Review of The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness, by Harlow Giles Unger
“From the end of World War II until 1980, virtually no American soldiers were killed in action while serving in the greater Middle East. Since 1980, virtually no American soldiers have been killed anywhere else. What caused that shift?”
That stark question appears as a blurb on the back cover of my edition of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, Andrew J. Bacevich’s ambitious, brilliantly conceived if flawed chronicle which seeks to both answer that question and place it in its appropriate context. It is, of course, quite the tall order: how is it that a geography ever on the periphery of an American foreign policy that for decades could best be described as benign neglect came to not only dominate our national attention but be identified as central to our strategic interests? And how is that as this review goes to press—nearly four years after the publication of Bacevich’s book—America’s longest war in its history endures beyond its eighteenth year … in Afghanistan of all places?!
The short answer, I would posit, is oil. Bacevich is older than me, and I wasn’t yet driving at the time in 1969 when he notes dropping three bucks to fill up the tank of his new Mustang at 29.9 cents a gallon. But I was on the road just a few years later, and I recall sitting in long lines at the pump for fuel priced nearly ten times that, as well as the random guy who threatened to shoot a certain long-haired teenager for trying to cut line, and that same teen later learning how to siphon gas from parked cars. It was a time.
That tumultuous time stemmed, of course, from the 1973 oil embargo placed on the United States by OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) in retaliation for its support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Because he has styled his book “A Military History,” the author does not dwell on the gasoline shortage that so shook American self-confidence in the early 1970s, nor on the related and still unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict that remains as central to the theme of Middle East unrest as slavery was to the American Civil War. Instead, after a brief “Prologue,” Bacevich rapidly shifts focus to the Iran hostage crisis and the 1980 debacle that was Operation Eagle Claw, the aborted mission to rescue those hostages that resulted in those first American casualties referenced in that jacket blurb. This decision by the author to not accord oil and Israel their respective fundamental significance in far greater detail proves to be a weakness that tends to undermine an otherwise well-researched and well-written narrative history.
That author certainly has both the credentials and the skills worthy of the task before him. Andrew Bacevich is a career army officer, veteran of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, who retired with the rank of colonel. He is also a noted historian and award-winning author, someone who has described himself as a “Catholic conservative,” but defies traditional labels of parties and politics. He is a pronounced critic of American military interventionism, George W. Bush’s advocacy for so-called “preventive wars,” and especially of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In a kind of tragic irony, his own son, an army officer, was killed in combat in Iraq. I have read two of his previous books: Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, and The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, both magnificent treatises that reflect Bacevich’s ideological opposition to spending American lives needlessly in endless wars. But treatises don’t always translate well into narrative history—in fact these are and should be entirely separate channels—and Bacevich’s tendency to blur those boundaries here comes to weaken America’s War for the Greater Middle East.
The author points to repeated epic fails in Middle East policy that take us down all the wrong roads, while experts in and out of government shake their heads in bewilderment, yet one administration after another nevertheless presses on stubbornly. Bacevich is at his best when he underscores a series of unintended consequences on a road paved with occasional good intentions that not only exacerbate bad decision-making but cement unnecessary obligations to fickle, illusory allies that then put up almost insurmountable roadblocks to disentanglement. Two salient and substantial examples are: the poorly-conceived U.S. support for rebels opposed to the Russian-friendly regime in Afghanistan that was to spark Soviet intervention in 1979; and, subsequent U.S. backing for the Islamic fundamentalist Mujahideen that was to later spawn Al-Qaeda.
