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Strange place, America. There's no industrialised country with such a tiny left, and yet no place on earth with such seamless and intense anti-leftism. During my travels between coasts I've encountered some amazing notions entertained by our transatlantic cousins as to what socialism is. I remember a bright young waitress in a Utah college town, who, after commiserating with me about how things are pretty primitive over there in London, asked why we let those socialists wreck our economy. She's not the first American friend to have told this roving reporter that National Health Service is a total flop. Recently a clerk in a good Chicago shoe store informed me that, in Russia, you're allowed just one pair of shoes. One. So it goes.
For those who populate the minimal U.S. left, it's not easy. Just finding a suitable role and style poses a difficult enough task for them. Some reasonable and apologetic sorts work hard within the Democratic Party fold (now the Republicans' moderating wing). Others try keeping alive a 1930s Popular Frontism, mimicking certain stereotypical American quirks and mannerisms. Or they mouth a simplistic Maoism and Third Worldism, as many New Left types did in the 1960s. And then you have the extreme cases, youths mostly-Weatherman-this, Symbionese-that, and the more recent Carlos Chadwick of Richards College-who, turning angry, completely reject Americanism and its whole high-tech caboodle. One can understand the fury of these young leftists. From the day of their birth it has been constantly hammered into them that theirs is the greatest country in the world. Then come wars in Vietnam and Peru, andother such hints that American Greatness may not necessarily be the case. Their discovering another America can be, in the language of the Freudianised, traumatic in the extreme, a shock greater than, say, realising that White Man's Burden was just a bit of sanctimonious drivel.
Nobody has really figured out what role Chadwick played in those bombings. Though media people high and low like to speculate, none of their theories show much substance. But the question that seemingly both baffles and fascinates many Americans is: Why would Carlos do it at all (assuming be did)? What forces would possess a privileged student at an élite New England college either to resort to such tactics or express such glee at the results? This was the aim of Fred Jennings, veteran staff writer for Manhattan magazine.
The Carlos Chadwick Mystery was Jennings' idea. Editor-gatherer Jennings also did its Part 1, a report on his search for Carlos and the fullest investigation so far into the background to that bizarre episode. In addition, being aware that legendary Richards College beauty Livie Kingsley had once known Carlos romantically, he asked her for some personal remembrances. What we get in her memoir is not just a very close look at her sometime boy friend, but also a rare glimpse into a bright young American coed's heart and mind. Her life-and- loves story surpasses anything the best heartstrings-press romancers might think of. Along the way we're treated to an intimate account of American small-college exotica, with its diverse architectures, first-rate gymnasiums, monumental libraries, overheated rooms, sexual mysteries, clubby hooliganisms and curious mix of brutal workload with philistine anti-intellectualism. And yet this isn't the America of Animal House. One sees the numerous attractions and genuine advantages of its way of life. It's no wonder that Ms. Kingsley wrote an earlier, warmly nostalgic book about her alma mater.
Mr. Jennings also generously includes Chadwick's Ideological closet farce entitled Perspectives Industries Ltd., a kind of updated Orwellian spoof in which mind control is exercised not by State and Party brainwashing but via frenetic consumerism and a phantasmagorical free market. Under a huge eponymous idea-manufacturing firm's expert guidance, confusion and cacophony reign supreme in the land, and prove far more delectable instruments of control than were Big Brother and the Thought Police for Airstrip One. The play combines 1920s vaudevillians, the ubiquitous telly talk-shows of our time, and a reimagined history: the South, with British help, have risen again sometime after 1865 and imposed themselves, even putting a king in power somewhere. Bond slavery persists while Abolitionists are regularly blasted for their fanatical dogmatism; and some militants (whose personal styles will spark not a few jolts of recognition) live by the ideas of one Marcus Karl, rudely defying bland CEO sloganry in the process. Revealing, if talky and prolix, Chadwick's farce gives fantastical shape to the rampant relativism-shall we say perspectivism-that permeates much of U.S. life today. I've heard many a clever Yank pronouncing the very same lines that a crudely hyperbolic Carlos has assigned to his cartoon-like characters!
Jennings and Kingsley do an admirable job of bringing the Chadwick mystery into focus. My sole caveat is that in the end the figure of Carlos is as elusive as it was at the start. The mystery remains unsolved, and a prime reason, I think, is that neither gumshoe Fred nor memoirist Livie shows much sympathy for their subject's evolving leftism. It never seems to enter their thoroughly tolerant, modern minds that such thinking might have some meat to it. After all, the notions a wide-eyed Carlos Chadwick picked up in France are fairly commonplace across the globe, but in the U.S. they're branded far left. Still, we should be thankful to an American editor and the two writers for having included Chadwick's thoughts, if only to refute or dismiss them. Life imitates art: we see Carlos from both and many sides, and just as in his closet play, all those sides are equal. Only in America.
Divided by a common language was how the witty Irishman on his American lecture tour described U.S.- U.K. ties. But the rift extends to our respective political languages as well. There isn't so much as a Labour Party in the States, a void that makes for the eerie unreality of U.S. political life. There are topics that most Americans simply cannot confront without their good old Pavlovian juices frothing up. They get plenty of laughs at the ease with which Trotsky et alii disappear down the Soviet memory hole-but just try mentioning, say, Haymarket or Mayday or Joe Hill to them and the words draw a bewildered blank. A young Pakistani writer whom I know once characterized Americans as Martians. He maybe right. And yet if you're in America the curious thing is that it's the rest of our globe that seems peopled by multi-racial Martians and Marxians alike. Carlos Chadwick does come across as something of an extraterrestrial in much of Jennings' and Kingsley's pages.
Well, if America is the world, and this her Century, then I suppose Carlos might as well be an E.T.
Excerpted from THE CARLOS CHADWICK MYSTERY by Gene H. Bell-Villada. Copyright © 1990 by Gene H. Bell-Villada. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.