February 10, 2009

Book review: "Commonwealth," by Joey Goebel

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Commonwealth, by Joey Goebel
By Joey Goebel
MacAdam/Cage / ISBN: 978-1-59692-279-2

So as if the Bush administration didn't cause enough damage when they were actually in power, the lit world is seeing a growing problem even in these Obama days that was still ultimately caused by them -- namely, the proliferation these days of sh-tty f-cking obvious political novels about the Bush administration. Take for example Joey Goebel's Commonwealth, whose badness is especially inexplicable given that it was personally recommended to me by a friend whose opinion I usually admire (who in fact physically tracked down a copy of the book and gave it to me, just to guarantee that I'd read it), a book which has received nothing but five-star ratings so far at Amazon; much like Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors, I kept having to stop while reading this and checking the front cover, wondering constantly whether I was reading the same book these other people had.

See, it's the story of one "Blue" Gene Mapother, about the most ludicrously cartoonish stereotype of an uneducated hillbilly you'll find in contemporary fiction; the exact kind of mullet-sporting, flea-market-vending, NASCAR-watching illiterate brownshirt thug who put Bush and his cronies into power both in 2000 and again in '04. But see, he also happens to be the son of the twelfth richest man in the US, the scion of a tobacco empire who owns most of the backwards small town where all these characters live. Pop's own political dreams were squashed when younger, after discovering that his grating personality will always keep him from getting elected; and that's why he's been grooming Gene's meek brother John since childhood for an eventual political career instead, almost ruined when he became a drug addict in his twenties, eventually saved by his sex-hating Evangelical wife, who in classic puppetmaster style has seized the social-issue agenda of John's first-ever Congressional campaign, taking place over the course of this novel. Only one problem, though, which is that John's blue-blood elitism doesn't play well with the mouth-breathers actually responsible for voting him in; and thus is black-sheep Gene called back into the family fold, promised whatever he wants in return for delivering the "Bubba Vote."

Holy sh-t, ladies and gentlemen, can you even count the number of lazy stereotypes concerning paleocon America just mentioned in that last paragraph? Oh, but it just keeps getting worse, believe it or not, much worse; turns out that Gene ends up meeting and dating an alt-rock lefty hottie, who convinces him to convert the old flea-market space (in reality an abandoned Wal-Mart -- insert eyeroll here) into a Progressive community center (the "Commonwealth" of the book's title), providing things like free healthcare to the town's citizens using the newfound political pull of his ideologically hijacked family. And that's when things start getting truly ridiculous, which is why I'll stop my plot recap at this point.

Now, all of this is bad enough, of course; but now combine it with a whole series of logic holes found throughout this manuscript, just glaring omissions sometimes in common sense that will make most intelligent readers shake their heads in frustration. Like, it's obvious that Gene takes his redneckiness seriously, and that he's supposed to legitimately believe in the flag-shirt-wearing jingoism on display; but it's also a fact that he was raised his entire childhood in the same elitist blue-blood mansion environment that his brother John was, being forced to wear prep clothes and sport a tasteful haircut all the way until the age of eighteen, and with him only in his mid-twenties now. So you're telling me that this guy then ends up artificially affecting all of these hillbilly accrouchements by choice, every single one of them, over the course of just half a decade altogether, without it even once ever occurring to him, "You know, it seems to me that maybe I'm actually putting on a costume of red-state authenticity, and am in reality a self-parodying joke?" Not even once? Or how about when Gene asks John to meet him at a monster-truck rally to discuss the campaign; and not only does John try to keep it a secret, despite his campaign staff desperately trying to make him look more like a regular blue-collar joe whenever humanly possible, but even wears a full freaking business suit to it? Are you really telling me that a candidate for Congress and his entire campaign staff are too f-cking stupid to understand, "If you don't want hillbillies to think of you as an elite snob, you shouldn't wear a business suit to a monster-truck rally?" Really?

I mean, I get what Goebel is going for, and I get why the front cover prominently features praise from Tom Robbins; Goebel obviously means for this to be a wacky absurdist comedy in the style of Robbins himself or Carl Hiassen or Christopher Moore, a deliberately ridiculous fairytale that very much on purpose uses cartoonish stereotypes precisely to tell a quietly astute political fable underneath it all. No no, what I'm saying is that Goebel sucks at this, a ham-fisted writer possessing all the subtlety of a brick to the head spray-painted "IMPEACH BUSH," who manages over the course of 500 excruciating pages to offer no more original an insight than, "Rich people bad, little kids good." I'd be merely disappointed if this was done using a 200-page story; but at the size of an entire ream of paper like it currently is, its pointlessness makes me actively angry, and the four days I wasted on it I feel earns me the right to be an attitude-laden little snot about it. What a real letdown this was, after hearing so many great things about it; needless to say, it's a book to be avoided at all costs.

Out of 10: 4.4

Read even more about Commonwealth: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:06 PM, February 10, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |