesters fighting cops. This is one of the rare colour photos in the show.

The Battle of the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, 20 December 2001 by Eduardo Longoni © Eduardo Longoni. Courtesy of the artist

Longoni documented in colour the disturbances that took place in 2001 in response to the economic crisis and the measures taken by the government of Fernando de la Rúa, which limited cash withdrawals from the banks to 250 pesos a week. The Argentinians, with humour and irony, soon found a name for the policy: the corralito (the diminutive form of the Spanish word for ‘corraling’, which also designates, in popular Argentine Spanish, a tollders’ playground.) On 19 December 2001 a state of emergency was announced. On 20 december, early in the evening, President Fernando de la Rúa resigned. The suppression of the disturbances had taken a toll of thirty-eight deaths all over the country, including seven in Buenos Aires.

2. Pop-ular

To quote the curators:

In Pop-ular, artists’ mine the tropes of mass media and their manifestation in public spaces. Since the 1960s, as Latin America has undergone rapid development, advertising images have diversified and multiplied, marked by the rapid transition to a consumer society. The first widespread use of colour photography was in advertising, and the richness of pop culture imagery, often associated with commerce and advertising, marks the visual identity of the Latin American metropolis. Signs, patterns and typographies, often created by self-taught hands, confer on the display windows an almost innocent beauty.

Thus there are quite a few photos depicting the most obvious aspect of a consumer society, shop windows, featuring shop window mannequins, or surreal subversions of them like the shapely, naked, young woman posing amid mannequins by Jorge Vall.

This all feels very retro since, as we know, the era of physical shops is on the decline.

Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski

This is the place to point out that the selection hasn’t been made from all the photographs taken by all 73 of these photographers from their entire careers. That would be an epic, maybe impossible, task.

No, this selection has been made from the large, but finite, collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski, who collected original prints throughout the period in question. 

Maybe this explains why, when I tried to link to some of these images, I couldn’t find any of them on the internet. Maybe they are very tightly controlled – although I did find plenty of other images by many of these photographers. As usual an exhibition like this makes a good starting point to go off on explorations of your own. But the fact that this is a selection from a selection explains some things.

Fifteenth Birthday Party in Ciudad Neza, Mexico City, Mixtecos Norte/Sur series (1989) by Eniac Martínez © Eniac Martínez. Courtesy of the artist

Produced for the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, the series Mixtecos Norte/Sur consists of photographs taken in Oaxaca and along the US-Mexico border. ‘It is the story of Mixtec indigenous people who leave their increasingly unproductive lands in the state of Oaxaca to enter the industrialised world of the United States.’ A girl’s fifteenth birthday party is a cultural milestone, not only in Mexico but all over Latin America. It involves a highly codified celebration, often accompanied by a religious ceremony, at which friends and relatives are given a lavish demonstration of the host’s generosity.

Alongside the street scenes and riots and cops and sex workers there was also a stream of images various different photographers had taken of the eerie beauty of details of Latino urban architecture – the pattern of cobbles in the street, or stripped posters on peeling walls.

Several photographers had captured the distinctive patters of tiles or brickwork to be found in local buildings, some of which harked back, maybe, to ancient Mayan or pre-Colombian sensibilities. For example, the attractive suite of photos by Pablo López Luz entitled Neo Inca.

Neo Inca LVIII, Pisac, Perú, 2016 by Pablo López Luz © Pablo López Luz. Courtesy of the artist

In the localities near Andean tourist destinations, Pablo López Luz photographs the doorways and facades of buildings and houses, adorned with the stucco relief work of Inca walls. The visual repertory drawn up in this way reflects the local taste for Inca motifs and shows how these have been grafted onto the urban context and brought up to date.

The photographers

So who exactly are the 73 photographers represented here? I’m glad you asked:

  • Carlos Aguirre (b.1948, Mexico)
  • Luiz Alphonsus (b.1948, Brazil)
  • Édgar Álvarez (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Yolanda Andrade (b.1950, Mexico)
  • Jaime Ardila (b.1942, Colombia)
  • Ever Astudillo (1948-2015, Colombia)
  • Álvaro Barrios (b. 1945, Colombia)
  • Juan Enrique Bedoya (b.1966, Peru)
  • Fernando Bedoya (1952, Peru)
  • Enrique Bostelmann (1939-2003, Mexico)
  • Bill Caro (b.1949, Peru)
  • Anselmo Carrera (1950-2016, Peru)
  • Jesús Reyes Cordero (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Armando Cristeto (b.1957, Mexico)
  • François Dolmetsch (b.1940, UK/Colombia)
  • Felipe Ehrenberg (1943-2017, Mexico)
  • Virginia Errázuriz (b.1941, Chile)
  • Paz Errázuriz (b.1944, Chile)
  • María Elvira Escallón (b.1954, Colombia)
  • José Alberto Figueroa (b.1946, Cuba)
  • Fernell Franco (1942-2006, Colombia)
  • RenéFreire (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Carlos Gallardo (b.1954, Chile)
  • Héctor García (1923-2012, Mexico)
  • Paolo Gasparini (b.1934, Venezuela)
  • Lourdes Grobet (b.1940, Mexico)
  • Billy Hare (b.1946, Peru)
  • Alejandro Hoppe (b.1961, Chile)
  • Alvaro Hoppe (b.1956, Chile)
  • Helen Hughes (b.1948, USA-Chile)
  • Graciela Iturbide (b.1942, Mexico)
  • Beatriz Jaramillo (b.1955, Colombia)
  • Mario García Joya (nee Mayito, b.1938, Cuba)
  • Alberto Korda (1928-2001, Cuba)
  • Sergio Larrain (1931-2012, Chile)
  • Adriana Lestido (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Diego Levy (b.1973, Argentina)
  • Eduardo Longoni (b.1959, Argentina)
  • Marcos López (b.1958, Argentina)
  • Héctor López (b.1955, Chile)
  • Pablo López Luz (b.1979, Mexico)
  • Ayrton de Magalhães (1954-2017, Brazil)
  • Eniac Martínez (b.1959, Mexico)
  • Agustín Martínez Castro (1950-1992, Mexico)
  • Sebastián Mejía (b.1982, Colombia)
  • Ernesto Molina (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Luis Molina-Pantin (b.1969, Venezuela)
  • Pablo Ortiz Monasterio (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Mario Cravo Neto (1947-2009, Brazil)
  • Viki Ospina (b.1948, Colombia)
  • Adolfo Patiño (1954-2005, Mexico)
  • Claudio Pérez (b.1957, Chile)
  • Ataúlfo Pérez Aznar (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Jaime Razuri (b.1956, Peru)
  • Santiago Rebolledo (b.1951, Colombia)
  • Miguel Rio Branco (b.1946, Brazil)
  • Herbert Rodríguez (b.1959, Peru)
  • Miguel Ángel Rojas (b.1946, Colombia)
  • Jesús Ruiz Durand (b.1940, Peru)
  • Osvaldo Salerno (b.1952, Paraguay)
  • Francisco Smythe (1952-1998, Chile)
  • Carlos Somonte (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Milagros de la Torre (b.1965, Peru)
  • Nicolás Torres (b.1957, Peru)
  • Juan Travnik (b.1950, Argentina)
  • Sergio Trujillo (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Jorge Vall (b.1949, Venezuela)
  • Pedro Valtierra (b.1955, Mexico)
  • JoséLuis Venegas (b.1944, Mexico)
  • Leonora Vicuña (b.1952, Chile)
  • Jaime Villaseca (b.1949, Chile)
  • Enrique Zamudio (b.1955, Chile)
  • Helen Zout (b.1957, Argentina)
  • Facundo de Zuviría (b.1954, Argentina)

And where would any exhibition of modern photography be without images of transvestites and transgender sex workers?

From 10 to 11 p.m., Mexico City (1985) by Agustín Martínez Castro © Agustín Martínez Castro Estate. Courtesy of the artist’s estate

In the photographs of Agustín Martínez Castro, the city is embodied in the anonymous inhabitants of its nights. The photographer is one o the most sensitive and profound chroniclers of the world of transvestism. Far removed from all sense of visual pathos, Martínez Castro offers an dmirable photo essay on private life, understood as a realm of intimacy, which is celebrated here, and on the stripping away of that intimacy, which is denounced. – Art historian, curator, and editor Roberto Tejada

Summary

If I’m honest, I didn’t like many of the photos in this exhibition. There are lots of them, and I suppose there’s lots of variety, but somehow I found the sheer number, and the hopping from one country to another, and from one decade to another, diluted and lessened their impact.

Hardly any of them have the standout lyricism and compositional genius of the thirteen prints by Manuel Álvarez Bravo which are currently on display down in the basement of the same building. Each one of those took my breath away.