There is much more to come—more perhaps intended and incompetent rather than unintended—and much of that is either utterly unknown or long forgotten for most Americans, including the 1982 suicide-bombing of the Marine compound in Beirut that killed 241 but somehow failed to tarnish the “Teflon” presidency of Ronald Reagan, who retreated while euphemistically “redeploying.” From the vantage point of Washington, the greater enemy remained the Ayatollah, and all efforts were made to enable the brutal despot Saddam Hussein in his opportunistic war upon Iran, a decision that was to fuel Middle East instability for decades and lead to two future US conflicts with our former ally. And Reagan was still President and still all-Teflon in 1988 when the US shot down through either negligence or spite Iran Air Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf, a commercial airliner with 290 souls aboard. George H. W. Bush led a coalition to liberate Kuwait from our erstwhile ally Iraq, but then left a wounded, isolated and still dangerous Saddam to plague our future. But, of course, it was under George W. Bush that the tragedy that was 9-11 was hijacked and turned into a fanciful “War on Terror” that ultimately was to embolden Islamic fundamentalism, served as a pretext for an illegal invasion of Iraq that strengthened Iran and utterly destabilized the region, and later bred ISIL to terrorize multiple corridors of the Middle East. You can indeed draw almost a straight line from the Afghan Mujahideen of 1979 to ISIL suicide bombers today.
Bacevich is masterful with a pen, and his history is so well-written that there are literally no dry spots. The problem I found was with the tone, which while legitimately critical of American missteps is often needlessly arrogant, eye-rolling, even snarky—all of which detracts from the primary message, which is indeed spot-on. My politics often align closely with those of MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, but I simply cannot watch her show: I find her breathless exhalations and intimations of “How-could-anyone-be-so-stupid?” and “We-told-you-so” coupled with lip-curling grimaces intolerable. Bacevich is not that bad here by any means, but there is certainly a whiff of it that puts me off. Moreover, while he makes a cogent case for why just about every policy we put in place was wrong-headed, I would have much welcomed the author’s alternative recipes. Bacevich is a brilliant man: I truly wanted to know what he would have done differently if he was sitting behind the Resolute Desk instead of Carter or Reagan or Bush or any of the others.
Bacevich does deserve much credit for his far more panoramic view of what he rightly calls the “Greater Middle East,” as he widens the lens to focus upon the often neglected yet certainly related periphery of the Balkans and the Muslim population in the former Yugoslavia subjected to ethnic cleansing. Few mention Eastern Europe in the same breath as the Middle East, but for some five hundred years much of that geography was integral to the same Ottoman Empire that ruled over present-day Syria and Iraq. There is a common history that cannot be ignored. But just as I was disappointed elsewhere that Bacevich failed to highlight the background noise of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that truly informs every conversation about Middle East affairs, in this case little was made of the bond between post-Soviet Russia and Slavs of “Greater Serbia,” which not only deeply influenced the Balkan Civil Wars but soured emerging US-Russian relations in its aftermath and resounded across the Islamic landscape. Likewise, the narrative swerves to take a peek at “Black Hawk Down” in Mogadishu, but the long history of ties between East Africa and Arabia remains unexplored.
America’s War for the Greater Middle East is divided into three parts: the first takes the reader to the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War (which Bacevich brands as “Second Gulf War”), and the second wraps up on the eve of 9-11. But it is the last part, dominated by the Iraq War, that strikes a markedly different tone and smacks of the more somber, perhaps coincidental to Bacevich’s own deeply personal loss, perhaps not. Alas, none of the sections are large enough to bear the weight of the material.
Rarely would I lobby for any book to be longer, but in this case the 370 pages in my edition—plus the copious notes and excellent maps—is simply not enough. The topic not only deserves but demands more. This book should either be three times longer or, better still, should be a three-volume series. A more comprehensive historical background—including the echo of the greater Ottoman heritage and the Russo-British grapple for Central Asia—of this entire milieu is requisite for getting a grasp upon how we got here. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict demands more focus. As does the Shia-Sunni division. And the relationships between Arab and non-Arab states, as well as the ties that transcend the regional to extend to Africa and Europe and beyond. There is no hope of a better grasp of all that has gone wrong with American entanglement in the Middle East without all of that and much more.
