Dead men allegedly tell no tales. But in Chris Bachelder’s antic satire U.S.!, mystical resurrection begets the renewed ability to write dreadful, politically transparent fiction. The word-slinging stiff in question—famed muckraking author of The Jungle (1906) and avowed socialist Upton Sinclair—is serially reanimated and assassinated countless times after his “death” in 1968, having written an astounding 87 books by the age of 90. Dogged productivity carries no reward for the undead: Sinclair’s murderers are accorded increasingly more acclaim as each successive novel is met with proportionate amounts of critical vitriol. A righteously absurd, corporeal allegory for the demise of the radical Left in America and a meditation on the efficacy of the political novel, Bachelder’s vicious cycle of afterlife and death is also malevolently funny.
For its first half,U.S.! reads less as novel than as thoroughly modern miscellany. The revivified Sinclair’s open letters to Reagan, Schwarzenegger, and NFL commish Paul Tagliabue appear alongside talk show interviews with Sinclair assassin experts, commemorative haikus, and songs by Sinclair’s son Albert, a/k/a the Last Folksinger, who might as well be named Bob, or maybe Sufjan. Shades of George Saunders and David Foster Wallace color the odd chapter chestnut. Inevitably some one-off quips fall flat, but Bachelder’s generous comedic gifts are amply demonstrated throughout, as in a “review” of Sinclair’s “107th novel,” titled ” Pharmaceutical!,” here lamenting the fate of Sinclair’s characters: “The wonderful thing about America is that you always have a shot, while the dreadful thing about a Sinclair novel is that you don’t. Poor Harold, he was born into a Socialist novel. Kid never had a chance.”
Bachelder’s radical cheek might seem precious if his eclectic “Resurrection Scrapbook” of sketches wasn’t so subtly latticed with allusive, recurring, ultimately humanizing details, none tenderer than those illuminating father and son’s pained relationship. U.S.! bears formal similarities to Bachelder’s 2001 debut, Bear v. Shark, a sprawling road novel in which Las Vegas is a sovereign nation, but his latest feels more seized of purpose. That such calculated prose was the very impetus of Sinclair’s problematic fiction may either delight, or alarm, Bachelder. Part of the enjoyment of reading U.S.! comes, yes, from discovering Sinclair’s disturbing penchant for exclamation points (1,539 in 1927’s Oil! Writers fond of exclamatory, beware! Someone’s counting!), but also from Bachelder’s palpable ambivalence about old Upton and the fate of political fiction. Is this decomposing cipher a pamphleteer or a prophet, a talentless hack or a tragic hero? (Survey says: all of the above.) And, implicitly: Is the book in your hands even worth writing anymore?
But also: Why Upton Sinclair? Batchelder addresses reasons for the muckraker’s resurrection only once, in a character’s response to the freshly exhumed author’s own query—”Things aren’t fair is why.”