The year is 2007. Twenty-two-year-old David Hammond is adrift in New York when a certain senator from Illinois announces his run for the presidency. David, who appears biographically indistinguishable from his author—Vinson Cunningham, a staff writer and theater critic for The New Yorker—watches on TV in uptown Manhattan as a song by U2 plays and the senator speaks. “Giving all praise and honor to God for bringing us together here today,” the senator—fine, Barack Obama—says.

At no point in Great Expectations does Cunningham mention the senator by name. The novel serves as a master class in the observation of a figure so familiar that we know the gradations of his voice like those of a parent or sibling. For David, it isn’t only the baritone that pierces through: “I recognized that black-pulpit touch immediately, and felt almost flattered by the feeling—new to me—of being pandered to so directly by someone who so nakedly wanted something in return.”

What David notices, what is so often ignored or papered over when describing the talismanic force of the former president, is his religiosity, or at least the version of it that he chose to put forward publicly. All presidential candidates evoke God. But the senator “sounded comfortable, even natural, doing it, which was becoming somewhat more rare.” Obama’s faith, much like his physical bearing—at a record producer’s house, “he’d carried his body with a controlled, respectable cool: black man on the move,” but in the company of a book publisher and her friends, “he walked with a bohemian lilt, looser in the spine and at the knees, Whitman over Brooklyn’s ‘ample hills’”—serves, for David, as a yardstick to measure himself against. From the senator he learns to “ease” his shoulders backward; he also starts to contemplate his own theology.

David—like Cunningham—is the son of a Pentecostal teacher (mother) and a Catholic school musical director (father). He spends his childhood in the pews, where a designated group of women, known as “nurses,” catch congregants who fall to the ground seized by the Holy Spirit. “Pentecostalism is a contact sport,” David deadpans. He grows up thinking that religion is a total state of being: either you are an adherent or you aren’t. Gradually he realizes that it can come with a dimmer:

When I was younger I’d lived under the misapprehension that when people described themselves as Christian in answer to questions about their religion, they were signaling some fervor—some absolute metaphysics—like the one into which I had been born. I’d learned slowly…that they often meant only that on holidays their parents had dragged them to a church instead of a mosque or a temple. They hadn’t shaped their lives—organized their guilts or sorrows or hopes—around any particular creed.

When the senator makes his announcement speech, David has recently moved back to New York, having dropped out of college after learning that he was about to become a father. A month later, David lands a job with the campaign as a junior member of the fundraising staff (as Cunningham did). The woman who recommends David to the campaign is Beverly Whitlock, the mother of a high school student whom he tutors; she also happens to be an FOC: Friend of the Candidate. The campaign had asked for her input in its recruitment of personnel. “The thought that, by asking Beverly, they had also been implicitly seeking somebody black swung athletically through my mind,” David muses. This isn’t the only time he makes an uneasy reference to the mostly white roster working on the campaign of America’s first Black president.

The novel then couch surfs along with David, from the campaign’s unmarked New York offices to a stint canvassing with volunteers in Goffstown, New Hampshire. There he meets Regina, a former public school teacher turned gifted campaigner. Before long, David goes home with her. The place has the “briny smell of softly rotting clothes, old wood, and dirty snow salt.” The bathtub is clogged by “long corkscrews of Regina’s hair.” Several “exhausted toothbrushes” lie by the sink. The house’s disarray only draws David more to its occupant.

I have always felt happy in spaces like these, those whose states of stubborn but basically benign dishevelment disclose something fundamentally earnest, well-intentioned, serenely industrious, and refreshingly self-accepting about the characters of the people who live in them.

Too much has been written on the subject of likability in fiction, but I can think of few more likable—or less ingratiating—remarks than this one.

David and Regina’s fling is short-lived. In part, one senses, this is because Cunningham is less interested in making his character “do” things than in searching the far reaches of his mind. (That may also be why his prose is less persuasive the more characters there are in a scene. A bar conversation among David, Regina, and a chatty Haitian server never quite comes alive; neither does a recollection of a childhood prank David had taken part in with several neighborhood kids.) Later in the campaign, David flies to Los Angeles for an impossibly hip event at the house of an R&B producer. He tries to hide his pounding hangover but realizes too late that according to the campaign’s unwritten rules, the worst he could do is appear to be trying too hard. “New York over here is all professional,” the producer mocks him in front of others. David says, “He was calling me a square, a fool. My attempt at concealment was a mistake. This was supposed to be fun. It was a job, but in many ways it wasn’t.” It was a job, but in many ways it wasn’t. This description could serve for an entire subgenre of memoirs about the pre-recession workplace.


Finally, in Chicago, David huddles with a quarter-million other supporters—“members of a mystical body, their bonds invisible but real”—to watch his boss at last win the presidency. The result is a coming-of-age novel in the sense of a hero gaining (more like stumbling upon) an education. It is also a delicate, inquisitive, unpretentious, and compulsively readable account of a moment in time, a hopeful time—the reliving of which comes almost like whiplash.