Given all these reservations, the reader of this review might be surprised that I nevertheless recommend this book. Warts and all, there is no other work out there that connects the dots of America’s involvement in the Middle East as well as it does, even as it cries for more depth, for more complexity. I would likely be less critical of this book if my admiration for Bacevich was less pronounced and my expectations for his work was not so high. Even if America’s War for the Greater Middle East falls short, it deserves to be on your reading list.
NOTE: I reviewed Bacevich’s earlier book here:
Can you imagine a President of the United States who blatantly ignores its conventions, ridicules its established order and appeals beyond these directly to the electorate, pledging to elevate the interests of the average citizen over those of the elite, whom he brands as corrupt, while scorning the courts, financial institutions, and any who stand in his way, polarizing the nation while he yet shamelessly exploits a partisan press and rewards his supporters with government jobs and favors? No, it’s not who you think, but it does at least partially explain why the current occupant of the White House often appears with a portrait of Andrew Jackson as a backdrop, a painting that he directed be displayed prominently in the Oval Office.
Jackson once loomed large in our collective cultural memory, but I suspect that memory is now a bit fuzzy for most Americans, who when pressed might at best tentatively identify him as the grim-looking fellow on the face of the twenty-dollar bill. Of course, Jackson has hardly been forgotten by historians, who have long recognized his centrality as the most consequential president of the antebellum era, although their assessments of him have seen a marked rise and fall over time. Once lionized as a giant in the emergence of a more democratic polity and a more egalitarian nation, a critical reexamination in the more recent historiography has revealed substantial “warts,” not only underscored by his leading role in “The Indian Removal Act” of 1830 that led to the deaths of thousands of Cherokees in the so-called “Trail of Tears,” but also in the ill-effects of the long echo of his “spoils system,” the dangerous naivety of his economic strategies including the “Bank War” that led to the Panic of 1837, as well as other forceful if misguided policies that some have argued set irrevocable forces in motion that later resulted in Civil War.
Andrew Jackson has been the subject of hundreds of biographies and related works. A prominent chapter has frequently been devoted to the Bank War, long framed as a flamboyant clash of wills between Jackson, who loathed banks, and the shrewd if hapless Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States. A famous game of cat and mouse prevailed, as the standard tale has been told, with Jackson ultimately victorious, the bank abolished and Biddle sent packing in surprising and ignominious defeat.
It is such a familiar story that has received so much attention in the literature that it might seem unlikely that anything new could be said of it. So, there is then something of real genius in the astute reexamination showcased in the recently published monograph, The Bank War and the Partisan Press: Newspapers, Financial Institutions, and the Post Office in Jacksonian America, by Stephen W. Campbell. In this brilliant if not always easily accessible book, Campbell—a historian and lecturer at Cal Poly Pomona—challenges the orthodox narrative that puts Jackson and Biddle front-and-center to widen the lens to encompass the nuance and complexity that informs a long overlooked and far more intricate, multilayered confluence of people and events on both sides. The Bank War was indeed a great drama, but it turns out that there were many more essential players than Jackson and Biddle, and much more at stake than simply re-chartering the bank. As the subtitle suggests, Campbell notes that integral to the Bank War were common threads that ran between post offices, branch banks, and newspapers in what was indeed such a tangled weave that much went unnoticed or disregarded by historians prone to focus on the larger tapestry.
Today we might bemoan certain cable news propaganda vehicles that eschew reporting in favor of distorting, yet at its worst this phenomenon bears almost no resemblance to the partisan press of Jackson’s day, when there was little expectation of any kind of objectivity. In fact, valuable contracts for printing government documents were doled out to the politically simpatico, who were expected to promote the official line. Meanwhile, the Second National Bank through its branches had powerful financial incentives at hand to entice their allies in the press to champion their point of view.
