Pushcart XL: Christian Kiefer, “Hollywood and Toadvine” from Santa Monica Review, Spring 2014

Salvador Dali: Phantom Cart (1933)

Salvador Dali: Phantom Cart (1933)

The notion that there is something wrong with the new ruler of the Evil Empire does not take very long to sink in.… Then this new man with the disturbing birthmark that was like a cloud, seeming to take on the shape of whatever might be on the viewer’s mind. A map of Japan. A rubber duck. Your wife’s intimate parts. Try having a discussion where the future of the world teeters on the knife-edge of nuclear destruction with a man who has your wife’s vagina emblazoned on his forehead. It is a difficult discussion to have.

Oh, this is good. But be forewarned: fans of Ronald Reagan might not think so.

I would imagine that constructing a fictional story around a well-known real-life personage must be tricky, and the more well-known the personage, the trickier. It’s true that you get most of the character for free, and in this case, setting comes along with it, at least for those of us whose memories go back to the 80s (and we can all be depressed for a moment when we realize not everyone’s does). But those are also constraints on the writer; the story has to fit public perception, while offering something unexpected. Kiefer pulls it off, via books:

It is this birthmarked man, Mikhail Gorbachev, apparently a big reader, who suggests you might enjoy reading something other than Louis l’Amour and that there are several American authors he himself reads with regularity, one of whom has penned a new Western.
“I will send you this book,” Gorbachev tells you over the phone.
“That sounds fine and I’ll look forward to reading it,” you answer in return.
“I must tell you, Ron, that this book is unlike your Louis l’Amour.”
“Well, as long as it’s not Danielle Steele, that’s fine.”
He laughs. “Okay, no Danielle Steele then.”
“That’s women’s reading,” you say. “My wife reads that kind of thing. Not for men.”
He pauses long enough that you begin to wonder if the line has been disconnected when he says, “Maybe I sent her new book too. For Nancy.”
Weird, you think, but you think him anyway. Why he has access to stores of Danielle Steele novels at the Kremlin is not a question you feel comfortable asking, so you turned other topics. Nuclear war. SDI. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Foreign policy. That kind of thing.

Leave it to a writer to chart a path through a reader’s tastes. And leave it to a slightly wacky writer to force a choice between Blood Meridian and Danielle Steele.

Much of the story is a romp (and great fun at that), but it gradually takes on somber overtones (then again, I can find somber overtones in anything; it’s kind of my specialty). As I read, Reagan turned into a sympathetic character, a man with a problem just like every other character, a man struggling with self-image vs id. Steve Almond wrote a flash about Nixon (“Nixon Swims” from his teeny tiny collection This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey) that chokes me up; after that, getting me to feel gently towards Reagan is a piece of cake, especially when I struggle with self-image every time I see my Sidney Sheldon novels and police procedural series buried in the most obscure regions of my bookshelves.

That’s still all in good fun, but then the direction went from inward to outward, and raised questions. That question in the film “The American President” cropped up: how much of being President is about character? Forget campaign promises: what story will run through the President’s head when making crucial decisions in an unanticipated situation?

Kiefer did a wonderful interview with Beth Ruyak on Capital Public Radio out of Sacramento, partly about this story and his Pushcart win (he didn’t know he’d won, or was even nominated, until another writer congratulated him) and partly about his novel The Animals. This story grew out of his dissertation topic, the use of literary narrative forms, particularly Westerns (“the American mythological form”), in the writing of history.

Narrative in everyday life is interesting enough – the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about others, the stories we tell others about ourselves – but when it comes to politics, the effect can be much broader. For a different angle on how narrative affects our politics, check out this panel Chris Hayes led with four fiction writers (including George Saunders) in January 2013 focusing on the narrative used by President Obama during the 2012 election cycle (grateful shoutout to Chris Hayes, who responded to my tweet “Would videos from the 1/13 show with writers about political narrative be available online anywhere” with a link within 5 minutes. Pretty classy, considering I’m a total stranger and an absolute nobody).

In a court of law, it isn’t about truth, it’s about who has the better lawyer; in history, it isn’t about what happened, but about how people remember what happened. And in politics, it’s about who has the best story. God bless America. Kiefer’s story asks: just how does that story guide the decisions of the winner?

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