And after reading and rereading the handout which includes almost every photo in the show, I realised that I was bored. There’s certainly an impressive range of technical diversity – many collages and montages and artistic treatments of photographic images, incorporating them into multi-media artworks. And ten or fifteen of the images did really stand out.

But almost all of these photos are images taken on the street. They almost all have a scrappy, hand-held quality. There isn’t a single one composed in a studio, and not a single one of a landscape, to give two types of photo which are completely absent. It’s shabby, urban sprawl everywhere you look.

Rough street people in rundown looking slums and dodgy neighbourhoods. Scary street punks, one or two convicts in prison. And plenty of scenes of cops and soldiers policing the street, and riots, and people getting beaten up. Grim-faced soldiers. Grim-faced dictators. Grim-faced revolutionaries. Grim-faced prostitutes. Grim-faced hoodlums, tearful mothers protesting against the disappearance of their sons, photomontages commemorating people killed in riots, tattooed gang members.

Untitled (Aquileo Valtierra González), Prisoners series, Mexico (1997) by Carlos Somonte © Carlos Somonte. Courtesy of the artist

Again I was reminded that the whole exhibition is taken from the private collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski. In other words – far from being a representative survey of all Latin American photography, this is a selection from a selection. A personal selection. A personal view of the politics and history of this continent and this era.

After a while it dawned on me that what was oppressing me was there was no joy or happiness in any of the photos. Surely someone, somewhere, in all these 20 or so countries, in the long period between 1959 and 2016, surely someone, somewhere, smiled. Maybe even laughed. Looked at the blue sky, the river, the trees and the exotic flowers in the botanical garden, and was happy? Is Copacabana beach not in Latin America? And hundreds of sun-kissed Caribbean beaches? Have there been no tourists in Latin America, no beaches and parties?

Not in these photos. Not in this exhibition. Glum and grim and earnest and embattled everywhere you look.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by María Wills and Alexis Fabry.

Demographics

The exhibition is divided between two rooms on floor 3 of the Photographers’ Gallery, and two rooms on the floor below. I visited about noon on a Wednesday. On one floor there were four teenage girl visitors. On the floor below there was just one middle-aged woman. That was it.

Shame. This exhibition deserves more visitors than that.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 by Steven Hahn (2016)

My thinking about the concept of borderlands has been influenced by a growing body of literature interested in exploring the liminal spaces in which social relations, cultures and claims to sovereign authority make contact, struggle, and reshape one another. (p.525)

Executive summary

This is a long, turgid and demanding book. Plenty of times I nearly gave up reading it in disgust. If you want to find out what happened in America between about 1820 and 1865, read James McPherson’s outstanding volume, Battle Cry of Freedom. For the period from 1965 to 1910 I currently can’t recommend an alternative, but they must be out there in their hundreds.

Two types of history

There are probably countless ‘types’ of history book but, for the purposes of this review, they can be narrowed down to two types. One type provides a more or less detailed chronology of events laid out in sequence, with portraits of key players and plenty of backup information such as quotes from relevant documents – government paperwork, constitutions, manifestos, speeches, newspaper articles, diaries, letters – alongside photos, maps, graphics and diagrams explaining social or economic trends, and so on. You are bombarded with information, from which you can pick the main threads and choose the details which most inspire you.

The other type is what you could call meta-history, a type of history book which assumes that the reader is already familiar with the period under discussion – the people, dates and events – and proceeds to ask questions, propose new theories and put forward new interpretations of it.

Since this kind of book assumes that you are already familiar with the key events, people and places of the era, it won’t bother with biographical sketches, maps or photos – you know all that already – but will focus solely on laying out new ideas and interpretations.

A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 by Steven Hahn is very much the second type of history. If you want to find out what happened in America between 1830 and 1910, with maps, pictures, diagrams etc – this is not the book for you. There are no maps at all. There are no pictures. There are no diagrams. Sure there’s still a lot of information, but what there mostly is, is lots of ‘reinterpretations’.

Reinterpretations

In the first paragraph of the introduction Hahn declares his intention to tell ‘a familiar story in an unfamiliar way’, and the front and back of his book are plastered with quotes from high-end journalists and fellow academics confirming that this is indeed what he has achieved – praising his achievement in ‘reconceptualising’ and ‘rethinking’ this crucial period in American history.

  • ‘a forthright challenge to old stereotypes’
  • ‘subtle and original conceptualisation’
  • ‘not a typical chronological survey of American history’
  • ‘conceptually challenging’
  • ‘breathtakingly original’
  • ‘a bold reinterpretation of the American nineteenth century’
  • ‘an ambitious rethinking of our history’

What this means in practice is spelled out in the introduction, where Hahn announces that:

  • Traditional history teaches that the United States started as a nation and turned into an empire. Hahn seeks to prove the reverse: to show that the United States inherited an imperial mindset from imperial Britain, with a weak centre only loosely ruling a far-flung collection of autonomous states, and was only slowly struggling to become ‘a nation’, until the War of the Rebellion. The war gave the ruling Republican Party unprecedented power to pass a welter of centralising legislation which for the first time made America a ‘nation’. In this respect it was comparable to Italy and Germany which only became unified nations at much the same time (the 1860s) and also as a result of wars.
  • Traditional history teaches that America was divided into a slave-free North and a slave-based South. Hahn insists that slavery was ubiquitous across the nation, with some of the fiercest anti-black violence taking place in New York, and that the principle struggle wasn’t between North and South but between the North-East and the Mississippi Valley for control of the new country and, possibly, of the entire hemisphere. A recurring thread of the first half is the way that southern slavers seriously envisaged conquering all of Mexico and Central America and the available Caribbean islands to create a vast slave-owning empire in which the ‘slave-free’ north-east would be reduced to a geographic stump.
  • Traditional history teaches that America is an exception to the rest of world history, a shining light on a hill. Recent decades have overthrown that view to show just how deeply involved America was with trade, exploration and slavery back and forth across the Atlantic (this is also the thrust of Alan Taylor’s brilliant account of early America, American Colonies). However, Hahn wants to overthrow not only American exceptionalism but even this newer, Atlantic, theory – he wants to shift the focus towards the Pacific, claiming that many key decisions of the period don’t make sense unless you realise that politicians of both free and slave states were looking for decisive control of the vast Californian coast in order to push on into Pacific trade with Asia.
  • Traditional history teaches that there was a civil war in American from 1861 to 1865. Hahn prefers to call this epic conflict ‘the War of the Rebellion’ – partly because the war was indeed prompted by the rebellion of the slave states, but also in order to place it among a whole host of other ‘rebellions’ of the period e.g. the Seminole War of the 1840s, the refusal of the Mormons to accept federal power in their state of Utah, the wish of some Texans to remain an independent state, the attempts by southern filibusters (the Yankee name for buccaneering adventurers) to invade Cuba and Nicaragua in defiance of federal law, numerous native American uprisings, and countless small rebellions by black slaves against their masters. Instead of being the era of One Big War, Hahn is trying to rethink the mid-nineteenth century as the era of almost constant ‘rebellions’, large and small, by southerners, by native Americans, by newly organising workers everywhere, by the Mormons, by women – against the federal government.
  • Traditional history teaches that capitalism spread across America from its East coast, which was deeply interconnected with the global capitalist economy pioneered by Britain. Hahn seeks to show that there were all kinds of regional resistances to this transformation – the South was committed to a slave economy which limited the growth of markets and industrialisation; the whole mid-West of the country was occupied by native Americans who had completely different values and means of production and exchange from the Europeans; much of newly-settled West preferred small local market economies, virtually barter economies, to the cash-based capitalism of the East.
  • Probably the biggest single idea in the book is that the Republican triumph in the War of the Rebellion went hand in hand with the triumph of a centralised capitalist nation-state. But the latter part of the book goes on to insist that, even after its apparent triumph, capitalism continued to face a welter of opposition from numerous sources, from the disobedience of the defeated South, from western cowboy economies, through to resistance from highly urbanised Socialist and trade union movements – ‘the United States had the most violent labour history of any society in the industrialising world’ in the 1880s and 1890s.

Put this succinctly, these are certainly interesting and stimulating ideas. If only they had been developed in an interesting and stimulating way in interesting and stimulating prose which included interesting and stimulating facts.