Then there was the post office, which to us perhaps smacks of the anachronistic and irrelevant. Yet, its importance to early nineteenth century Americans cannot be overstated, since it effectively served as the sole vehicle for personal, business, and official communication. But it was not only first-class mail that passed through post offices, but also newspapers, so branches could—and did—act as a kind of local valve for what sort of media could be passed across the counter. It was after all Jackson’s Postmaster General, former newspaper editor Amos Kendall, who famously permitted southern postmasters to refuse to distribute abolitionist tracts, another spark that was to fan antebellum sectional flames. Odd as it may seem now, Postmaster General was the single most valuable cabinet office in that era because of the vast patronage it controlled. Through its direct and indirect influence over the press, the White House clearly stacked the deck against poor Biddle, who despite vast resources could not hope to compete in the arena of what today we might term “messaging.”
While little of this material is in itself new or groundbreaking, Campbell deserves much credit for being the first to astutely connect all the dots of these seemingly unrelated elements to the Bank War. But he goes further, articulately probing the economic realities of American life in the 1830s and deftly fitting the financial institutions of the day into the larger picture. The way banks and the economy functioned then would be almost unrecognizable to modern students of finance. Campbell peels back the fascinating if arcane layers of antebellum banking that other historians of the period have long neglected.
For the world of academia, The Bank War and the Partisan Press is a magnificent achievement, but alas much of it may remain unknown to the wider public because it is not always easily accessible to the general reader. This is not Campbell’s fault: he is after all quite skillful with a pen. But this was originally a thesis expanded into a book, so the strictures of academic writing sometimes weigh heavily on the account. Also problematic, perhaps, is that the text is somewhat rigidly compartmentalized, so that each sub-topic is exhaustively explored by chapter, rather than more seamlessly woven into the narrative. These are mere quibbles to a scholarly audience and hardly detract from the finished product, but I would like to see Campbell revisit this theme one day in another title designed to reach more readers of popular history. In the meantime, if you are a student of Jacksonian America, this is an essential read that receives my highest recommendation.
Did you know that the single greatest president in America’s first half-century was James Monroe? Even more than that, did you know that the most significant Founder of the fledgling Republic was James Monroe? That Monroe’s long-overlooked accomplishments and contributions dwarfed those of Washington, Jefferson and Madison and all the rest? That Monroe was a towering figure in both establishing and leading the new nation? I didn’t either, but that is the boast of The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness, by Harlow Giles Unger.
Should you suspect that I am unfairly exaggerating the author’s bold claim, look no further than page two of the “Prologue” to learn that while Washington may have won American independence, his legacy was little more than a “fragile little nation” and his “… three successors—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—were mere caretaker presidents who left the nation bankrupt, its people deeply divided, its borders under attack, its capital city in ashes.” It was, apparently, left to the heroic, brilliant, and larger-than-life character of James Monroe to step in and make America great, as summarized by Unger:
Monroe’s presidency made poor men rich, turned political allies into friends, and united a divided people … Political parties dissolved and disappeared. Americans of all political persuasions rallied around him under a single “Star Spangled Banner.” He created an era never seen before or since in American history … that propelled the nation and its people to greatness.
That’s from page three. I might have closed the cover after that burst of hyperbole, which better channels the ending of a Disney movie than a historian’s measured analysis. But then I checked the dust jacket bio to find that Unger is “A former Distinguished Visiting Fellow in American History at George Washington’s Mount Vernon … a veteran journalist, broadcaster, educator and historian … the author of sixteen books, including four other biographies of America’s Founding Fathers.” Perhaps I was misjudging him? So, I read on …
Spoiler alert: it does not get any better.
Presidential biography is a favorite of mine, and I have read more than a couple of dozen. For the uninitiated, the genre tends to diverge along three paths: the laudatory, the condemnatory and the analytical. While closer to the first category, The Last Founding Father really fits into none of these classifications. In fact, one might argue that it is less biography than hagiography, for the author is so consumed with awe by his subject that the latter is simply incapable of transgression in any arena. When I was a child, I could do no wrong in my grandmother’s eyes. If I did go astray, she would redefine right and wrong to suit the circumstances, so I always landed on the positive side of the equation. Unger offers similar dispensation for Monroe throughout this work.
