Poor Big Guy. When we meet him at the start of A.M. Homes’s novel The Unfolding, his candidate for president has just lost, his alcoholic wife seems to hate him, and his sweet, doting daughter is starting to suspect he’s a jerk. It’s election night, 2008, and he’s at the bar of the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, headquarters of the freshly defeated McCain campaign, drinking four different kinds of fancy scotch and making notes on cocktail napkins for, as he confides to a new friend, “a forced correction.” All evening he’s been telling himself, “This can’t happen here,” but what’s the “this” that’s freaking him out? Certainly not the election of a Democrat; that’s happened many times. What’s different this time is the color of the Democrat’s skin, and the implication that the election of a Black person represents, in and of itself, an existential threat to the national order, and with it all of the pleasures and privileges available to well-to-do white people in America.
“Oh my god,” one of the crowd at the Biltmore gasps when the election is called for Obama. “A Black man just got elected president of the United States. Oh my fucking god.” “I can hear my parents rolling in their graves,” another says. “Just think,” a man adds, “on Inauguration Day that man is going to be fucking his wife in the White House.” Later, the Big Guy himself will call Obama “an African,” as in “Where does an African learn to play golf?,” and he’ll be chided by his best friend, Tony Armstrong—a special assistant to President George W. Bush—for being a racist.
As depictions of racism go, this is pretty tame stuff. Maybe our cultural moment is such that a white writer is discouraged from getting any coarser than this. One evening in the 1990s I attended a private gathering for a Dallas mayoral candidate at a rich person’s home, at a time when racial strife and budget woes were roiling the city. The candidate, a sitting congressman, was the acknowledged establishment choice, a business-friendly white man who promised to bring reason to city hall and restore Dallas’s battered bond rating. The only people of color I saw in the house that night were serving drinks and hors d’oeuvres, every one of them wearing the candidate’s red campaign T-shirts, and quite glum they seemed. The guests were warm toward the candidate, and he reciprocated. Nothing was proposed that might disturb a white person’s world. Afterward, my wife and I stood in the valet line while the group in front of us—all of them decked out in formal evening wear, clearly with someplace else to go—told N-word jokes and had a fine old time giggling and snickering among themselves.*
Even when dressed up in a tux, racism in America isn’t usually as polite as Homes presents it in The Unfolding. Then again, manners can furnish a civilized veneer to what are basically bare-knuckle power plays. However tame the Big Guy is with his words, there’s the matter of the “forced correction” he starts cooking up following Obama’s election, the coup d’état, the revolution, the compote of dirty tricks, or whatever it is. We will learn many things about the Big Guy, but never his Christian name; to us he is and always will be the Big Guy, born September 2, 1945, V-J Day—“literally born into [the dream],” he tells that stranger at the bar. “The war ended and the American dream came into bloom with my name written all over it.”
His grandfather, “an old-school Southern gentleman,” made a fortune in metals and plastics; his father moved north and added to the family fortune in the new-fashioned way, by spinning money out of money. Once upon a time the Big Guy himself made “hundreds of millions” in the insurance business. Though he’s now technically retired, his current assets include a helium company; extensive “holdings” in shopping malls, hospitals, and apartment buildings; and what seems to be a sizable chunk of Disney stock, seeded by a childhood gift from his grandfather of a thousand shares, quite a lucky little guy indeed.
The Big Guy has wealth, power, pedigree, and a self-congratulatory attachment to all three. At the first meeting of his potential co-
conspirators (eventually they’ll name themselves “the Forever Men”), his prepared remarks include such nuggets as:
We are among the last of an era, a generation where phrases like noblesse oblige, and haberdashery and supper, along with a warm glass of milk at night and a stiff shot of scotch during the day, were all a piece of something. We summered in one place and had Christmas in another. We had manners and a code of conduct, good men, men who thought beyond their own betterment.
Homes puts a good deal of this kind of bloviation into the mouths of the Forever Men, sentimental arias bursting forth amid their running volleys of frat-house taunts and jibes. Much of the book is written in the key of satire, and this feels right; hard to conceive of a satire-free novel about twenty-first-century American politics, given the frankly bizarre raw material. Homes has only to nudge the Big Guy a bit to achieve a working caricature of the ultra-privileged white male. “Noblesse oblige,” “haberdashery,” and “summered” all help with the job of sending up a rich old reactionary, but whether satire is incidental to the story, or its organizing principle, is, for much of the book, an open question.