But too often the ‘ideas’ dominate at the expense of the evidence and the basic information. Too often Hahn argues the points in prose which is so muddy, and with snippets of information or quotes handled so unpersuasively, or in such an obviously selective, cherry-picking way, that the reader has the permanent sense of missing out on the actual history, while ploughing through the interpretation. Take the new terms he coins:

New Terms

Most people in the world refer to the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy between 1861 and 1865 as the American Civil War. Hahn’s attempt to ‘reconceptualise’ it and refer to it throughout as ‘the War of the Rebellion’ has a sort of appeal, especially if you can keep in mind the cohort of other rebellions he sees as surrounding it and feeding into it. But put the book down and start talking or writing to anyone else in the world and…they will be deeply puzzled. It will require quite a lot of explanation to convey why you’re using a different name from the rest of the world… and all the while you have the strong sense that it will never catch on…

To give another example: America saw rapid economic change in the 1830s and 1840s, as scattered farmsteads and distant agricultural regions began to be connected, first by canals and, in the 1840s, by railways. Raw materials and goods could be traded further than just the local market. Eastern investors became interested in money-making possibilities. Traditionally, this period has been referred to as ‘the market revolution‘. Characteristically, Hahn prefers to give it a different name, referring throughout to ‘market intensification‘.

He does this partly because – at this late date – there is, apparently, still widespread disagreement among historians about when the American industrial revolution began: was it the 1830s or 40s or 50s? Something was definitely changing about the scale of agricultural and semi-industrial production from the 1830s onwards – Hahn is suggesting a new term designed to more accurately convey the way existing structures of production and distribution didn’t fundamentally change, but became larger in scale and more linked up. More intensified.

It’s an interesting idea but it’s quite subtle and I felt a) it requires more evidence and information to really back it up than he provides, and b) I don’t, in the end, really care that much what it’s called: I’d just like to have understood it better.

Show or Tell

You could also think of think of the two types of history book I referred to earlier as ones which show, and ones which tell. James M. McPherson’s brilliant account of the civil war shows. He gives you all the facts, and the people, and quotes extensively from a wide range of sources. There are numerous maps, especially of all the key civil war battles, there are photographs which give you a strong feel for the era, there are diagrams and above all there are really extensive quotations from letters, speeches, articles and so on, so that you can read about the issues in the words of the people who were debating and arguing them.

As a result, McPherson’s account is rich and varied and highly memorable. You remember the people and what they did and said and achieved. As you follow his intricate account of the war, complete with maps and detailed descriptions of each battle, you get a real sense of what was at stake and how contingent human affairs are.

Hahn tells

By contrast, Hahn tells you what happened, with no reference to maps, no graphs or photographs, with minimum quotations. For example, he doesn’t give a single account of a civil war battle, and certainly no maps of them. All the evidence is subsumed to the need to make his case and put forward his theories.

But the risk of writing history in such a theory-heavy way is that your account might end up being more about yourself and your theories, than about the ‘history’; that you spend ages asking academic type questions…

What was the character of American governance? On what axes did American politics turn? How far did slavery’s reach extend, and what was its relation to American economic and political growth? How did the intensifying conflict over slavery turn into civil warfare, and in what ways did civil warfare transform the country? How integral was political violence and conquest to American development? How were relations of class, race and gender constructed, and what did they contribute to the dynamics of change? When did American industrialisation commence, and how rapidly did it unfold? How should we view popular radicalism of the late nineteenth century and its relationship to Progressivism? At what point could the United States be regarded as an empire, and how was empire constituted? (p.2)

… in order to devote the rest of the book to answering them in a similarly abstract, academic kind of way.

To give an example of the triumph of theory over detail, Hahn is heavily into modern identity politics and goes out of his way to discuss the history of women and of people of colour using the latest up-to-date sociological jargon.

Thus Hahn tells us that the nineteenth century family was a ‘patriarchal institution’ ruled by the ‘patriarchal father’ or the ‘patriarchal husband’. He explains that 19th century American society was profoundly ‘gendered’ (a favourite word of his), a society in which people have defined themselves by ‘gender stereotypes’, where people carried out ‘gendered divisions of labour’, according to ‘gendered norms’ and ‘gender conventions’ and ‘gender exclusions’. The more aggressive leaders of the era, such as presidents Andrew Jackson and Theodor Roosevelt, are both accused of ‘masculinism’.

Similarly, Hahn loses no opportunity to tell us the big news that Southern slaveowners and their newspapers and politicians often expressed ‘racist ideas’ and ‘racist conventions’ and ‘racist stereotypes’ in ‘racist’ language.

The thing is – this is not really news. It is not that useful to be told that 19th century American society was sexist and racist. The use of the latest terminology can’t hide the fact that this is pretty obvious stuff. Not only that, but it is deeply uninformative stuff.

Instead of giving specific, useful and memorable examples of the kind of behaviour he is deploring, there tend to be pages of the same, generalising, identity politics jargon.

Part of his attempt to overturn ‘received opinion’ is to attack the notion that slaves were the passive recipients of aid and help from well-meaning white abolitionists. Wherever he can, Hahn goes out of his way to show that it was the blacks themselves who organised resistance to slave-hunters, set up communications networks, who were aware of the political implications of the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion, who organised themselves into groups to flee their southern masters and make for the Union front line then, later, after the war, continued the struggle for equality, organised themselves into networks and groups at local and regional level, and won significant political and administrative posts across the South, before, eventually, an anti-black backlash set in during the 1870s.

In a similar spirit (that marginalised people weren’t passive victims but strong independent people with their own agency who have all-too-often been written out of the story but whose voices he is now going to  bravely present) Hahn refers a number of times to women organising as much political activity as they were then allowed to do, taking on domestic and cultural responsibilities, organising a Women’s Convention in 1848, campaigning for women’s suffrage throughout the later part of the century, fighting for admission to teaching and the professions, and so on.

Well and good, and interesting, in outline – but the way Hahn tells these stories is highly generalised, draped in politically correct phraseology, rather than illuminated by specific stories or incidents which really bring them to life.

McPherson shows

By contrast, McPherson shows us these forces in action. He devotes pages to giving the names and stories of specific women who helped transform the perception of women’s abilities. These include the passages he devotes to the role of nurses during the war, and as workers in key industries depleted of men because of the draft.

I was fascinated by his description of the way that, in the pre-war period, the movement of women from being cottage industry producers to the heads of nuclear households in which the male now went out to earn a wage, represented a big step up in power and autonomy for women. Interesting, because so counter-intuitive.

McPherson shows the important role of women in the 1840s in creating a new market for consumer goods, which made America a pioneer in all sorts of household conveniences for the next century or more.

McPherson devotes a passage to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the bestselling novel of the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

I was struck by McPherson’s account of how women, in the 1830s and 40s began their dominance of the teaching profession, which has never gone away (in 2017 77% of teachers in the USA were female). The conference to launch the women’s rights movement which Hahn gives one brief mention, McPherson devotes three pages to, with accounts of the women who organised it, and the debates it held (pp. 33-36).

Later on, McPherson has a section about medicine and nursing during the war where, in a nutshell, certain strong-willed women followed the example of Florence Nightingale and set up nursing homes and went into the field as nurses. These women nurses and organisers impressed the male medical establishment, the army and the politicians so much that it made many men revise their opinion of women’s toughness. Notable pioneers included Clara Barton and Mary-Anne Bickerdyke (p.483) and Elizabeth Blackwell who, in 1849, became the first American woman to earn an MD.

The same went for factories and agriculture, especially in the North, where women were called in to replace men drafted into the army, and permanently expanded cultural norms about what women were capable of. (pp.477-489)

All this is in the McPherson. You can see how it is all immediately more interesting, more enlightening, and more useful knowledge than any number of references to ‘gender stereotypes’, ‘gendered divisions of labour’, ‘gendered norms’, ‘gender conventions’ and ‘gender exclusions’.

And if you are a feminist or interested in what women did during this period, it is far more useful and empowering to be given specific names and events and stories, which you can then go and research further yourself, than bland generalisations. Being given the name and career of Mary-Anne Bickerdyke is more useful than being given another paragraph about ‘gender conventions’.

Other problems with the book

1. Poor style

Hahn’s prose style is awful. Pages go by full of anthropological and sociological jargon and utterly bereft of a single fact or name. Take this excerpt:

Although patrons expected favours and services from their office-holding clients, they had their own needs as well. Their power and prestige were enhanced by – often required – collections of followers who could offer loyalty, votes, skills, and readiness to intimidate foes, but all this came at the price of the rewards patrons had to make available: protection, work, credit, loans, assistance in times of trouble. (p.63)

Of what organised society is this not true? It could be describing power relations in ancient Rome, or Shogun Japan, or among the Aztecs.