Unger’s inflated reverence for Monroe should not diminish his subject’s importance to the early Republic, only compel us to examine the man and his legacy with a more critical eye. The list of “Founding Fathers”—a term only coined by Woodrow Wilson in 1916—is somewhat arbitrary, and Monroe does not even always make the cut. The essential seven that all historians agree upon are: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. Other lists are more broad, and many also include Monroe, who was after all not only the fifth President of the United States, but also U.S. Senator, Ambassador to France and England, Secretary of State, and Secretary of War—at one point even holding the latter two cabinet positions simultaneously. Monroe’s tenure in the White House has famously been dubbed the “Era of Good Feelings,” but only school kids—and Unger, apparently—believe that this is because suddenly faction disappeared, and both rival politics and personalities gave way to a mythical fellowship. In fact, historians have long recognized that this period was characterized by the one-party rule of the Democratic-Republican Party that dominated after the disintegration of the Federalist Party, which had flirted with treason and been discredited in its opposition to the War of 1812. But Monroe’s Democratic-Republicans represented far more of a coalition of loose factions than the powerful central force that the party had been under the stewardship of Jefferson and Madison before him. The fissures unacknowledged by Unger were brewing all along, later made manifest in the Second Party System of Clay and Jackson.
Most studies of Monroe reveal a man of great personal courage with stalwart dedication to principle and service to his country. Few—Unger is the exception—credit him with the kind of intellectual brilliance seen in peers like Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton. Like Hamilton—who indeed once challenged him to a duel—Monroe seems to have possessed an outsize ego and a prickly sense of honor that was easily slighted if not subject to the praise and recognition he felt certain he rightly deserved, such as sole credit for the Louisiana Purchase! Nearly a decade earlier than that milestone, Monroe had served as ambassador to France but was later recalled by Washington, who found him too easily flattered and otherwise lacking in the traits essential to upholding American diplomatic interests. Monroe was stung by this, but in his long future in government service he was in turn to have fallings-out with both Jefferson and his old friend Madison, unable to tolerate differences in opinion and bristling in his perception of being ever snubbed by not being elevated to the prominence he felt due him. Like Jefferson, Madison’s presidency proved to be a disappointing chapter in a life marked by great achievements. But while the War of 1812 was hardly Madison’s finest hour, and Monroe indeed played a pivotal role during the existential crisis of the burning of Washington and its aftermath, Madison was hardly the bewildered, sniveling coward Unger portrays in his account, so incapacitated by events that Monroe had to heroically swoop in to serve as acting president and single-handedly rescue the Republic.
The many flaws in this biography are unfortunate, because Unger writes very well and citations are abundant, lending to the book the style and form of a solid history. On a closer look, however, the reader will find that the excerpts from primary sources that populate the narrative are often focused on superficial topics, such as food served at events, room furnishings, or styles of dress. And Unger seems to sport a weirdly singular crush on Monroe’s wife, Eliza, whom he describes as “beautiful” more than a dozen times in the text—and that before I gave up counting! Attractive of not, she seems as First Lady to have come off as cold and imperious, with aristocratic airs that she no doubt accumulated during her times abroad with her husband, when they lived often in a grand style that was well beyond their means. Oddly, far more paragraphs are devoted to descriptions of Eliza’s clothing and social activities, and her many debilitating illnesses, real or imagined, than to Monroe’s eight years in the White House.