David turns out to be a natural at the job. He casually courts the wealthy and disarms the famous. At the Apollo Theater in Harlem, he meets Cornel West, who beams at him, “It’s an honor to meet you, Brother David.” At a Martha’s Vineyard fundraising event he is introduced to a professor, clearly modeled on Henry Louis Gates Jr., who has authored “bricklike anthologies” of Black literature. (“Black advancement was a kind of Calvinism: no such thing as a fluke,” Cunningham writes.) There David notices how the island’s moneyed atmosphere induces a visible shift in the senator:

He burst forward from his seat looking like I’d never seen him look before: his sandy face loose and untutored; his skinny frame swathed in a baggy white polo and a pair of sun-spotted chinos. His walk to the porch was almost a bop. He looked how the professor had looked: at home.

Soon, David trains himself to stare not at the senator when he speaks but at the audience, to search for those most visibly eager, whom he can squeeze for $2,300—the cap at the time on campaign donations. But something unexpected happens just as David grows comfortable collecting, in a single evening, checks worth more than he’d ever earned in his life: small-time donors begin to overtake the Hamptons-and-Vineyard crowd. Suddenly the very people David had spent his working hours cultivating become largely beside the point, a remnant of the old way of doing politics. Cunningham is excellent at noting the transformation: “Big money would now become what little money had formerly been: fully symbolic, less a practical necessity than a form of speech.”

Great Expectations refers, cheekily, to the absurdly high hopes set by Obama’s candidacy. But I choose to read it more personally. Cunningham’s novel does not belong on a shelf with West Winging It or The World as It Is—memoirs written by other former Obama staffers. Rather, it shares stylistic kinship—a certain charming, loosely worn ambition—with novels such as Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and Elif Batuman’s Either/Or: writers coming into their own. One of the great pleasures of reading Cunningham is his behind-the-scenes account not of the Obama campaign (he remains frustratingly vague about it, either too far removed from its timeline or too reluctant to betray confidences) but of a critical mind being formed.

In a recent interview on The New Yorker Radio Hour, Cunningham said that he jettisoned an early draft of the novel, keeping just a single scene, in which David stares at an artwork hanging in the home of a wealthy donor. It is by the artist Jenny Holzer and depicts sentences flashing in red on a vertical LED screen. Later that night, David googles it and comes across an old review by the critic Gary Indiana. It’s the review, even more than the work itself, that stays with him. In it, Indiana expounds on a conventional wisdom in the arts that when one medium—especially writing—is incorporated into another, a work’s power is diluted. The idea that words may “override and even hijack” a work of visual art stays with David, for whom “interest in the visual arts often came down to meaning, which, for me, mostly came down to words.”


It’s telling that this is the one vignette Cunningham chose to salvage, the seed from which his novel eventually grew. It has nothing to do with the senator. It’s not about the campaign or politics. In any other novel such a scene would provide an authorial aside at best, an anecdote that may end up on the cutting-room floor. But Cunningham’s hero develops by reading and viewing art. (His name, not by accident, is awfully similar to that of David Hammons, another visual artist as well as a cipher-like Black figure.) Exegesis—grappling with texts and their possible meanings—is the novel’s deeper preoccupation.

While David’s arrival on the campaign trail may have been haphazard—though I would argue that Cunningham is shortchanging his protagonist’s obvious skills and charisma—his arrival as a writer appears preordained. David describes playing a two-line part in a school version of The Cherry Orchard and treating it as an early exercise in dramaturgy:

I wanted acting to be something more than a grade school presentation, even if that was all that was called for by the role I’d been asked to play. Surely there was something beyond volume, beyond gestures. If I couldn’t be a star, I could turn these lines into an act of compression, a little art-house interlude toward the end of a bigger, more commercial enterprise.

His literary education began with the Old and New Testaments, whose tales, read “on anxious nights,” felt real to him in a way few things had. “Only genuine agitation could make a person write like Paul,” he elegantly notes. Then, over time,

I started to resort to novels, on roughly the same grounds. Despite the fakenesses of character and plot, my antic, self-soothing style of reading—each paragraph combed quickly but repeatedly, at a sweeping diagonal angle, hoping to swallow whole each chain of thought—gave me the impression (maybe it was a delusion) that I could glimpse past the narration and see the heart, hear the voice of the novelist herself. The real person at the desk, squirming stylishly to be seen. I thought of fiction as a flexible tarp, easy to pierce and asking to be pierced, thrown over an attempt at correspondence.

Fiction—and criticism too, Cunningham seems to be saying—is essentially an invitation, a wish for “correspondence.” It’s a direct communion between author and reader. This sets forth Cunningham’s accessible style, his chiseling, on paper, of a single thought until its edge is just right. (His preferred sentence is one that makes use—liberally, prodigiously, to add, digress, or specify—of the em dash.) Nothing sails past his critical eye. Even the early preaching on which David was raised undergoes literary analysis:

Most of my dead pastor’s sermons, for example, had had a tripartite structure, and the register that corresponded with the first third—before the hoop, the holler, the speaking of otherworldly tongues—was mostly, if not all, jokes. That early part of the sermon had the texture of cultural criticism or some kinds of stand-up comedy—a constant stream of references, all pointing back to a languid, strolling exposition of the text via current events.