Should we be mainly amused, or mainly horrified? While wife Charlotte is off on a spa cleanse, the Big Guy gathers the inner circle at his Palm Springs house for brainstorming and bonding. Their goal: preventing the first Black president-elect from assuming the office duly conferred on him by the Constitution. The Forever Men insist that they aren’t acting for themselves. They’re doing it for the country, for their children, for “history,” though the specifics of the enterprise have yet to take form. “What are we actually asking people to do?” one of the group asks. “Write a check? Get four friends to write checks? Assassinate someone?” The “T-word,” treason, is bandied about, and they debate the semantics of “revolution.” “If we can’t win control,” the Big Guy boldly declares, “we need to assume control.”
“The Constitution is about to be ripped to shreds,” one of the cabal says of the incoming administration, neatly projecting onto Obama the very thing that the Forever Men are contemplating. There’s whining aplenty about the president-elect, but one detects a vagueness, a kind of irritable abstraction in the talk that seems too generically fussy to fuel an actual coup. For the Forever Men, Obama represents “some kind of socialist experiment” and “more government intervention,” but the hottest issues of the just-completed election seem lost on them. No one rages over the prospect of higher taxes, that perennial terror of the centi-millionaire class. Nor do we get a word, much less any seething rants, about universal health care, death panels, “class warfare,” the Second Amendment, Muslim sleeper cells, and all the rest of that season’s right-wing trigger points.
So it really must be about race, although this, too, has a tired generality to it. “Imagine,” says the Big Guy, “on January twentieth, a Black man will be setting up shop in the White House.” The book offers a through line of old white men fretting that old white men will soon be obsolete, but little sense of the visceral feeling, the lived experience of it. For a coup to be in the works, surely something powerful is stewing here, some awful racist roux of anger, fear, confusion, and defiance that this election, unlike all the ones that came before, has brought to boiling.
Assuming that racism is truly the heart of the matter, the novel is obliged to crack it open if it means to do us any good—if it’s to tell us something real about ourselves. I found myself thinking of Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968)—written precisely forty years before Obama’s election—and the excruciating dive Mailer takes into his inner racist as he waits for a “scandalously late” Black leader to show up for a press conference. “As the minutes went by,” Mailer writes, “and annoyance mounted, the reporter [Mailer] became aware…of a curious emotion in himself, for he had not ever felt it consciously before—it was a simple emotion and very unpleasant to him—he was getting tired of Negroes and their rights.” Mailer goes on:
He was weary to the bone of listening to Black cries of Black superiority in sex, Black superiority in beauty, Black superiority in war…so heartily sick of listening to the tyranny of soul music, so bored with Negroes triumphantly late for appointments…so envious finally of that liberty to abdicate from the long year-end decade-drowning yokes of work and responsibility that he must have become in some secret part of his flesh a closet Republican.
Mailer is revolted by the racism he unearths in himself, and so are we. It’s a remarkable moment in American letters; we get not just the confession, but a bloody, guts-and-all dissection of the thing. One could argue that the usefulness of that passage is commensurate with our revulsion, and Mailer’s willingness to expose for our contemplation all the obscenely racist stuff he finds in himself.
Now we’re fifty-plus years beyond Mailer’s book. Maybe his kind of flaying assessment is just too fraught for our times, even at the remove of fiction. Maybe only the most daring, or reckless, or naive white writer would undertake such a project these days, but this caution leaves a hollow at the core of The Unfolding, and the novel suffers for it.
Then there’s what might be called the “macro” hollow, the contextual vacuum in which the action plays out. During the fall of 2008, the global financial system was, thanks to the subprime mortgage crisis, on the brink of complete collapse. In a weekend meeting with congressional leaders, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned that without immediate action, “we may not have an economy on Monday.” Credit markets were virtually frozen, stock markets registered record drops, and the US economy was shedding 700,000 jobs a month, but we get only the faintest suggestion of the deepening crisis in The Unfolding.