A greater complaint is that for a book published as recently as 2009, conspicuous in its absence are the less privileged people that walked the earth in Monroe’s time, Native Americans and most especially the enslaved African Americans kept as chattel property by elite Virginia planters like Monroe—as well as Jefferson, Madison and Washington—something that manifestly flies in the face of recent historiographical trends. Although Monroe owned hundreds of human beings over the course of his lifetime, the reader would hardly know it from turning the pages of The Last Founding Father, where the enslaved are mentioned in passing if mentioned at all, such as: “Although Monroe had to sell some slaves to rescue [his brother] Joseph from bankruptcy, he held to the belief that brotherly ties were indissoluble …” [p207] Long before the more famous Nat Turner Revolt, there was Gabriel’s Rebellion, and Monroe was Governor of Virginia when it was repressed and twenty-five blacks were hanged in retribution. The slightly more than two pages given to this episode lacks critical analysis but credits Monroe with promptly calling out the militia to put down the uprising [p140-142]. Such a cursory treatment of the inherent contradictions of the institution of chattel slavery to the ideals of the new Republic are an inexcusable blemish on any work of a twenty-first century historian. Since there is much in the literature about the incongruity of Monroe the plantation master—much like Jefferson—at times decrying while yet sustaining the peculiar institution, we can only conclude that Unger deliberately passed over this material lest it cast some aspersion upon the adoring portrait that this volume advances.
It pains me to write a bad review of any book. After all, the author typically labors mightily to generate the product, while I can read it—or not—in my leisure. But I am passionate about both historical studies and the rigors of scholarship, which should apply even more scrupulously to someone such as Harlow Giles Unger, who not only possesses appropriate credentials but has written widely in the field, and thus owes the student of history far more than this, which after all does no real service to the reader—nor to James Monroe by overstating his achievements while failing to contextualize his role as a key figure in the early Republic with the nuance and complexity that his legacy deserves.
Astronaut William Anders began: “For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”
On Christmas Eve fifty-one years ago, millions in the United States and around the globe—including this then eleven year old boy—gathered breathlessly around their TV’s to watch the first live broadcast from space, an extraordinary transmission beamed back to earth from more than two hundred thousand miles away from an American spacecraft in orbit around the moon. The largest television audience to that date was treated to remarkable photographs of the forbidding moonscape, but far more awe-inspiring and humbling were the images they viewed of their very own living planet, appearing so tiny and so remote from such a great distance. The three astronauts closed out the broadcast by reading passages from the biblical book of Genesis. Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders was followed by Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and then Commander Frank Borman, who added: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”
While this episode remains a heartwarming moment that celebrates both the universality of the human endeavor as well as the singularity of this accomplishment, it should not obscure the reality of what was really happening on that blue planet viewed from afar, of the wars and famines and cruelty and disasters that did not take a pause while space travelers read aloud from an ancient book that itself once gave witness to its same share of wars and famines and cruelty and disasters. Nor should it fail to remind us that these representatives of the earth blasted off from a badly fractured landscape at home.
The claim that America on this Christmas Eve of 2019 has never been this divided is at once refuted by a glance back to 1968, replete with acts of terror, campus unrest, cities in flames, mass demonstrations, political assassinations, and violence in the streets—the perfect storm of the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam and the revolution of rising expectations among long-disenfranchised blacks frustrated by the pace of change. If there was a kind of unifying force that remained to serve as some sort of glue amid the chaos and dissonance of a splintered national polity it had to be the space program and its race for the moon. The actual moon landing was not until the following year, but 1968 closed with the remarkable Apollo 8 mission, the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon, made more dramatic by that live Christmas Eve audio-video transmission from space that included those readings from Genesis, and later forever enshrined in our collective consciousness by the iconic photo “Earthrise” that depicts the earth rising over the moon’s horizon, snapped by astronaut Bill Anders, that is said to have inspired the environmental movement.
Martin W. Sandler revisits this existential moment that briefly comforted a troubled nation with the oversize and lavishly illustrated Apollo 8: The Mission That Changed Everything, directed at a young adult (YA) audience but suitable for all. I have read and reviewed Sandler before. The author has a talent for clear, concise writing that while targeting a younger readership does not dumb-down the topic, an otherwise frequent tarnish to this genre of nonfiction. I obtained this book as part of an Early Reviewer program and my copy was an Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) with black and white images, but the published edition is full-color and worth the purchase if only for the magnificent color photographs, though these are nicely enhanced by a well-written narrative that encompasses the totality of this highly significant space mission and its ramifications back home. The only caution I would add is that I have detected glaring historical errors in some of Sandler’s other works. I did not stumble upon any here, but then I am hardly an expert on the space program. Thus, the reader should trust but verify!