Orotund Hahn’s core style is orotund American academese which combines:

  • preferring pompous to simple words
  • clichés
  • identity politics jargon

Pompous locutions Favourite words include ‘deem’ instead of ‘think’, and ‘avail’ instead of ‘take advantage of’ or just ‘use’. Hahn is particularly fond of ‘contested spaces’: America in the 19th century was thronged with ‘contested spaces’ and ‘contested narratives’ and ‘contested meanings’. All sorts of social forces ‘roil’ or are ‘roiled’. When he quotes speeches the speakers are always said to ‘intone’ the words. People never do something as a result of an event or development; he always say ‘thereby’ some great change took place.

Hahn has a habit of starting a sentence, then having second thoughts and inserting a long parenthesis before going on to finish the sentence – often combining two contradictory thoughts or ideas in one sentence, which forces you to stop and mentally disentangle them.

Cliché Given his bang up-to-date usage of latest PC jargon, it is a surprise that Hahn combines this with a fondness for really crass clichés. For example, early on tells us that General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna initially supported the setting up of a monarchy in Mexico, then:

in a veritable flash, he sided with the liberals and constitutionalists

‘In a veritable flash’. a) That’s not very impressive English and b) it’s rather poor as historical explanation. Instead of serious analysis of Santa Anna’s motives for this (apparently sudden) change of mind, he is treated like a character in a fairy story. Hahn’s sense of human psychology is often disappointingly shallow. On the same page we are told that:

Santa Anna was haughty, temperamental, and guided chiefly by personal ambitions for power and adulation.

A political leader guided by a personal ambition for power. Fancy that. On page 24:

Napoleon, in his audacity, planned to reverse the wheels of history.

On page 29, President Andrew Jackson (who served for two terms, 1829 to 1837, and I think is seen as a bogeyman by liberals because he aggressively opened up the West to expansion by the slave states and capitalists, though it’s difficult to tell from Hahn’s book) is quoted in order to demonstrate the amorality of his expansionist vision:

‘I assure you,’ he boasted to the secretary of war, his imperial hunger not yet satisfied, ‘Cuba will be ours in a day.’

‘His imperial hunger not yet satisfied’. He sounds like a character in a fairy tale. Instead of stopping to convincingly explain to the reader why Jackson was such a Bad Bad Wolf, Hahn writes sentences like this about him:

In 1828, in an election that empowered white settlers west of the Appalachians and especially in the South, Andrew Jackson won the presidency, and the bell of doom began to toll.

Ah, ‘the bell of doom’. That well-known tool of historical analysis. What is he talking about?

The spread of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s prompted pro-slavery counter-attacks on black churches or schools:

as the fires of hatred were fanned to a searing heat. (p.61)

Ah, the fires of hatred. Half a dozen times ‘the writing is on the wall’ for this or that person or movement. Indians, or blacks, or women, or strikers ‘throw themselves into the fight against’ the army or Southern racism or the patriarchy or capitalism. Oppositions ‘dig in their heels’ against governments.

Wrong usage Not only does he use surprisingly banal clichés, but Hahn is continually verging in the edge of ‘malapropism’, defined as: ‘the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with an amusing effect’. Here is a paragraph of Hahn which seems to me to combine cliché with phrases where he’s using words with slightly the wrong meaning.

Nearly one quarter of Santa Anna’s troops fell at the Alamo… and the slaughters he authorised there and at Goliad touched a raw nerve of vengeance among those left to keep the Texas rebellion alive. Believing that he verged on total victory, Santa Anna planned a multi-pronged attack on Houston and divided his army to carry it out. But the winds of fortune (in this case a captured courier) enabled Houston to learn of Santa Anna’s moves… (p.41)

‘He verged on total victory’ – can a person verge on anything? I thought only nouns could ‘verge on’ something, like the example given in an online dictionary: ‘a country on the verge of destruction’. Maybe this is correct American usage, but it sounds to me like an example of malapropism, something which sounds almost correct but is somehow, subtly, comically, wrong.

Elsewhere I was brought up short when I read that:

The militant posture on the Oregon question helped the democrats and their candidate, James P. Polk from Tennessee… eke out a tight election. (p.122)

The dictionary definition of ‘eke out’ is ‘to make (a living) or support (existence) laboriously’. Can it be applied to narrowly winning an election?

As for ‘the winds of fortune’ in the Santa Anna paragraph, that is just an awful cliché, isn’t it? Surely any historian – any writer – who uses phrases like ‘the winds of fortune’ or ‘the wheels of history’ or ‘the bell of doom’ or ‘the fires of hatred’ to explain anything, can’t be taken completely seriously.

2. Glossing over key events

Whereas McPherson dedicates a section of his book to a particular event, explains what led up to it, explains who the people were, gives extensive quotes explaining what they thought or planned to do, and then gives thorough descriptions of what happened – Hahn more often than not asks a sociological or anthropological question and then answers his own question at great length, only incorporating the subset of facts, events, people or quotes which suit his argument.

With the result that the book gives a very strong feeling that is it skipping over and omitting whole chunks of history because they don’t suit his agenda.

To give an example, early on in the book there are a couple of fleeting references to ‘the Alamo’. They come in the context of his discussion of the independence of Texas. Texas was initially a vast state or department of Mexico: the Mexicans invited or allowed American settlers to settle bits of it. Eventually these settlers decided they wanted to declare it a white American state. They were strongly encouraged by slave plantation owners in the Deep South who hoped they could export slavery to Texas.

Now this aim was itself only part of the wider ‘imperial’ aims of Southern slave owners who, in the 1830s and 1840s, envisioned creating a vast slave empire which stretched through Texas to the whole of California in the West, which would reach out to conquer Cuba for America, and which also would take control of some, or all, of Central America.

In this context, some notable American cowboys and adventurers took control of the Alamo and, when a Mexican army surrounded it, insisted on holding out till it was finally taken and everyone killed. From a macro perspective it was just one of the numerous clashes between American rebels and Mexican army from the period.

The point of explaining all this is that I know that The Alamo is part of American frontier legend. I know there’s an expression: ‘Remember the Alamo!’ I know a big Hollywood movie was made about it starring John Wayne. I hoped that, by reading this book, I would discover just why it’s so important in American folk mythology, what happened, who Jim Boone and the other ‘heroes’ of the Alamo were, and so on. I’m perfectly prepared to have the whole Hollywood ‘myth’ of the Alamo debunked, and to learn all kinds of squalid or disillusioning things about it, but I wanted to know more.

Not in this book I didn’t. I didn’t even get the debunking option. Instead Hahn more or less ignores ‘the Alamo’ because his focus in that particular chapter is on ‘reconceptualising’ that part of American history in terms of his broad meta-theme – the imperial fantasies of the southern slave-owners.

To find out more about the Alamo, I had to look it up online. Just like I ended up googling ‘the Comancheria’, ‘the Indian Wars’, the ‘robber barons’ and ‘Reconstruction’.

The entire era from the 1870s to about 1900 in America is often referred to as ‘the Gilded Age’ (because really rich Americans began to ape the houses and lifestyles of aristocratic Europe) but Hahn uses this phrase only once, in passing, only at the very end of the book, and doesn’t explain it. So once again I had to go off to the internet to really learn about the period.

Reading the book for information is an intensely frustrating experience.

3. No maps

The history of the United States in the 19th century is the story of its relentless geographical expansion – westwards across the continent, taking whatever territory it could by force, seizing Florida from Spain, seizing Texas and California from Mexico (in the 1846 Mexico War), doing its damnedest to conquer Canada but being held at bay by the British (in the war of 1812) – attempting to conquer islands in the Caribbean such as Cuba (in the 1850s), and stretching the long arm of its empire across the Pacific to seize little Hawaii in the 1870s, even creating a short-lived American regime in Nicaragua (in 1856-7).

To understand any of this at all – to see what was at stake, where places were, the route of invasions, the site of battles and so on – you need maps, lots of maps, but – THIS BOOK HAS NO MAPS.

Whoever took the decision not to commission clear, relevant, modern maps deeply damaged the usefulness of this book. In just the first fifty pages, Hahn describes the extent of Commanche land, the shape of 1830s Mexico, discusses the status of East and West Florida, describes the debates about the precise territory included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, follows the march of Mexican General Santa Anna to locations in East Texas. WITH NO MAPS.

So, in order to understand any of these discussions, and any of the hundreds of discussions of geographical issues, places, conflicts packed throughout the book – you need to have an Atlas handy or, better still, read the book with a laptop or tablet next to you, so you can Google the maps of where he’s talking about.

In fact, on page 33 I discovered that the book does contain maps, but that they are poor-quality reproductions of contemporary nineteenth-century maps which are, for all intents and purposes, impossible to read. Take this example, ‘A Map of North America by Palairet’, which doesn’t even give you a date. The print is so tiny you can’t make out a single place name except ATLANTIC OCEAN.

