The times could hardly be more right for scathing political satire. Or so it seemed until the recent New Yorker cover featuring a cartoon Barack Obama in the Oval Office—wearing traditional Muslim garb and standing before a portrait of Osama bin Laden—inspired such outrage. Turns out, Americans are a bit more squeamish than we thought. We prefer a gentler, kinder political satire.
That's good news for Joey Goebel. The Kentucky writer's new novel Commonwealth, though marketed as a searing satire, remains safely in the more palatable zones of caricature and parody. Commonwealth is to Swift's "A Modest Proposal" what Jeff Foxworthy is to Lenny Bruce.
Which is no indictment. On the contrary, Commonwealth is almost always energetic and entertaining, goofy in the best of ways, and even its occasional sloppy sentence is more endearing than annoying. (Consider this one: "Like flies in a bug zapper, thoughts darted all over Blue Gene's mind and disintegrated before landing on any conclusions.")
The hero of Commonwealth, Blue Gene, is one of two sons of Henry Mapother, the head of the 11th wealthiest family in America. The Mapothers live in the fictional town of Bashford, "somewhere in the middle of America." After high school, Blue Gene ignores his heritage (and his $400 million inheritance), moves into a trailer park with his girlfriend Cheyenne Staggs and finds work at Wal-Mart. The book begins nine years later as Blue Gene, now 27 and sporting a mullet and tattoos, is selling his childhood action figures at the local flea market. Estranged from his family, he has become a monster-truck loving, gun collecting, America First man of the people.
And it is just this street cred with the blue-collar folk of Commonwealth County that makes his family seek him out for the first time in years. Blue Gene's brother John—13 years his senior—is running for Congress but has no support amongst the rabble. The family begs Blue Gene to join the campaign, and soon enough he's handing out fliers and chatting up friends at the local professional wrestling shows, happy to be back in the Mapother fold. Then he meets spunky Jackie Stepchild, lead singer for the punk band that plays between the wrestling matches. With her lefty politics and master's in political science, Jackie explains to Blue Gene that his family is doing to him what they do to everyone: using him for their own gain. From there, the campaign gets heated, crazy family secrets are revealed, and the local Wal-Mart is turned into an enormous social services center/rock club/homeless shelter. Bashford will never be the same.
Commonwealth is a comedy first and foremost, and Goebel has a knack for drawing funny, if broad, characters. The Mapother patriarch Henry is all business all the time and tolerates no weakness. His wife Elizabeth has prophetic dreams in which her son John ushers in the Messiah (which is why he's running for Congress now: so he can eventually become President and thus be in place for the Second Coming). John himself is extraordinarily handsome but a fearful ball of mush inside. Jackie is a tough-talking but vulnerable smart-ass liberal. And Blue Gene is as earnest as a teenager vowing never to sell out. Combined, they and the other characters form a kind of sketch-comedy troupe, and Goebel's scenes often have the feel of Saturday Night Live skits.
Nevertheless, the plot does move forward, and Goebel proves capable of extending himself beyond the broad comedic style he's most comfortable with. Comedy, to stay fresh, needs a little tragedy now and then, and Goebel provides it toward the end of Commonwealth. His best writing, in fact, takes place after John's son has been hospitalized, and John ceases to be entirely a caricature:
But when they let me in there after his surgery, it was his little feet. They had the sheets and blankets over him tight, and his feet, they came to a point, a real skinny point, so his body under the covers was in the shape of a dagger, and I don't know why, but it just bothered me to see his feet like that. It looked stupid. So I tried to slide my hand in between his feet through the covers to get them apart, but they had the covers so tight that I couldn't separate them, and so then I was going to undo his covers and reach down to his legs, but Abby told me to stop, but I started to do it anyway and Abby grabbed ahold of me and she started crying and said, 'Stop, stop, you can't touch him,' and that's when I lost it.
Politically, Commonwealth sides with the little guy, which to Goebel means everyone from blue-collar workers to unemployable freaks, from mulletheads to lefty radicals. And while these have-nots certainly form a political class in Commonwealth, Goebel's allegiance is to individuals: While the political situation remains mired in the muck, the major characters each transform into more positive versions of themselves. Ultimately, Commonwealth itself is transformed from light political satire to feel-good book. The strength of Goebel's vision, however, accomplishes a rare thing: It makes that "feel-good" quality actually feel good.
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