Future fears 

Keir Graff taps into patriotism run amok

Imagine a not-so-implausible future in which domestic terror attacks spur a semi-permanent state of emergency, elections are suspended, the president remains in office indefinitely, and the Bush administration’s controversial use of kidnapping, torture and surveillance is widespread and used against American citizens. The mainstream media, of course, reacts with timidity and unquestioningly supports the government, and citizens are more fearful of going against the perceived national will than they are of the country’s obvious descent into totalitarianism.

It’s not hard to imagine, is it?

In short, that’s the premise of former Missoulian and Hellgate grad Keir Graff’s My Fellow Americans. Jason Walker, a struggling freelance editor, falls into the clutches of Homeland Security agents for taking pictures of Chicago architecture, is kidnapped, sent to Egypt, and waterboarded. When the government agents realize Walker isn’t working with terrorists, he’s compelled to become a Homeland Security informant and ordered to infiltrate a suspected terrorist cell operating out of a Lebanese cultural center.

During his assignment, Walker meets the charismatic Leo Haddad, who’s stockpiling weapons to prepare a resistance movement against an American dictatorship. Meanwhile, Walker’s girlfriend ropes him into participating in a nascent opposition movement centered on furniture manufacturer George Libby, who’s campaigning for president—or campaigning for the right to run for president. (A typical campaign slogan is “If they let you vote, vote George Libby!”) Walker is caught between his fear for Homeland Security, his admiration for Haddad, and his personal and emotional connections to his girlfriend.

My Fellow Americans is a taut thriller examining what it might be like to live under American authoritarianism. (Check out the German film The Lives of Others for a peek into the everyday life of an actual modern dictatorship.) In that way, My Fellow Americans is inherently political, only dressed up as a spy novel. It’s a warning, a plausible example of what our lives could be like if existing government projects are extended into our lives. After all, that’s what makes this book so spooky: the torture, the kidnapping, the more insidious government actions depicted here are not entirely fictitious, but based in part on what our government is currently doing. The only difference between the here and now and My Fellow Americans is a matter of degree.

But there’s still an important difference: so far the Bush administration policies have not had a palpable effect on the lives of everyday Americans. Sure, the government collects our cellular phone records and our Internet histories, but those actions, while clearly violating our rights, are unseen and without tangible effect. Sure, foreign nationals are being kidnapped and tortured by American agents, but that’s happening to somebody else. Yes, that’s offensive and illegal, but it still doesn’t directly engage our citizenry. It doesn’t test our mettle. It doesn’t answer the question, would we buckle under homegrown authoritarianism, or would we reject government oppression if it palpably entered our lives? Are we the America of Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty, or give me death”? Or the America of Mitt Romney’s “our greatest civil liberty is the right to be alive”?

I think, if instead of Hurricane Katrina—which woke the national media to its complicity in abetting bad government—another large terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 had occurred, we might have had the kind of government Graff describes in his book. But now? Not so much. A switch has clicked in the national zeitgeist. Anger has morphed into action. A movement appears to be emerging this year, centered around charged candidates like Barack Obama, that wants to sweep the old, corrupt and evil out of a government that embraced rendition, waterboarding and war. And at its center are the young.

With some luck, in 20 years when we pick up My Fellow Americans and follow the exploits of Jason Walker, we’ll see the book’s premise as alarmist and perhaps even paranoid. But for now, it’s still what could be. As such, Graff has given us a call to arms, and a reminder that these things matter.

While the book itself is a well-written and enjoyable page-turner, there are minor flaws. Jason Walker’s character is less dynamic than we’d like from a leading man, a friendless and humorless loner with a fondness for architectural photography. Yawn. I suppose Graff needed an uncommitted coward for the plot to show, and rightly so, that you can’t hide from authoritarian regimes. Obsequiousness won’t save you. But still, Walker offers little personality.

It’s a small complaint. All things considered, one wonders why Graff didn’t land with a larger, American publisher for his sophomore effort. His debut, 2006’s Cold Lessons, a murder mystery set in Montana, received strong reviews. And with My Fellow Americans, as the pages fly by, Graff proves himself adept at barren psychological suspense and alienation. A spy-novel Kafka, if you will. Do the big publishing houses think we don’t want some hard questions served with our summer reading? As the current political climate shows, I think we do.
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