Map of North America by J. Palairet

Map of North America by J. Palairet

I’m not often moved to get on a high horse about anything, but this is disgraceful. This volume is part of Penguin’s multi-volume history of the United States. It was published in 2016. It’s meant at some level to be a definitive history of the period. The decision not to commission a single clear modern map, and not to use any contemporary photographs, or diagrams or graphs, is inexcusable.

Here’s another example, Bacon’s Military Map of America from 1862, showing America’s ports and fortifications. Can you read any of the place names? No. Can you see any of the ports and fortifications? No. Is this map of any use whatsoever? No. It’s a token gesture, and almost an insulting one at that.

Bacon's Military Map of America, 1862

Bacon’s Military Map of America, 1862

Part two 1865-1910

I’ve read several accounts of the civil war but know next to nothing about the period which followed it. That’s why I bought this book and I certainly learned a lot, though all the time having to struggle through a) Hahn’s unfriendly prose style b) with the constant feeling that I wasn’t being told the full story of events but only what Hahn wanted to tell me in order to make his points with and c) without any maps, diagrams of photographs to refer to.

The key points of the period which I took away are:

  • The administrative centralisation begun during the War of the Rebellion continued at accelerating pace for the rest of the century and into the 20th century, though not without all kinds of opposition.
  • ‘Reconstruction’ is the name given to the period immediately following the War of the Rebellion, when the North tried to rebuild the South in its own image. Abraham Lincoln was shot on 15 April 1865. He was succeeded by vice-president Andrew Johnson who, unlike Lincoln and the Republican party which had dominated the Congress and Senate during the war, was a Democrat. For a fatal year Johnson was fantastically lenient to Southern soldiers and leaders, letting them return home with their weapons, and return to their former positions of power. Congress, however, saw that the Southerners were simply reinstituting their racist rule over the blacks and so superseded Johnson, implementing a new, more military phase of Reconstruction, by sending the chief Northern generals to administer the South under what amounted to martial law. Thus there are two periods: Presidential Reconstruction 1865-67, and Congressional Reconstruction 1867 to 77.
  • Some of the colonels and generals who had risen to prominence in the War of the Rebellion were sent West to quell risings by native Indians, for example the Sioux Rebellion of 1862. There then followed about 20 years in which the U.S. government and army broke every agreement with the Indians, harried and pursued them, bribed and bullied them onto ever-shrinking ‘reservations’. Some administrators and military men openly stating that they aimed to ‘exterminate’ the Indians. (General Sheridan called for a ‘campaign of annihilation, obliteration, and complete destruction’, p.379). It is ironic that Americans in the 20th century were so quick to criticise the British Empire and its colonial grip over native peoples, given that America did its damnedest to exterminate its own native peoples.
  • Describing what happened in the South from 1865 to 1910 is long and complex. But basically, there was ten years or so of Reconstruction, when the Republican government freed the slaves, gave them the vote, and tried to encourage their integration into economic life. This period ended around 1876 as the Republican Party lost its radical edge and became increasingly associated with northern capitalism. More to the point, the U.S. Army was withdrawn and the southern, racist Democrat party took over. They quickly began passing a whole raft of laws which brought about institutionalised ‘Segregation’. For example, during Reconstruction the number of black voters was huge, 80% or more of all adult black men, with the result that an astonishing number of local officials, judges and even governors were black. With the revival of the Democrats into the 1880s, all the southern states, starting with Mississippi in 1890, passed voter registration laws requiring voters to demonstrate specified levels of literacy, live in fixed abodes or even pay a small fee ($2) – with the result that voter levels fell to something like 5%! (pp.470-473).

This was one of the biggest things I learned from the book. Realising that it wasn’t slavery, or the Reconstruction period – it was this backlash during the 1870s and 1880s which instituted the Jim Crow legislation, the official segregation, the systemic impoverishment of black people, which was to last until the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s.

This is quite mind-boggling, a massive stain right the way through American history. It made me rethink my attitude towards slavery: I’ve read numerous books about slavery, seen movies and TV series about slavery, stood in front of statues against slavery, visited exhibitions about slavery.

But reading these pages made me realise that slavery isn’t at all the problem; that slavery is now so distant in time as to be almost irrelevant. It was this institutional racial Segregation, instituted across the Deep South of America, and whose ideology – if not its laws – spread to the North and West, infected all of American life – which is the real issue.

It was the deliberate trapping of black people in the lowliest, poorest-paid jobs, and their systematic exclusion from voting and public life, the division of parks and public places, theatres and toilets and buses into black areas and white areas – this is the thing to understand better because, as far as I can see, it continues to this day, albeit more subtly. #BlackLivesMatter.

In a way, then, the emphasis which is still given by schools and exhibitions to slavery is misleading. Slavery was abolished 180 years ago in the British Empire and 155 years ago in America. This book made me realise that understanding the philosophy and practice of Racial Segregation is much more important and much more relevant to our ongoing problems today.

Capitalism and its enemies

What feels like the lion’s share of the last 100 pages of the book is devoted to the consolidation of capitalism, and its enemies. There are detailed passages describing the rise of the ‘corporation’, as a new legal and commercial entity, quite different from the companies and partnerships which had preceded it (pp.454-464). I didn’t understand the legal and commercial details and will need to study them elsewhere.

Hahn is at pains to describe the way successive federal administrations, although equivocal about the massive cartels and monopolies which came to prominence in the 1890s, nonetheless took them as almost natural agencies which the government could use and work through – as potential extensions of state power. By the 1890s everyone on left and right thought that these huge monopolies (of railways, gold, silver, copper, iron, steel) a) were here for good b) that the reach and effectiveness of these huge transcontinental corporations or agencies could be a model for modern government.

Behind all this is the Rise of the Nation-State, the grand theme Hahn has been tracing since the 1830s. But although the various aspects of its rise is the central development, Hahn’s focus is much more about the multitude of forces which resisted the rise of the state, criticised, questioned, critiqued it, from both left and right.

So these last hundred pages devote a lot of time to the confusing multitude of opposition parties which rose up against the, by now, time-honoured duopoly of Republicans and Democrats.

We learn about greenbackism, anti-monopolism, the Populist party, the Progressive Party, the rise of mass trade unions, the Knights of Labour and the first socialist parties – and then descend into the jungle of disagreements and bickering among working class parties – socialist, syndicalist, anarchist, gradualist, evolutionary, revolutionary.

There is a lot about the strikes – kicked off by the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 – which blighted American industry in the 1880s and 1890s, all a revelation to me.

A softer, liberal version of resistance to monopoly capitalism came to be termed the Progressive movement, the idea that progressive politicians should use the levers of the state to combat alcoholism, illiteracy, corruption, infectious disease, prostitution, greed and labour exploitation (p.454). This movement laid the basis of what would later become the American welfare state (such as it is).

Some tried to bring the opposing blocs together. Liberal capitalists formed the National Civic Federation (NCF) in 1900, which brought together chosen representatives of big business and organized labour, as well as consumer advocates, in an attempt to resolve labour disputes and champion moderate reform.

The final pages describe how the whole American imperial mindset was then exported, just at the turn of the century, to Cuba and the Philippines, which America won off Spain as a result of victory in the following Spain’s defeat in the 1898 Spanish–American War, along with Guam and Puerto Rico, and also to Hawaii which, after decades of slowly taking over, America completely annexed in 1898.

Hahn shows how the same military leaders who had crushed the Indians were now sent to impose ‘civilisation’ on the Cubans and Filipinos, and with much the same mindset.

By now we are very familiar with American racist and segregationist thinking and so are not surprised when Hahn quotes racist comments by soldiers and administrators, or the speeches of politicians back in Washington, who thought people from inferior races i.e. the multicultural populations of Cuba, the Philippines and so on – simply weren’t capable of governing themselves, and needed the steady hand and civilising influence of the white man.

By the end of this book, I really hated America.


Old for us, new to the Yanks

I can’t get over the fact that so much of this seems to be new to the book’s reviewers. Back when I was a kid in school in the 1970s, I’m sure we all knew about American slavery. I remember the stir caused by the TV series Roots when it came out in 1977, over 40 years ago. All of us knew about the American Civil War, and maybe even had confederate flags or union caps among the various cowboy and Indian and army costumes we wore when we were ten. When I was a student, a friend of mine bought me Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, the classic 1970 account of how America betrayed, bullied, and massacred its native peoples.