“Lehman was the tip of the iceberg,” says one of the Forever Men, referencing the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in mid-September 2008. It’s a fair statement. “When this global economy contracts,” he continues, “there’s gonna be even more pain.”
By the time these words are spoken, the global economy has gone well beyond contracting—it’s imploding. With the Forever Men’s near-total disregard of the crisis, is Homes trying to make a point about wealth’s relative immunity to events? But money has to park somewhere; one way or another, whether long or short, in liquid assets or fixed, big guys like the Big Guy are always invested. It’s simply not credible that these men would be insensible to the cataclysm unfolding daily on the front page of their cherished Wall Street Journal. With all that’s at stake, the crisis would necessarily be at the forefront of their concerns when they gather that first November weekend in Palm Springs.
Homes robs her characters of a potentially powerful source of motivation: the depth and urgency of the financial crisis could well serve as inspiration for drastic measures. And her scanting of the crisis lets them off the hook. Eight years of a Republican in the White House, with Republicans in control of Congress for most of that time, brought us to this: worldwide financial crisis, ballooning deficits and national debt, and economic ruin for millions of American households, and please let’s not forget the deadliest terror attack ever on US soil, along with the immeasurable suffering and waste of two disastrous foreign wars. For decades Republicans offered themselves to the country as the experts in fiscal matters and national security, and during Bush’s eight years they made unmitigated catastrophes of both. But with all of this offstage, a novel that might have given us a deep dive into the psyche of the conservative, ultra-wealthy elite—into the distemper, if not madness, that comes of practicing a politics that denies the lived reality of the vast majority of one’s fellow citizens—instead comes off as more of a romp, a sometimes funny, sometimes silly novel that flirts with dark matters but rarely commits.
The Unfolding begins on election day and ends with Obama’s inauguration on January 20, 2009. A crisis in the Big Guy’s personal life develops alongside the political intrigue, a family secret gradually forcing its way to the surface. The Big Guy’s only child, Meghan, is a senior at a posh girls’ school in Virginia, and a genuinely good kid. A history buff like her dad, Meghan is devoted to her parents, her horse, Ranger, her studies, and her godfather and confidant Tony Armstrong. At school we see her deliver a killer paper titled “Riding Astride,” an inquiry into the social implications of women sitting astride their horses, as opposed to sidesaddle. She is starting to pay close attention to the world of adults, to those in her immediate circle as well as to the wider structures and networks where she suspects the mechanisms of power reside. She worries about her mother, Charlotte, her drinking, her nerves, and wonders if Charlotte feels like she wasted her life. She admires her father and is eager to please him, though she doesn’t hesitate to push back on his occasional eruptions of male chauvinism:
“How is it I’m eighteen and know nothing?”
The Big Guy laughs. “You know some things: colonial history, geometry, European literature, and grammar. Women aren’t really supposed to know all that much.”
“Did you really just say that?”
The first sign of marital trouble, over and above the chronic sniping of a not-great marriage—he’s overbearing, she’s passive-aggressive—is Charlotte bouncing naked on the diving board in broad daylight. “I wanted to see what it felt like to be you,” she tells her husband, while the Big Guy’s first reaction is to wonder if the neighbors can see her. In due course we will learn that Charlotte’s drinking, her torturous dieting, her near-debilitating social anxiety run much deeper than bored-rich-lady anomie, but first comes her suicide attempt, if that’s what it is.
In a passage so rushed that it verges oddly on slapstick, the Big Guy finds Charlotte one day at the bottom of the pool with baggies of change tied to her arms and legs. “I was meditating,” she claims when he fishes her out, but in short order, after a bout of secret weeping in the bathroom, he packs a bag for her and deposits her at the nearby Betty Ford Center:
For years, he has told himself that every family has its secrets, things they wished they’d handled differently.
He sees this as an opportunity for yet another revolution.
We should not fear revolution. What we should fear is changing the story to make it sound more palatable, the use of fact to weave a choking kind of floss.
Is he thinking about his family or his new plan?
