Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here": Book Review

I recommend this deft audiobook rendering by Christopher Hurt of Sinclair Lewis' last true success, "It Can't Happen Here" (1935)  predicting an alternate history. It's strange as it happens almost as it's published, more or less. A 1936 FDR's re-election gets shunted aside for a corn-pone fascist recalling that played by Andy Griffith years later in "A Face in the Crowd." Berzilius "Buzz" Windrip takes over as president, with a clever calculation of xenophobic rhetoric and progressive bluster that appears buffoonish, until he solidifies power with the 50 million during the Depression desperate enough for "hope and change"--out of a nimble combination of populism, prejudice, and pandering, Windrip, a homegrown dictator with a down-home twang and an aw-shucks demeanor, matches the might of Hitler and Mussolini, in Lewis' dire (melo?-)drama.

Playing this a year after the Occupy movement started and while the Tea Party tries to balance power-sharing with compromise, it's intriguing to hear of the "League of Forgotten Men" under Peter Paul Prang, Methodist bishop, early on attempting to align anti-corporate cant with pro-nativist slant. It reminds me of how a campaign, if it somehow managed to connect the anti-banker with the pro-populist attitudes, might work itself out in today's America, after what we don't call another Great Depression, but dare to label only a Recession. Communists rally and socialists bicker, but the left cannot block the desperate "League" and their combined alliance with Buzz's right-wing minions. Lewis, from the depths of distress in the 1930s, took a bold move in making his story conform so closely to possibilities extrapolated from real-life scenarios and threats of unrest around him.

Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" (see my review) trod similar terrain recently, and that book shared with this one some plot leaps and expository compression. Parts do go on a while, and Lewis can get carried away with his invective and his intricacy of how Buzz's New Order establishes itself. However, seeing this spanned the then-near future of 1936-39, it's amazing how the rise of the gulags, concentration camps, and tyranny was anticipated. Also, the long-winded if appealingly recognizable protagonist calls himself a "small-town bourgeois intellectual," this doughty. sixty-year-old, "well-meaning, cloistered" journalist his wife calls "Dormouse" deflects criticism before we can do so, or his neighbors and then his foes--foreshadowed by Shad Ladue.

I admit a soft spot for sociological literature of this era--I like John Dos Passos' "Manhattan Transfer" and "USA" trilogy, tellingly; this earnest, hectoring, self-consciously inflated, detailed style has fallen long out of fashion from the bestseller list. Similarly, Lewis likes to hear himself talk on the page through protagonists like himself. It's can be awkward now and then but, as with Doremus, it becomes endearing, for the teller (at least sometimes) realizes he carries on.

As eighty-plus others beat me to this book, my comments cheer on the audiobook. Christopher Hurt (for Blackstone Audio; see also my review of Brian Emerson's reading for this label of "Main Street") captures the no-nonsense dialogues of Vermonters, the faux-hick accents of skilled operatives in the Beltway and beyond, and the gentler tones of those fearing the dictatorship's tyranny. I urge you to hear this novel, as reading it may tempt you to skim over a lot of the wry, poignant, or impassioned prose that Lewis ladles on: "ape with a manicure," "a human blackboard," "certificates of pedagogy," come to mind out of many well-crafted phrases with a pictorial or punchy effect. Hurt navigates his way through the somewhat-dated contexts skillfully, and highlights the humanity beneath the bluster.

A discovery at the end of 12 hours of this audiobook: Hurt leaves out the last few sentences, on the final page of the Michael Mayer-introduced reprint. He stops at the bottom of the penultimate page, and for me, that improves the conclusion!

I kept nearby that reprint in tandem, to check phrases, look up allusions, and ponder monologues and dialogue. The best parts ironically were the chapter colophons from Buzz's (or that wonderfully oily Lee Sarason) "Zero Hour." They smack of many a ghostwritten political screed or supposed autobiography rushed out a year or season prior to an election run! (8-5-12 to Amazon US)

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