The War at Home

(Mike Kemp - Getty Images/rubberball)
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, July 23, 2006


A Novel

By John McNally

Free Press. 266 pp. $24

John McNally dedicates his new novel to Ann Coulter, whom he calls "America's Iago." If he's lucky, this might provoke the conservative pundit to lay off the 9/11 widows for a moment and give McNally a little free advertising in one of her tirades. Or maybe Sean Hannity will denounce his book for suggesting (several times) that President Bush is a terrorist.

To which McNally would probably yell, "Bring it on!"

America's Report Card is a gangly comic novel that starts by making fun of conservative education reform ("No Child's Behind Left Untouched") and ends by accusing President Bush of genocide. McNally is a clown wearing brass knuckles, and with this sometimes clever, sometimes goofy story, he may finally incite on the fiction bestseller list the kind of brawl that's been raging away between liberals and conservatives on the nonfiction side. After all, for all their alleged liberalism, angry speeches to the choir, poetry readings and group letters, America's literati have not produced much polemical fiction during the war on terror. Part of this may be because it takes longer to write a novel than to assemble the reasons that Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot , but we've already seen a number of less barbed novels that involve the events of 9/11. Maybe novelists fear their work will quickly sound dated if it's tied to today's political questions instead of to more timeless issues of love and grief or government incompetence in general.

Whatever the reasons, we're still more likely to follow characters into the bedroom than into the voting booth. But not here: America's Report Card is the kind of book you might buy at an "Impeach Bush" rally. And that says something about its subtlety, too.

The novel follows two stories that eventually converge in a zany conspiracy of murder and totalitarian control. In the first, Charlie Wolf has finished his graduate degree in film studies, and since "there wasn't a single practical use for anything he'd done," he decides to stay in Iowa City with his horny Russian girlfriend and pursue "migrant work for the overeducated underemployed." They're both hired as part of a huge team to grade "America's Report Card," a national aptitude test given annually to all grade-school and high-school students. McNally is a hoot when satirizing the inane procedures for evaluating these tests in a vast, windowless sweatshop -- somewhere between Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Dickens's Hard Times . Charlie settles into this mindless work, fueled only by donuts and coffee, eager for the periodic excitement of breakdowns and fights in nearby cubicles. Rumor has it that the whole grading enterprise is just a scam to procure future government contracts for the testing company or, more ominously, a massive government project to track the psychological profile of everyone in the United States. But eventually Charlie doesn't care.

Meanwhile, far away in a southwest Chicago suburb, 17-year-old Jainey O'Sullivan is struggling to make sense of her mixed-up life. Once a precocious, happy girl, she's now a super-cynical, punked-out cartoon art student marking time until graduation. Her mother doesn't have a clue. Her father is in prison for assault. Her brother is holed up in the attic wearing combat fatigues, studying the Bible and praying to his crossbow.

Part of McNally's satiric style is to throw a perfectly respectable liberal punch, then duck into absurdity. It's a disorienting technique, but it keeps the novel from falling into the rut of propaganda. The latest crisis in Jainey's life, for instance, involves her favorite teacher, Mrs. Grant, who committed suicide because federally mandated regulations were working her to death. Mrs. Grant's complaints sounded like the usual teachers' union grievances, but on the other hand, she was something of a nut case. When Jainey goes to pay her respects, she finds, among Mrs. Grant's artwork, a life-sized doll of President Bush dressed up as Osama bin Laden. Few readers are likely to miss the implication of this symbol, but, just in case, Jainey begins carrying it around with her and researching America's programs to control, cheat and kill people throughout the world. ( D'oh -- there goes the Bill O'Reilly book club endorsement!)

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