The Big Guy might belabor the parallels between the political emergency and his personal crisis, but Homes never does. She allows each story line to stand for itself, and it’s moving to watch this long-married couple struggling to find their way toward some understanding of themselves and each other. Homes’s portrayal of their brittle détente rings true—the confusion, the hurt, the exhausting work of trying to find the words. In spite of everything, there’s real tenderness between them; they discover a kind of wry solidarity in this mess they’ve made together, and the Big Guy, to his credit, rises to the challenge. He goes to a family meeting with Charlotte, where he apologizes and cries. He purges the house of booze. He gives her access to all the money, no strings attached, and at her request buys a Mercedes for her roommate at Betty Ford, the woman who will eventually become her sort-of lover.
When Charlotte comes home for a Christmas visit, she marvels at how lavishly the Big Guy has decorated the house. “I didn’t know what to do,” he confesses. “I had Neiman’s come style the place like a window on Fifth Avenue.” But he can’t muster the candor to admit that Neiman’s chose and wrapped all the presents too.
Their estrangement nearly undoes him. It turns out that the Big Guy does have a heart, and it’s close to breaking. Meghan returns home for the holidays, and her first shock is seeing her mother smoking a joint out on the golf course. But that’s nothing compared to what happens once they’re all back in the house. Charlotte and the Big Guy disclose the long-held secret of their daughter’s parentage, a double-barreled revelation that makes Meghan sick to her stomach.
“Whose house is this?” she says from behind the door of a bathroom. “Where am I? Where did my family go?”
It’s a wrenching scene, and all the more effective for Meghan’s unsparing judgment of her parents; there may be no purer rectitude than that of youth confronting the sins of the elders. She flees briefly, then returns to take charge of Christmas, preparing dinner for the family, warning Charlotte away from alcohol, then herding everyone out the door for Midnight Mass.
While Meghan cooks dinner, the Big Guy asks what she might like to be in adult life. “I’m not sure,” she answers, “maybe a colonel…. I don’t want to just be someone’s wife. No offense, but I can’t think of anything worse.” Later, in a passage that lands with uncanny power for any reader who was conscious during the heyday of birtherism, she’s shown a copy of her birth certificate and declares it to be fake. In the same passage, she maneuvers her father into a rhetorical corner from which he, stalwart conservative, keeper of the values flame, is forced to admit that he’s pro-choice.
The Forever Men experience much distress over the fact that none of them have sons to whom they can pass the torch. “Who will run the world when I am gone?” the Big Guy asks his comrades. It takes him a while—until the last page, in fact—to get wise to the answer right under his nose. Meghan, meanwhile, seems determined to grow into a complete person despite the potentially crippling handicap of wealth. She observes, ponders, processes. She has long talks with her wise godfather. Her odyssey provides the occasion for cameos from famous people. John McCain shows up briefly but tellingly. Meghan meets Bush in the Oval Office, and he comes across as the affable, boyish fellow he’s reputed to be in real life, cracking jokes and handing out boxes of White House M&M’s.
Thanks to her well-connected godfather, Meghan meets President Obama only minutes after he’s taken the oath of office, but Homes glosses over what should be a highly charged moment; we get no sense of the new president’s physical presence, nothing in the way of his psycho-political aura. Her earlier Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a D.C. power couple is an even bigger missed opportunity. She’s seated next to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but Homes would have us believe that Meghan, though steeped in her father’s world of politics and history, doesn’t recognize Rice, a ubiquitous public figure for the past eight years. What fun it might have been, not to mention enlightening, to see Meghan quizzing Rice about power, her career, the election, and the (disastrous) decisions of the Bush administration. Instead we get several pages of meandering chit-chat about football, shoes, candied yams, and pecan pie.
