Saturday, January 26, 2013

Book Review: We The Enemy

A useful assignment for college students would be to compare Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, with Ray Rhamey’s novel, We The Enemy. They are both political novels, and both begin in the dystopian near future. Atlas Shrugged heroine Dagny Taggart inhabits a misgoverned, decaying, impoverished New York. Rhamey’s heroine, Jewel Washington, lives in misgoverned, crime-ridden Chicago.

Jewel, a Black, single mother, lives in the Cabrini-Green housing projects with her six-year old daughter and drug-addict brother. She works as a legal secretary on Michigan Avenue, spending much of her salary on “Pink,” the drug that supports her brother’s addiction. She purchases Pink from a fat, white, corrupt, cowardly cop named Murphy.

Jewel is almost raped in broad daylight along Michigan Avenue by a couple of gun-toting thugs, and would have been if the male lead, Jake Black, hadn’t dispatched the pair with a pistol of his own. While all this happens, passersby avert their eyes and walk by--including the cowardly cop, Murphy. While not an example in the book, it seems as if in the Chicago-of-the-future, dead bodies are so common that people just gingerly step over them.

In Rand’s novel the good guys all hole up in a place called Galt’s Gulch, established by the mysterious John Galt (“Who is John Galt?”). It is where the creative class hangs out until it is safe for them to go back into the world and be creative again.

Rhamey’s analog is Ashland, Oregon, a college town in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains and home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Unlike Galt’s Gulch, a temporary hideout, Ashland is the permanent and very public headquarters of a group known as the The Alliance, headed by the Galt-like Noah Stone. What is The Alliance? Who is Noah Stone? These are questions which bring both Jewel Washington and Jake Black from Chicago to Ashland, and also concern the US government.

While both are political novels, they differ. Rand’s book is about capitalism, freedom, business, and the evils of the welfare state. Rhamey’s book instead focuses on guns and violence, and surrounding legal issues.

In an idealistic Oregon designed by Noah Stone, citizens are encouraged to own a gun known as the stopper. This is a three-barreled peashooter, each firing a different kind of non-lethal ammunition colloquially known as nap, whack, and tangle, supposedly adequate for self defense. Possession of any lethal firearm is a felony offense--punishable by ten years in jail (the “Keep”), or time in a re-education camp until you learn the error of your ways. The plot depends on militia activists out there--gun nuts in my reading--who still irrationally believe in the Second Amendment, but Rhamey grants them neither respect nor any intelligent arguments.

The book includes a gripping trial scene, where (in my opinion) the judge argues strongly against the Fifth Amendment. Due process has been partially replaced by a computer, which supposedly can infallibly identify when a witness is lying. It can’t--not even for the show trial described in the book.

I was going to ding Mr. Rhamey on his miscasting of Jewel--which I initially interpreted as a fiction issue. But on reconsideration I see that the problem is not Mr. Rhamey’s, but instead gets to the core of what’s wrong with Noah Stone’s philosophy.

Jewel is a ghetto girl from the Projects. Somehow she acquired the educational resources to become a downtown legal secretary. Good for her! Most ghetto girls don’t get that far. Jewel, already unusual, is still a believable character.

But now move her to Ashland, Oregon, and apart from the occasional verbal tic the ghetto has been completely forgotten. Indeed, within the first week she’s listening to Mozart with her new beau, a white, redneck-cum-hippie set designer for the Shakespeare Company, while reading The Little Engine That Could to her child. Wow! Ghetto girls (along with most human beings) just don’t behave that way.

Ghetto girls--even those that leave the ghetto--do not so comprehensively abandon their heritage. Instead, like most human beings, they retain connections to family, friends, lovers, language and the culture that they call home. Almost all emigrants keep one foot in their native culture. For Jewel to move to Ashland in the manner described in the book implies (in my view) that she has completely abandoned her birthright.

So (I imagined asking Mr. Rhamey) why not make Jewel a white girl? One could go with White Trash, say from Chicago’s Uptown or Bridgeport neighborhoods. The character would be more believable and possibly make for better fiction. Mr. Rhamey may have agreed with me, but Noah Stone certainly wouldn’t have. His proselytizing in Chicago, for example, implies that his movement is universal, and should appeal to people from all cultures and backgrounds--including ghetto girls.

It doesn’t. Noah Stone’s Alliance embodies Enlightenment attitudes as held by people with bourgeois attitudes. The group may be multi-hued and even multi-ethnic, but it is decidedly not multicultural. Jewel is a case in point—by joining, she becomes “white.”

Noah Stone’s professed tolerance actually disguises a form of intolerance. Religion, for example, makes a claim to truth that The Alliance simply doesn’t recognize. A conventional Christian will regard Noah’s watered-down version of Christianity as both patronizing and sophomoric. A religious Jew will simply ignore it--the Torah and Talmud are a much richer vein. A devout Muslim will accuse Noah Stone of blasphemy. Noah’s dismissive “tolerance” of religion may appeal to denizens in college towns, but it will hold little sway elsewhere. In most of the world (probably including in the Projects) the Enlightenment has a very slim purchase on the human soul.

I disagree strongly with the politics in this book. But I still think it is an excellent book. First, it is a page-turner--well written and expertly plotted. It’s as good as the Vince Flynn novel I read recently. The ending was a surprise, but totally convincing and very satisfying. Unlike much modern fiction, this book actually has a plot. And second, unlike Vince Flynn, it is intellectually serious. For better or worse, it presents a Liberal vision of the future--I find it disconcerting, but you may disagree. Either way, the book is well worth reading.

Note: Ray Rhamey is an excellent copy editor and cover designer. You can reach him through his website:

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