I’m sure all educated people knew about this history and these issues decades ago. The people around me in the Labour Party of the 1970s, the party of Tony Benn and Michael Foot, were very well aware of America’s history of imperialism, its origins in brutal slavery which it didn’t abolish until the 1860s, how it exterminated its native peoples, reached out to seize islands in the Pacific, in the Caribbean, and to dominate the nations to Central America, before going on to its long history of supporting military dictators, torture and assassination (in my youth these included the Shah of Iran, General Pinochet in Chile, General Franco in Spain, the military Junta in Greece, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and so on.)

In the 1980s I hung around the communist bookshop in Brixton which was absolutely plastered with posters about American racism and the legacy of slavery, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, protests against American imperialism and American multinational corporations and the CIA. Entrenched anti-Americanism was an absolutely basic, entry-level element of left-wing political awareness.

Yet somehow, in these books by Hahn and Alan Taylor, a lot of these things – the brutality of southern slavery, the genocide of the Indians – are presented as if they are new and seismic discoveries.

think what is happening here is that American academic history writing has finally caught up with how the rest of the world has seen America for generations – a hypocritical bully bragging about ‘liberty’ while keeping the descendants of the slaves locked up in drug-riddled ghettos, the last native Americans stuck in alcohol-soaked reservations, and propping up dictatorships around the world.

I think part of what’s going on in books like Taylor’s and Hahn’s is that, since the end of the Cold War, American academia has finally become free to portray the brutal realities of American history for what they were – and that, for American readers and students, a lot of this comes as a massive, horrifying shock. But to educated, and especially left-of-centre people throughout the rest of the world – yawn.

So if so much of the content has been so well known for so long, what was it that impressed the reviewers? I think it’s the unrelenting consistency with which he does two things:

One is the thorough-going application of a politically correct, identity-politics attitude which says right from the start that he is going to ignore a number of ‘famous’ events or movements or names (goodbye civil war, hello war of rebellion), in order to give more prominence to the role of native Americans, women and, especially, to blacks, than they have received in ‘previous’ histories.

But as I’ve commented above, very often Hahn’s widespread use of politically correct terminology like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘gender stereotypes’ and ‘racism’ and ‘masculinism’ in the passages where he does this, tends (paradoxically) to obscure a lot of these voices, to bury them beneath a shiny sociological jargon which removes specificity – names, places, events and even words – from many of the groups he’s supposedly championing. In this simple respect, I’ve found much older accounts to be far more enlightening.

In fact, it is possible to argue that Hahn and all the other politically correct historians who nowadays use terms like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘gender’ and ‘people of colour’ do so because these terms in fact fend off real acceptance of the blood and horror of those times. These sterile, clinical and detached terms in a way help to drain accounts of the period of their emotion and outrage. You could argue that the language of identity politics, the jargon of sociology and anthropology which recurs throughout the book, despite his explicit intention to bring uncomfortable facts and ignored voices into the light – in fact, through its sheer repetitiveness and its unspecific generalisation – works to neutralise and blunt the impact of a lot of what he’s describing.

For example, Hahn gives facts and figures and sociological explanations for the rise of slave fugitives following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. But McPherson, writing thirty one years ago, and without using any jargon, tells the specific story of the slave woman who escaped with her children to the North, but was tracked down. As the slave-hunters, with their dogs and guns, beat on the door of the cabin where she was hiding, this woman cut the throats of her small children so they wouldn’t be taken back into slavery, and then tried to cut her own.

You can see which approach leaves you most stunned, horrified and angry at the unspeakable horror of slavery, and it isn’t Hahn’s.

This is because the second thing going on in the book is what really garnered the praise, and that is Hahn’s high-level, intellectual and often bloodless ‘rethinking’ and ‘reconceptualising’ of the era in the terms I outlined at the start of the review.

He is interested in suggesting to highly educated readers already familiar with most elements of the period some new ways of thinking about it. Throughout, he downplays the voices of the white politicians who (I’m guessing) dominated earlier narratives, he really downplays the War of the Rebellion (maybe because there are already tens of thousands of other accounts of it), and instead plays up the notion that the increasingly centralised American state faced a whole slew of rebellions from multiples sources, devoting his time to describing and theorising this riot of rebellions.

And so he ignores what I’m assuming is the old-fashioned type of history which celebrated the rise of American freedom and capitalism and wealth and included lots of dazzling images from the ‘Gilded Age’, and he focuses instead on the wide range of oppositions which the state (and rich monopolists) faced from women, Indians, blacks, alternative political parties, the trade unions, socialists and so on.

But I find it difficult to believe that all previous histories of this period utterly failed to mention the movement for women’s suffrage, that there aren’t hundreds of books about the Indians, and thousands about Segregation, that nobody noticed the epidemic of strikes in the 1890s, or that numerous commentators at the time (and ever since) haven’t criticised America’s interventions in Cuba and Hawaii and the Philippines as being as blatantly imperialist as the European Empires her politicians liked to piously denounce.

Maybe some of Hahn’s high-level reconceptualising is new and interesting, but to the average educated reader the actual events of this era remain unchanged and the main feature of Hahn’s book is that he doesn’t tell them as fully or as imaginatively as other versions do.

In a word

Don’t read this book unless you are already master enough of the period to appreciate Hahn’s reconceptualising of it. If you want vivid detail, maps, extensive quotes and a deep understanding of the period from 1820 to 1865, read Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson: so gripping, so packed with information and ideas, that I had to write five separate blog posts about it.

For the period after the Civil War – I have still to find a satisfactory history. Reading this book suggests I may have to track down separate books devoted to specific areas such as the Indian Wars, the Gilded Age with its labour militancy underside, segregation and its long-term consequences, and the imperial conquests at the end of the century.


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Karl Marx on the American Civil War (1861-65)

Marx the journalist

Karl Marx fled the revolutions which rocked Europe in 1848, to the relative calm and safety of London. Although he never intended to, Marx then ended up spending the rest of his life – three quarters of his adult life – in England.

Ironically, Marx lived here during pretty much the quietest period of 19th century English history. The uproar surrounding the Great Reform Act of 1832 was long over, and the Chartist Movement failed and fizzled out after 1848. There followed 25 years or so of growing wealth, accompanied by, admittedly piecemeal, legislation to try and improve the lot of the working classes toiling in the new industrial cities in their grim seven-days-a-week factories. It was the era of the triumphant bourgeoisie and the unstoppable rise of British Imperialism, in India, China and around the world.

Although Karl wanted to write great masterworks of historical and economic theory, these wouldn’t pay the rent for himself, his wife and growing family. Although he wanted to be at the head of great revolutionary organisations, the Communist League with which he’d been associated during the 1848 revolutions, splintered and fizzled into insignificance.

So Karl turned to journalism, which he had actively pursued in Germany since his student days (it was his editorship of the seditious the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne which was the reason he was kicked out of Germany in 1849).

Incongruously, Marx ended up getting a job with the New York Daily Tribune, as its European correspondent, from 1852 to 1862. The Tribune had wide working-class appeal and, at two cents, was inexpensive. It had a circulation of 50,000 copies per issue and its editorial line was progressive and anti-slavery.

So this progressive New York newspaper ended up paying the rent of the Marx household living in Soho, London. But when civil war broke out in America, in the spring of 1861, it was for the Liberal Vienna paper Die Presse that Karl wrote 37 articles about it, starting six months into the conflict, on 20 October 1861.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Marx’s articles about the American Civil War

The American Civil War began with the secession of the southern slave states, starting with South Carolina, which declared independence in January 1861.

The eight seceded states went on to declare themselves a new nation, the Confederacy, with its capital at Montgomery, Alabama. On 12 April 1861 Confederate forces shelled Fort Sumter, a fort off the coast of South Carolina which was still held by units of the U.S. or Union army. It was this action which signalled the start of the American Civil War.

Of Karl’s 37 articles just two are translated and published in the Penguin selection of Karl’s Writings From Exile 1848-1863. This is a shame. I wonder if you can read the lot in a pamphlet somewhere.

Karl begins by lining up the London papers of the day, The Times, The Economist, The Saturday Review and summarising their positions.

Apparently, most of the British press sympathised with the southern states. They thought the war was mostly about the issue of trade tariffs. The North imposed various tariffs on imports and exports, whereas the South didn’t. Moreover, an enormous amount of southern cotton was bought by British factory owners, turned into clothes, and traded back to the South (or sold on to India).

This explains why Britain, being a free trade nation, and economically linked to the region, had strong sympathies with the South.

It was because of this economic self-interest – Karl argued – that Britain’s papers and politicians argued, ‘Why shouldn’t the South declare itself a separate nation?’ And ‘Why should the North bother, or dare, to try and invade and suppress this new nation?’

Buried, pushed aside, undiscussed in all the mainstream media articles which Marx quotes, is the issue of slavery. In the two articles published in the Penguin selection, Marx sets out to contradict and refute the British bourgeois position, and to put the issue of slavery smack bang in the middle of the argument.