How seriously are we supposed to take The Unfolding? Maybe the answer lies in the political intrigue—whether the entertainment value of the satire sits in reasonable proportion to the alarm that we, readers of the post–January 6 era, are inspired to feel by the expanding conspiracy. As their ranks grow, the Forever Men come to resemble an Ocean’s Eleven grab bag of skill sets and eccentricities. There’s a completely bald, possibly psychotic retired general, a trend-spotting futurist, a historian, a nerdy tax lawyer who takes guff from everybody, and a hobbit-bearded, corncob-pipe-sucking physician with unsettling expertise in plagues and pandemics. The Big Guy travels to San Diego to confer with General Baldy, and after some cloak-and-dagger involving a Denny’s and a redhead in a convertible, he finally meets this singular person in the back room of a massage parlor. Over edamame and bone-cracking foot massages, Baldy enlightens the Big Guy on the deep state COG, the secret “continuity of government” plan that began under Eisenhower:
We train for shit you don’t even dream about. Lone wolves, Waco, outer space shit crashing to earth, insects that no longer exist coming back to life, a spectrum of biological incidents—lettuce that can kill you in twenty-four hours, brain-eating amoeba, viruses that pass invisibly through the air two feet in front of you and can kill thousands of people a day…. Know that it is real—it’s not a question of if but when.
Is Baldy the ultimate insider or a total lunatic? Maybe both; it’s just so hard to tell these days.
Homes is at her best when charting the fine line between absurdity and menace, but at those moments when I was rooting for her to get as serious as her material, the story tipped even further into slapstick and silliness. We get farts, including one from an ancient former secretary of defense who lays it right in the Big Guy’s face. There’s a cartoonish episode in a hot-air balloon, and a fake helicopter attack on the Big Guy’s Wyoming ranch that devolves into slap-happy antics. For relaxation, the Big Guy sets up toy-soldier tableaux of historic battles in his basement, and is so fecklessly literal that he sprinkles Jell-O powder around the Vietnam scene as a stand-in for Agent Orange. When a visitor asks about the mouse turds scattered among the soldiers—mice invade at night to eat the powder—the Big Guy claims these are grenades and unexploded ordnance.
The gags, the personality quirks, the gassy over-the-top speeches and adolescent insults, these begin to seem like easy substitutes for the depth and complexity Homes’s story calls for. Big political names are invoked—the Koch brothers are alluded to by implication, and Republican heavies such as Mitch McConnell and Bill Barr by name—but we get little sense of establishment institutions like the Republican National Committee and the Heritage Foundation, much less the powerful shadow networks exposed by writers such as Jane Mayer in Dark Money (2016) and Nancy MacLean in Democracy in Chains (2017). Technology hardly figures in the Forever Men’s strategy sessions. Social media and the Internet aren’t mentioned until well past the halfway point, and the consumer technology that was integral to daily life by 2008 is largely absent from the world of The Unfolding.
“I want to be ready to push the big red button the day Obama takes office,” the Big Guy says in the conspiracy’s earliest stages. Inauguration Day at last arrives, and the Forever Men gather for lunch at an upscale northern Virginia restaurant. Over the course of several strenuously talky chapters, the doctor expounds on the weaponization of infectious diseases, the futurist dissertates (finally) on the potential of computers and Big Data, and General Baldy pledges the allegiance of the COG apparatus. He will serve as the Forever Men’s liaison to the COG, and Tony Armstrong—who, improbably, is staying on at the White House to serve on Obama’s staff—will be their inside man. Amid these many pages of talk we’re given to understand that the plot consists of putting vaguely referenced networks and coalitions in place to take advantage of the chaos the Forever Men foresee from climate change, pandemics, and the breakdown of social order, with a projected “rollout” of twelve to eighteen years.
So much for pressing the big red button. We never get the big bang, or the knife in the dark, or even a decent sense of the creature that’s supposedly been hatched over the past 390 pages.
Perhaps this is Homes’s intent. Perhaps she means for it to be a half-baked creature at best, and we’re to infer that the Forever Men are all talk, no action. Or maybe the old horror-movie trope pertains here: the monster in the shadows is almost always more terrifying than the monster in the light. But at the end I found myself wanting more. How exactly would an American coup play out? I wanted to see the machinery of it, the mechanics of how power in this country is acquired, applied, and retained. I wanted my conception of what’s possible to be enlarged and informed by all the busy little devils in the details. To be plain, I wanted The Unfolding to show me what I need to be watching out for. At this point in our history, it seems essential.
For anyone wondering why I attended a private event for a conservative candidate at a rich person’s house where my fellow guests traded racist jokes, I was there because I wanted firsthand experience of the candidate and his supporters. Safe to say I got what I came for. ↩