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We're All In This Together, by Owen King
A country filled with frothing hatred that leaves no one unscathed
Thursday 25 May 2006
Americans love to hate. A great deal of George Bush's popularity with his supporters has to do with the way he winds up opponents into a froth of outrage. Owen King has his finger on this angry pulse. Tornadoes of hate tear up the ground in his debut, a novella and stories set around Maine, Florida and Coney Island. No one gets out of this collection unscathed.
The stupendous title novella revolves around a 15-year-old Mainer named George, hell-bent on sabotaging the blossoming romance between his mother and the caddish Dr Vic. George has allies, namely his radical old grandfather, Papa, and his friend Gil, a hedonistic cancer patient who spends all day smoking medicinal marijuana and looking at nude women on cable TV. They spend nights at Papa's house, peering out with paintball guns, waiting for the paperboy to vandalise a sign that Papa has erected on his lawn. Its lengthy screed begins: "Albert Gore Jr won the 2000 election by 537,179 votes, but lost the presidency by 1 vote. DISGRACE." Next to this is a "solemn ink drawing" of Gore and a caption that reads: "THE REAL PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES."
I can't even imagine what it's like to disagree with this sign. Nor can George or anyone else in this story. Regardless of your leanings, though, it's a brilliant spoof of the way political hatred can spiral out of personal loss. The trio's insularity becomes a metaphor for the way George has shut his future step-dad out of his life, along with anyone else who tries to pierce the bubble of pique he spends his days polishing.
The son of the horror novelist Stephen King, Owen King shares none of his father's penchant for that genre. He is an exceptionally pretty writer who knows when to drop in little details about the way driving at night makes a car fill up "with sweet night smells, oak and wet lawns". He understands that memory is a sensory feast - a scratch and sniff affair. This lyricism keeps the book from going hard, but there's not enough in one or two stories. "Wonders", the story of a baseball player and his pregnant girlfriend, ends with a mean twist; and "Frozen Animals", with its dentist's visit to a remote village, tongues its weirdness like a sore tooth.
But the main act is hard to follow. Some day, historians in search of artefacts from the Age of Hate will stumble upon We're All in This Together: it has that kind of longevity. Let's just hope it gives them pride that we listened to those, like Owen King, who showed us our folly.
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