Marx’s knowledge

Marx is incredibly knowledgeable. I found reading the nineteen pages which these articles make up in the Penguin edition nearly as illuminating as reading James McPherson’s 860-page history of the war. Karl demonstrates a surprisingly detailed grasp of the geography, the economic facts, the demographic changes and the political manoeuvring that led up to the war.

Karl gives his unstinting support to the North and says it must conquer the South and overthrow its iniquitous slavery system. Otherwise the South will triumph in its pre-war attempts to impose and spread slavery to all parts of America and with it, to enslave the working classes, too.

Karl says the war is about slavery pure and simple. The Founding Fathers may have been slave-owners (most famously Washington and Jefferson), but they thought slavery was an evil imported from England which they hoped would eventually die out. By contrast, apologists for the South treated slavery as a good in itself which deserves to be spread as widely as possible. According to them, slaves loves their slavery. The South is fighting, as one apologist put it, for ‘the foundation of a great slave republic.’ (page 336)

Karl details the political build-up to the war, including:

  • the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which established 36º 30′ as the northernmost extent of slavery)
  • the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 (which retracted that ruling)
  • the attempt to spread slavery into New Mexico
  • the 1857 Dred Scott case which established that slave owners had a right to take their slaves anywhere in the country
  • the controversial 1850 Fugitive Slave Act which forced northern officials to acquiesce in the hunting, kidnapping and return of slaves who had fled north into slavery-free states

Marx describes the revival of the slave trade in recent years which, he claims, had resulted in 15,000 new Africans being kidnapped and brought to America (making a bigger deal of it than McPherson does in his history).

And Marx repeats the outrageous but widely publicised aims of the southern states to conquer Cuba for America, and extend their rule throughout Central America (specifically in Nicaragua where, for a year, a southern American mercenary did, indeed, manage to become president!).

All of these political events show, to Karl, the wish of the South not just to defend slavery, but to actively extend it throughout the states.

Why?

Marx’s economic explanation for the motives of the Confederate states

Karl gives a characteristically economic explanation for political events.

The old slave states are exhausting their soil. Maryland, Virginia, even South Carolina, have become net exporters of slaves. ‘Breed ’em and sell ’em,’ is the slavers’ policy. Therefore, the slave states need a steady supply of new markets, they need to make new territorial conquest, in order to maintain their economies.

Even in South Carolina, where slaves form four sevenths of the population, the cultivation of cotton has remained almost stationary for years due to the exhaustion of the soil… South Carolina has become partly transformed into a slave-raising state by pressure of circumstances in so far as it already sells slaves to the states of the Deep South and South-West to the tune of four million dollars annually. As soon as this point is reached the acquisition of new territory becomes necessary, so that one section of the slave-holders can introduce slave labour into new fertile estates and thus create a new market for slave-raising and the sale of slaves. (page 341)

There is also politics. Each American state sends two senators to the Senate, regardless of population. Therefore, there is a naked power struggle whenever a new state is admitted to the Union as to whether its two senators will be pro or anti slavery, each new state’s nature threatening to upset the very finely tuned balance of power between slave and anti-slave states in Congress.

Who is pushing the drive to extend slavery? Karl estimates that there are only some 300,000 significant slave owners in the whole of the country. So an oligarchy of 300,000 has been trying to impose the political, legal and economic system which underpins its wealth onto the other 20 million Americans.

This ‘plantocracy’ was well aware what it was fighting for and understood that to restrict slavery to its current territories would:

  • reduce slaver representation in the senate i.e. undermine their political power
  • lead, over the long term, to the inevitable extinction of slavery
  • and the consequent general impoverishment of the South would lead to class warfare between the slave-owners and the poor whites who would, finally, realise how they are being exploited by the wealthy 300,000

Thus the war is nothing to do with free trade and tariffs, as the respectable London papers were trying to claim. It was about whether:

  • the 20 million free Americans should submit to a political and economic system imposed by an oligarchy of 300,000
  • the vast new territories of the Republic should be slave or free
  • whether the foreign policy of America should be peaceful – or get dragged into further wars with Cuba and Central America

Punchy and pithy

Karl is at his journalistic, punchy and pithy best. In the second article he makes the rhetorical point that the South – which had declared itself a new nation – isn’t a proper nation at all.

It is not a country at all, it is a battle-cry. (p.344)

In the second article he gives a detailed description of the geography and slave populations of all the ‘border’ states between south and north and describes how the slave states had made political, legal and, finally, armed attempts to infiltrate and capture these states for slavery.

Conventional opinion had it that it was the northern armies who had invaded the south, and indeed most of the fighting was done on the soil of southern or the so-called ‘border’ states. But Karl’s list of, first, the political attempts to suborn the border states, and then his detailed accounts of border incursions and raids by southern forces, makes a powerful case that the war is in fact:

a war of conquest for the extension and perpetuation of slavery. (page 350)

A glance at the map of America in 1854 shows what was being fought over. The southern slave states (dark green) already controlled significantly more land than the northern free states (pink). The issue was: should slavery be extended into the huge expanse of land to the west (light green) – nearly half of the American land mass, which was still only roughly parcelled out into territories provisionally named Kansas, New Mexico, Oregon etc, but which would, in the near future, attain the status of ‘states’ and be admitted to the union. Should they be slave – or free?

American states in 1854

American states in 1854

Marx was wrong about lots of things, but the materialist worldview which predisposed him to see all major events in terms of their economic basis and in terms of the class conflicts which they inevitably give rise to, often gave him a thrillingly incisive vision which cut through the painful bombast and wordy rhetoric of the stuffy, obtuse Victorians he lived among.

Thus in Marx’s view the American Civil War was emphatically not about tariffs or free trade or the right to have a separate culture or any of the other mystifications and obfuscations which filled so many speeches and newspaper columns, no:

The present struggle between South and North is thus nothing less than a struggle between two social systems: the system of slavery and the system of free labour. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer peacefully co-exist on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.

He thought the North would win and that the full emancipation of the slaves was inevitable.

Given that he was writing in November 1861, with the war only six months old and most Republicans (including President Lincoln) still reluctant to countenance slave emancipation under any circumstances, Karl in these articles was not only typically incisive and insightful, but remarkably prophetic.


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Communism in Russia

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Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army’s advance into Poland in 1920 preventing them pushing on to support revolution in Germany
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, and how he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution

Communism in England

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (3) by James M. McPherson (1987)

This is a long book. It takes McPherson about 280 pages before he gets to the outbreak of hostilities, just to paint in the complicated political, economic, legal and social background to the American Civil War. This build-up section is absolutely fascinating, giving insights into a number of deep and enduring aspects of American history and culture.

Cuba

I had no idea that freelance forces raised in the southern states repeatedly tried to invade and capture Cuba (this was after President Polk offered Spain $100 million for it and Spain haughtily refused). The so-called ‘Ostend Manifesto’ of 1854 declared that Cuba was as vital for American interests as any of the other American states. Invasion attempts were led by Narciso Lopez among others. Cuba was attractive because it had a slave population of some 500,000 i.e. annexing it to America would create a) another slave state, thus giving the existing slave states more political clout, b) add a big new territory in which slaves could be bought and sold i.e. where slave traders could make a profit.

And Nicaragua. In 1855 adventurer and mercenary leader William Walker managed to get himself appointed head of the Nicaraguan army, from where he usurped the presidency, ruling as President of Nicaragua for a year, 1856-57, before being defeated in battle by an alliance of other Central American states. (Walker had previously ‘conquered’ La Paz, the capital of sparsely populated Baja California, with a force of 43 men, and concocted various plans to seize territory from Mexico. McPherson’s book conveys a wonderful sense of this era of bandits, adventurers, filibusters and mercenaries.)

Plenty of southern ideologists thought that, blocked by the free states in the north, their destiny was to seize and conquer all the nations surrounding the Gulf of Mexico (Mexico, all of Central America, all the Caribbean islands), institute slavery in all of them, and corner the market in all the world’s coffee, sugar, cotton and other tropical goods, establish a new slave empire.

What an epic vision!

The various invasion attempts reinforced Latin American countries’ suspicion of America’s boundless arrogance and her thinly veiled ambitions to control the entire hemisphere, which lasts to this day.

Reviving the slave trade

Many southerners wanted to renew the slave trade, and some went as far as commissioning private ships to go buy Africans and ferry them back to America e.g. Charles Lamar, although Lamar was arrested (and released) and no sizeable trade was, in the end, established.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

In McPherson’s opinion the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was ‘the most important single event pushing the nation towards civil war (p.121).

