Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Leap Year by Steve Erickson

I doubt anyone has noticed this -- or cares -- but I've been using Wednesdays this year for reviews of SF/F books, or of fantastika more generally. So far it's worked out, though I'm not tailoring my reading to fill specific slots, and I obviously had a lot of dead air earlier this year.

Today, though, I have a book with possibly the oddest set of tags in the history of this blog. Today I'm here to write about Steve Erickson's 1989 supposedly non-fiction book Leap Year, the story of the previous year's presidential election (Dukakis vs. Bush I, though we had no idea there'd be a II at that point), narrated by the Erickson, who traveled the country in the occasional company of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's slave mistress. [1]

Erickson uses Hemings as a lens on the corrosive effect of race and slavery on the USA, but that's only one thread of a very discursive, circling book. Erickson spends very little time actually with the candidates or out on the trail talking to "regular Americans" in the usual campaign-lit way. (He fails to even get press credentials for the Republican Convention, and so misses that entirely.) Leap Year is instead a deep look inside the head of one man, conflicted about his country, as he travels around that country. Oh, and pursued by a revenge-driven Al Gore, in case you think it couldn't get any weirder.

It has no chapters. Its paragraphs sometimes run for pages; its sentences almost that long. The book itself isn't long -- only 192 pages -- but every page is hard-fought, full of depths Erickson had to dig out with pick and shovel in the mine of his idea of America. Erickson is wrestling with himself and his country the whole time, and Leap Year contains some of his best thoughts and writing of his career. It doesn't have much of shape, unfortunately: the election itself turned out to be a snoozer, bland primaries leading to the obvious candidates nominated on both sides, and then Dukakis utterly failing to come across as a plausible President or provide a single compelling reason to vote for him. So the external conflicts Erickson probably was counting on in his book pitch fizzled out, leaving him alone in the dark night of Reaganite America, full of racist dog whistles and the coming apotheosis of the Southern Strategy.

Leap Year is the book of that moment in time, and that's why Hemings is in it. You can say that every great country has a thousand weirdly specific, quirky things that can only be explained by one, big, central fact that everyone pretends is dead and buried -- for the UK, it's the class system, for the US, it's slavery. Erickson never lays out that theory explicitly in Leap Year, but its spirit is behind every word: remember that 1988 was also the year of Jesse Jackson's greatest prominence in Democratic presidential politics, the year he came as close as he ever could to being the nominee.

Erickson is at his most prescient when he's talking fantastically about the current day, so Leap Year still reads like a bolt of electricity now, after Obama and during a Republican administration that has taken all of the lessons of Reagan, coarsened them and pushed them past any logical limits, and has given up entirely on even the idea of truth.

I doubt many people will read Leap Year for the coming presidential election year. They should.

[1] "Mistress" makes it sound like she had a choice in the matter: in Erickson's telling, she did. What she thought about that choice, and what that choice meant for her and for all America, are important in the book.

This is also a decent place to point out that Hemings was three-quarters European, the generation-younger half-sister of Jefferson's wife, who came into Jefferson's household as an infant with that marriage and who he apparently began sleeping with in Paris, when she was fifteen. Erikson's male main characters are always flawed men who fail disastrously at the things they think are most important: Jefferson fits that mold perfectly, horribly.

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