“No, I can’t get over it, and neither can my friends, hard as we all try. When we meet for dinner we do our best to take up other subjects—books, gossip, movies, our children—but then, like the addicts we’ve become, we sneak back to the drug of outrage, shooting up the latest barefaced lie and squalid revelation, not forgetting to list yet again the national and global catastrophes brought about by the incompetence, hypocrisy, muddleheadedness, venality, truculence, mendacity, callousness, zealotry, machismo, lawlessness, cynicism, wishful thinking, and occasional downright evil of . . .”
Can you fill in the blank, or do you need Tobias Wolff to do it for you? For the benefit of the slowest student in the class, the correct answer is “George Bush.” I wasn’t aware that the London Observer had commissioned some thoughts on “the state of America after Bush” until I read about it in this brief City Journal item by Theodore Dalrymple:
Wolff himself supplies evidence in favor of my thesis. Acknowledging the meanness of what he is about to say, he writes, “When a tornado tears off a few roofs in Texas, I think, serves you right!” This reminded me of something I once heard from a man who organized international intellectual conferences in Amsterdam: the only people who ever complained to him about their lodgings were those who were most publicly concerned with social justice. “That’s some of what the last seven years have done to this writer,” Wolff adds. So it’s not really his fault that he sees fit to express this ignoble thought to an audience of hundreds of thousands. It’s the last seven years that did it. If they had been fat instead of lean, he would have been sweetness and light, and would have taken the Texans to his heart.I’m not surprised that Tobias Wolff dislikes George W. Bush. Most people do. I’m surprised that one of my favorite living writers has turned in what is really nothing more than an occasionally funny and well-written cliché. (He actually uses the phrase “fear machine,” for God’s sake!) How did the author of This Boy’s Life and dozens of beautiful, probing short stories invent a stock character “whose idea of sharing in the grief of parents who’ve lost a son or daughter in Iraq is to give up playing golf”? Go ahead and say he botched a war, but many, many accounts testify to the real sorrow Bush has shared with those parents, and the real comfort he tried to give them.
And that’s only the beginning.
In short, he presented himself as a man of the past—that star-spangled past when it only took one ranger to quell a riot, and you drove big cars without getting sneered at by sissies on bicycles, and you could make a few million without having to divvy it up with the lazy pathetnoids next door; when neighbours talked over the fence and could depend on each other, and the rivers ran straight and clear and teeming with trout, and you could dredge them for gold without the government breathing down your neck, and the trees were really big and you could chop them down, and you won wars, and men wore hats to work and meant what they said, and nobody was gay, and the queers all lived in New York, and you could say under God and have a Christmas tree on the town green without people in turbans and sidelocks getting up your nose about it.This is a brilliant writer in the throes an undergraduate sentiment—the kind of thing I’d expect of George Saunders, but never of my literary hero. It’s utterly at odds with the tenor of Wolff’s fiction, which gives people real depth instead of treating them as a punchline. The other day I read Ian Fleming’s “Quantum of Solace” and thought, “Here is an oustanding primer on character development.”
Bond faced the Governor and held out his hand. He said: ‘Thank you for the story. And I owe you an apology. I found Mrs Harvey Miller a bore. Thanks to you I shall never forget her. I must pay more attention to people. You’ve taught me a lesson.”Who knew that there’s more to people than meets the eye? Tobias Wolff used to. Of course, voters shouldn’t give their leaders—or their fellow voters—this kind of psychologically imaginative benefit of the doubt, nor should they excuse poor judgment and failure on the basis of it. But writers ought to use it to remind the rest of us that people are rarely as consistent, predictable, and one-dimensional as they may seem. Even James Bond understood that—and he’s as one-dimensional as they come.