The territories of Kansas and Nebraska needed to be defined and organised. The process was led by Senator Stephen Douglas. He needed senate support. A key block of southerners made it clear they wouldn’t support the bill unless Douglas allowed slavery in the new states. To be precise, unless he repealed the ban on slavery north of 36° 30’ which had a been a central part of successive compromises with the slave states since 1820.

Douglas inserted such a repeal into the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the bill’s supporters then forced a meeting with President Pierce (1853-57) during which they threatened him: ‘Endorse repeal or lose the south’.

Pierce caved in, the act passed and caused a storm of protest. McPherson details the process by which the Kansas-Nebraska Act precipitated the collapse of the Whig party, whose northern and southern wings increasingly struggled to find common ground. From the ashes arose a variety of anti-slavery parties, which eventually crystallised into a new, entirely northern, Republican party.

Nativism

Immigration quadrupled after the great potato blight in Ireland of the mid-1840s. Immigration in the first five years of the 1850s was five times higher than a decade earlier. Most of the immigrants were Catholic Irish fleeing the famine or Germans fleeing the failed revolutions of 1848. They tended to be poor peasant labourers who crammed into urban tenements, driving up crime, squalor, disease and drunkenness.

Pope Pius IX (1846-78) helped stoke anti-Catholic feeling among liberals and the American Protestant establishment by making the Catholic Church a beacon for reactionary beliefs – declaring the doctrine of papal infallibility and publishing a Syllabus of Errors which forbade Catholics from praising or practicing liberalism, socialism, public education, women’s rights and so on. American Catholic archbishop Hughes published an inflammatory book declaring that Protestantism was declining and would soon be replaced by Catholicism in America.

Unsurprisingly, in reaction, spokesman arose for a movement called ‘nativism’, which promoted the Protestant virtues of sobriety and hard work. There were riots and fights in cities between nativist mobs and Catholic groups.

Nativism overlapped with a growing temperance movement, which sought to close down bars and ban hard liquor – an anticipation of the Prohibition of the 1920s.

Secret societies grew up dedicated to keeping America Protestant by organising their members to only vote for Protestant candidates. There may have been up to a million members of these societies who were told that, if anyone asked about the name or membership of their local branch, they were to say ‘I know nothing’. As a result they became known as the ‘Know-nothings’, and in the few years up to the Civil War knownothingness became a sort of political craze.

The Catholic Irish also tended to be strongly against blacks, with whom they competed for the roughest labouring jobs at the bottom of the social hierarchy. It was the Irish vote which played a key part in preventing blacks from being given equal voting rights in New York, in 1846. One journalist summarised the conflict as:

freedom, temperance and Protestantism against slavery, rum and Catholicism (p.137)

Abraham Lincoln

The trigger for civil war was the election of Abraham Lincoln as president on 6 November 1860. The less well-known of the two candidates for the Republican party, it wasn’t so much him personally, as the sweeping triumph of the essentially northern antislavery Republican party running on a platform of opposing the spread of slavery to any more U.S. states, which prompted southern slave states to finally carry out the acts of secession they’d been threatening every time there was a political clash or controversy for the previous decade or more. (For example, South Carolina had threatened to secede in 1850 over the issue of California’s statehood).

Indeed, it was South Carolina which first seceded from the United States as a result of a political convention called within days of Lincoln’s election, the official secession declared on December 20, 1860. South Carolina was quickly followed by Mississippi (January 9, 1861), Florida (January 10, 1861), Alabama (January 11, 1861), Georgia (January 19, 1861), Louisiana (January 26, 1861), Texas (February 1, 1861), Virginia (April 17, 1861), Arkansas (May 6, 1861), North Carolina (May 20, 1861), and Tennessee (seceded June 8, 1861).

The seceding states joined together to form the Confederate States of America (CSA). In April 1861 President Lincoln made a speech saying the seceded states did not form a separate country, and that he would take steps to protect Union property and assets in the so-called Confederate states.

Almost immediately a flashpoint arose at Fort Sumter built on a sandbar at the entrance to the harbour of Charleston, capital of South Carolina. Reports that the Union navy was planning to resupply the small Union garrison in the (unfinished) fort prompted the South Carolina militia to make a pre-emptive strike and bombard the Fort into surrender on April 12, 1861. These were the first shots fired in the Civil War and Lincoln had been astute in managing to ensure it was a rebel state who fired them.

A political war

It was a political war. From start to finish the aims of both sides were political – broadly speaking the survival of their respective political, economic and social systems (one based on slave labour, one not) i.e. it was not a war fought about land or conquest.

Although it quickly escalated (or degenerated) into a total war, mobilising the resources of both sides, and leading to terrible casualties, the political aspect of the struggle was always pre-eminent.

Neither side was monolithic. There were moderates in the south, there were even unionists in the upper southern states, to whom Lincoln held out the possibility of negotiation and reconciliation. Similarly, not all northerners were in favour of total war, and one plank of southern rhetoric was to reach out to northern ‘constitutionalists’ by emphasising that the southern states’ cause was a logical consequence of the American Constitution’s concern for each state’s individual autonomy. They were merely fighting for their rights under the Constitution to govern by their own laws.

Whose rights came first – the states or the Union as a whole? Who ruled – the central or the states governments? This had proved a thorny problem for the drafters of the Constitution back in the 1780s and was, at least to begin with, the core issue of the war. It’s certainly the one Abraham Lincoln focused on in his early speeches, which assert that you simply can’t have a government if large parts of the country threaten to secede every time laws are passed which they disagree with.

We must settle this question now: whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.

But the south didn’t think it was a matter of this or that law – they thought the Republicans’ stated aim of stopping slavery from spreading and, in time, forcing it to wither and die, represented an existential threat their entire economic and cultural existence. As the South’s reluctant president, Jefferson Davis, said, the Confederate states had been forced:

to take up arms to vindicate the political rights, the freedom, equality, and state sovereignty which were the heritage purchased by the blood of our revolutionary sires.

Length and complexity

This is why the first 300 pages of McPherson’s book are so important. They need to paint a really thorough picture of the confused and contradictory political scene right across American society in the decades preceding the conflict:

  • explaining the arguments over slavery which tore both the pre-war Whig Party and that Democrat Party apart
  • explaining the rise of the new antislavery Republican party; describing the importance of nativist and racist movements in the north (not only anti-Catholic and anti-Irish but also anti-negro)
  • describing in detail the sequence of political crises which flared up over the admission of each new state to the union, the blizzard of arguments on both sides about whether each the new state should be slave or free
  • and detailing the complicated compromises which just about papered over the cracks for decades until the election of Lincoln.

And you need a good grasp of the kaleidoscopic and shifting complexity of American political scene in these years to understand why Lincoln took the decisions he did; for example why he appointed to his first cabinet several of his major political rivals – even from other parties – in order to build the widest coalition.

Why he appointed a soldier from the rival Democrat party George B. McClellan as head of the army on the Potomac, and stuck with him even though he failed to press the North’s military and logistical advantage.

Similarly, why Lincoln delayed so long before declaring the Emancipation of the Slaves – namely that he had to keep onside as many as possible of the Democrat (i.e. slave-friendly) politicians in the north who had continued attending the Union Congress and Senate, and avoid offending opinion in the border states of Missouri and Kansas.

The American Civil War really is a classic example of the old saying that war is politics by other means as, throughout the conflict, both leaders, Lincoln and Davis, had to manage and negotiate unending squabbles on their own sides about the war’s goals and strategies. McPherson notes how both leaders at various points felt like quitting in exasperation – and how both sides found their war aims changing and evolving as political feeling changed, and as the value of various alliances also changed in importance.

Killers

Meanwhile, as in any war, some men discovered that they liked killing.

You need the background and build-up in order to understand why the border states between north and south (for example, Missouri and Virginia) found themselves torn apart by opposing political movements and descending into their own mini civil wars, which generated gangs of raiders and freelancers beholden to neither side, degenerating into tit-for-tat bloodbaths.

One of Quantrill's Raiders, the best-known of the pro-Confederate partisan guerrillas (or bushwhackers) who fought in the American Civil War. Their leader was William Quantrill and they included Jesse and Frank James.

One of Quantrill’s Raiders, the best-known of the pro-Confederate partisan guerrillas (or bushwhackers) who fought in the American Civil War. Their leader was William Quantrill and they included Jesse and Frank James (pp.292 and 303)

It takes some time to explain why such a large, rich, bustling, vibrant nation managed to tear itself to pieces and descend, in many places, into violent anarchy. Battle Cry of Freedom is a very long book because it needs to be – but it never ceases to be completely absorbing and continually illuminating.


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