“The news hit the room like death,” Homes wrote. “It is a shameless awakening after hundreds of years and they are taking it hard. Not only is Obama winning, as if the Founding Fathers had been assassinated. Facts they took for granted have become a moving target.” Their American dream – the supremacy of white men and the inviolability of wealth – suddenly shattered like a Tiffany’s lampshade.
“It’s the official apocalypse,” says one of the major Republican Party donors. “The world is going to hell and I’m not pleased.”
This aristocratic speaker – provoked by this disaster to profanity – is the protagonist of “The Unfolding”. Homes refers only to him as the big man. His net worth, like his nickname, is mysterious but enormous. He contributes enough for the Republican Party to be in the hall when John McCain He invites Americans to congratulate and support their new president.
Such kindness – not to mention political stability – now looks like something from a different century. But for all its old values, Big Guy is way ahead of its time. He is terrified of what it means for the United States to lose McCain and his concessions. He told his wife, “I am shocked.” “I can’t spend the next 30 years watching all of that go down.”
Things are about to get much worse for the big guy. While he focuses on the collapse of his political party, “The Unfolding” also traces parallel tragedies tearing apart his personal life. Over many years of unhappiness, his extremely skinny wife, Charlotte, limited her diet to just two food groups: vermouth cherries and maraschino cherries. “I forgot to have my life,” she said to the old man in one of the many sharp conversations that Homes creates so well. At Betty Ford’s clinic, Charlotte wonders if returning to their marriage is the way she wants to spend the next 30 years.
Even more frightening for the big man is the sudden awakening of his only child, Megan. His greatest hope for the future, Megan is a high school student at a horse boarding school in the Washington area and perhaps the most brilliant girl since Alice in Wonderland. She takes John McCain’s loss step by step, but other, more intimate turmoil makes her realize that the world isn’t at all what her father described. “I’m not okay,” Megan yelled at one of the disastrous Christmas gatherings. “Everything I thought I knew is now a fake.” (Fans of the author’s 2007 memoir, “The Mistress’s Daughter,” will catch a whiff of autobiography floating around here.)
Homes captures the flora and fauna of the American aristocracy with pinpoint accuracy. Her descriptions of these bright people, casual and friendly in their tightly designed habitats, reminded me when I moved to Washington and noticed, as Meghan did, that “so many women in the room and few men like them have done repair work.”
There can sometimes be a French adjective in the Homes satire—a bitter aberration from the parents’ bragging and pathetic melodrama. Charlotte’s sarcastic jokes look like fermented desperation. And the scene describing the old man running games of war with “highest quality” puppet soldiers on an old pool table leaves no survivors. But Homes retains a quality of surrendering sympathy for these anxious and self-important characters — a tinge of sympathy that makes them feel even more pitiful.
Obama’s victory sparked, the big man sits at his desk and begins to sketch out a broad outline of spheres of influence. Homes explains: “He’s trying to figure out what he can build, where the parts can run both synchronously and asynchronously without business exposure, something that is practical and yet scrambled well enough that the identity of those pulling the leads can’t be traced. .”
Jane Mayer Other journalists have revealed in disturbing detail how the Koch brothers and their ilk have surreptitiously pushed the country to their own advantage. Homes operates in the same dark area, but “The Unfolding” offers a different kind of insight into these distinct genres — and plenty of comedy.
Too many skewers “unfold” the big man’s obsessive plans to return the country to its great white roots. His belief in the power of America is rivaled only by his belief in the power of a good note. “What’s Next?” He writes “in large letters across the center of his blotting desk in a blue Paper Mate Flair felt-tip pen.” To answer that question, he assembled a group of advisors who had “imagination, insight, and money to burn.” Among them are a “disinformation man”, an eccentric doctor, a mad general, a political historian, and a judge – appallingly odious rich men of a certain age who attended the right colleges. In their secret meetings – pampered bulls sitting in luxurious retreats – they make grand plans to take control of the American body politic. The key is the vision thing: “Vital, invisible, succession, insurance. Our (or eighty) nation.”
The Big Guy calls his companions Forever Men and imagines them to be a modern rebuilding of a group appointed by President Eisenhower to keep America running in a debilitating national emergency. Along with some types of golf, their number one priority is to design and bury a time capsule to impart knowledge of their existence 500 years into the future.
The dialogue in these hilariously disturbing scenes ignites the page with such vibrancy that I felt as if I was in the room in which it happened. As funny as it is, there is an unsettling quality to the comedy in “The Unfolding”. The nefarious plot to eventually retake America is coalescing around a 15-year plan to sow economic and political turmoil, allow the country’s infrastructure to deteriorate, and weaponize media platforms to divide the country “into the thinnest slices of the disease.” One Forever’s man confidently predicts, “We will see the erosion of civil liberties and the rise of non-political rogue politicians.” When this chaos unfolds, a gratefully desperate population will turn to the men who can re-inculcate the ancient values of security and order.
It all sounds absurd—a fever dream for bored millionaires playing nation-building—but here we are, almost 15 years later, dealing with a political system just as shattered as the one they hoped to precipitate. The party that once dined on the elegant optimism of Ronald Reagan and the combative intelligence of William Buckley is hijacked by the narcissistic carnival barkers and his crowd of conspiracy theorists, science deniers, and fascist Christo. “The Unfolding” doesn’t suggest any solutions to this ordeal, but it does offer irresistible reflection on how the audacity of hope was pushed off the rails and plunged into despair.
Ron Charles Browse books and write Book club newsletter For The Washington Post. This is Charles’ latest style review. Find it in the New Book World section starting September 25th.
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