In describing David’s time as a small-time political aide, Cunningham fixates on language: the way campaigns appropriate the jargon of the military (volunteers are “redeployed” to the early primary states) but also that of theater (a candidate is known as the “principal”). Then there is this perfect channeling of the mind of a fundraiser: “I stood outside on the grass, watching the twenty-three hundreds settle in.” The novel also includes a description of childbirth that manages, in just two sentences, to activate all the senses:

The birth, the next afternoon, took place almost outside the stream of memory, in the same hazy, soundless dimension as grief. The dancer shat and bled and here came the baby, my daughter, an alien to narrative, so far unstoried, covered in blood that smelled like a roomful of copper coins.

What I would give to read more about David’s experience of fatherhood! Yet Cunningham keeps the subject strangely shrouded, along with his daughter’s mother, who is described with dissonant impersonality (“the dancer”). As with the vague descriptions of the campaign’s inner workings, one senses that Cunningham doesn’t fully trust the freedoms that attend fiction making. For that there is always the next novel.

A couple of years ago Cunningham wrote a brief appreciation of the spirituals of his youth.* He recalled one song in particular, “Let Us Break Bread Together,” whose simple lyrics call out:

Let us break bread together on our knees.
Let us break bread together on our knees.
When I fall on my knees, with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me.

The song had been bafflingly banned by a body of Catholic bishops two years earlier, Cunningham noted, on the grounds that it failed to properly express the process of transubstantiation. The “bread” of the song is not meant to be read as bread at all but as the body of Christ, according to the Church, just as “wine” should be Christ’s blood. Cunningham found the bishops’ ban “obtuse and unpoetic.” He movingly argued that a song’s specific history, the ways in which it is taken up by people across time and place, “can inform its meaning more than its mere lyrics ever could.” Of “Let Us Break Bread Together,” he wrote:

I can remember hearing it played at St. Benedict the African, the Black parish in which I was baptized. I’d sit listening while the adults shuffled up the aisle to receive the sacrament, keeping my eyes closed and marvelling at how the sun, even through the church’s stained glass, could warm my face and redden the insides of my eyelids. It’s the rare song whose effect on my body, via memory, I can feel as soon as it starts to play.

Unlike David, who reads the Indiana essay and thinks that “meaning” comes down to words, for Cunningham art is more elusive still, charged with the distinct and collective histories of those who consume it over time.

In the interview on The New Yorker Radio Hour, Cunningham mentioned Sentimental Education as an early inspiration for his novel (and a possible title). It’s easy to see why. An inexperienced, mostly passive protagonist returns home from his studies to lead a “languishing existence,” as Flaubert put it, then is caught in a moment of political upheaval (the 1848 Revolution, the 2008 election). For both Frédéric Moreau and David Hammond, growth is a byproduct of reading. “His ambition was to be, one day, the Walter Scott of France,” Flaubert writes, gently roasting his hero. In the role of Madame Arnoux—the knowing older woman who initiates Frédéric into adulthood—we now have Beverly Whitlock, the FOC, with whom David falls into a sexual relationship in the second half of the novel.

The two novels also share a sense of moving lightly from one setting to the next. “Gustave Flaubert rejected the idea of a central narrative line,” Émile Zola wrote admiringly of Sentimental Education in 1875. The novel features “no episodes carefully prepared and melded, but an apparently random collection of facts, an unexceptional sequence of ordinary occurrences with characters meeting, separating, meeting again, till they have said their last word.” Cunningham’s novel—much more modest in scope and generally hewing to the arc of the campaign—has a similar loose structure. This may explain the early departure of Regina just as she makes an impression or the mere outlines we get of the senator:

He was a moving statue, made to stand in a great square and eke out noise. He mattered and didn’t, just as my own history did and didn’t. Just like the fathers I knew, who were there—they cast huge shadows and never sank—but were also ciphers, names that survived in our minds because of how deftly they evaded stable meaning.

That is a bold, somewhat subversive description of Obama and what he stood for: it suggests that he mattered less for his exceptional character traits than because he represented a nation’s ideal projection of itself. The issue of meaning comes up yet again, and again it slips by just as the writer attempts to jostle it into words.

Flaubert’s novel ends with Frédéric and his friend Deslauriers looking back, years later, at their younger selves. Their nostalgia may be read as sentimentalism on the part of their author or, as seems more likely, as a touch of sarcasm. It could also apply to David and his fellow campaign staffers, sitting in the donor tent at a crammed Grant Park, taking in the new president’s victory speech, blissfully unaware of all that is to come:

“That was the best time of our lives!” said Frédéric.
“Yes, maybe it was. The best time of our lives!” said Deslauriers.