Some—at the time and since—have objected to the astronauts’ choice of verses from Genesis, as if there was an attempt to impose religion from the beyond, or to celebrate the Judeo-Christian experience at the expense of others. We should not be so hard on them; they were simply seeking some kind of universal message to inspire us all. That they may have failed to please everyone may only underscore how diverse we are even as we transcend the myth of race to acknowledge that we all share the very same DNA, the same hopes and dreams and fears and needs and especially the desire to love and be loved. Astronaut Bill Landers himself returned from space as an atheist, awed by his place in the vast universe. I am not a religious person: I celebrate Christmas as a time for peace and love and Santa Claus. But I can still, like the astronauts on Apollo 8 fifty-one years ago, wish my readers a good night, good luck, and a Merry Christmas to all of you on the good Earth.
Some years ago, I had the pleasure of reading the Booker-prize winning masterpiece Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, which motivated me to pick up a couple of his other novels for later consumption, including Engleby. One day, I randomly plucked it off the shelf and turned to the first page. Honestly, it was not easy to put down. Also, to be even more honest, there were times that I really wanted to.
As a reviewer, it sounds somewhat awkward or even unseemly to resort to a term like “creepy” to describe a novel, but that would most accurately describe the subtle if sustained punch in the gut I experienced while reading this one, propelled by a growing revulsion for the central character. As the narrative unfolds, that character—the eponymous Mike Engleby—is a working-class Brit on scholarship to “an ancient” university in the early 1970s. He comes across as a bit of an oddball, but for those of us who lived through this era that was hardly unusual nor especially undesirable, given that to be an iconoclast in those days was often seen as a virtue. But the reader cannot help but experience an emerging disquiet as Engleby develops an infatuation that veers to obsession that then turns more ominously to the outright stalking of his bright and beautiful classmate Jennifer Arkland. Along the way, there are flashbacks to the bitter poverty of Engleby’s youth, the regular beatings by his father, the quotidian brutality of his life at public school where he is condemned to the unfortunate nickname “Toilet” and subjected to an ongoing torment that stretches the limits of endurance to cruelty—the cumulative effect of which, it becomes clear, shapes him into a bully, a thief, a drug dealer, an opportunist. Flash forward again and Jennifer has disappeared, never found, presumed murdered.
Did Engleby murder her? Could he be a serial killer? Is he mere weirdo or sociopath? That’s for you to find out: I don’t believe in folding spoilers into reviews. But the narrative is laced with plenty of clues, scattered within an interior monologue that invites an uncertain sympathy for a protagonist whom at best provokes the uneasy, at worst the repellent. Yet, it is the genius of the author to tempt the reader to veer from repugnance to empathy, against all odds, even if this shift may prove temporary. And the reader, like it or not, is ensnared in an uncomfortable fascination with this very same well-crafted interior monologue, a kind of labyrinth pregnant with Engleby’s barely suppressed anxiety, which he overcompensates for with visions of grandeur and a disdainful arrogance for all others in his orbit—except perhaps, that is, for Jennifer Arkland. And then that anxiety grows contagious as the reader begins to question the reliability of the narrator! Are the things revealed by Engleby’s inner thoughts real or imagined? Is Faulks himself, acting as both wizard and jester, simply mocking us from behind the curtain?
The last time I found myself as deeply unsettled by a work of fiction, it was Perfume, by Patrick Süskind, the unlikely tale of an eighteenth-century serial killer, but that novel was tempered with a pronounced sense of the ironic if not especially comedic. Not so with this one: there’s nothing even a little bit funny about Engleby. For his part, Faulks proves himself a true artist of the written word, his pen taking full command of his character and his audience alike. I recommend it, even if it may keep you up at night.