Reading John Edward Lawson’s Discouraging at Best is like watching the Marx Bros. directed by Wes Craven. It’s a series of snapshots of American life in which the national id is hanging out for all to see, where every character is a caricature of our worst views of each other, and all traces of plot take a back seat to the punchlines.
Each of the chapters in this book deals with a dysfunctional family. Lawson starts with a family on the lowest rung of society and works his way around to bookstore proprietors, newscasters, Nobel Laureates, and even the President, with every last one of them over-the-top insane. By the end, it’s clear Lawson sees the entire American body politic as a dysfunctional family.
In the first chapter, Malcolm Havenot is seven years old, grotesquely scarred and often in pain as a result of an unfortunate explosion when he was five that shot slivers of fiberglass through his arms and legs. His wounds were never tended, as his psychotic father, July Havenot, felt a doctor would be too expensive, so it was time for little Malcolm to learn to “Take it like a man!”
Two years later, with wounds still festering and shards of fiberglass still pressing up beneath his skin, Malcolm is lethargic and antisocial. July is now attempting to teach him how to whip someone with a thorn branch so he can start a new business, going door to door selling whippings at five bucks a pop. July feels sure there will be a market for this service. And [spoiler alert!!!!!!!], it turns out there is.
Of course, that sounds horrifying, but the way Lawson tells the story I was cracking up, not only while reading those scenes, but throughout this whole book. Malcolm’s twelve-year-old sister locks his nine-year-old sister in an abandoned refrigerator in the alley behind their trailer. The twelve-year-old is pregnant, though she relates the experience to having a live squirrel inside her, and she’s terrified it’s going to claw its way out. There’s a family gunfight, and July attacks the television set with a bat while mom’s trying to watch her favorite show. All typical Norman Rockwell all-American family themes.
In another chapter, we find ourselves at a bookstore where a writer is giving a talk, where three black janitors are watching with mops and brooms in hand. Here’s their conversation:
“Wha’ da hell that honkey been talkin’?”
“Beats mah ass blackinblue…”
“Sho’ ’nuff, ain’t got much beatin’ tuh do, your ass bein’ black as uh snake’s belly at midnight!”
“Haw-haw Charlie man, he done tore you up like he Dracula an’ shit, haw-haw!”
For the next three pages, we get the Amos’n’Andy perspective on the reading, which, in fact, is right on the money. Then, we switch to the bookstore manager’s perspective on Amos’n’Andy. He says to one of his employees:
“You see those three back there? I want them gone by the end of the day. You replace them with spics that don’t know any English, got it? I don’t want the new ones to be able to bother the customers. For God’s sake, we have the reputation of our National Community Sensitivity Awareness Store of the Year award to defend!”
We eventually get to spend some time in the White House with the President (clearly a satire on George W. Bush) and his wheeler-dealer son and drug-addled lesbian daughter. There are serious political crises going on in the White House. For one, a Senator’s blatantly racist remarks must be defended and spun as not racist. But, even more upsetting [spoiler alert!!!!!!!!!!!], a phrenologist has determined that based on the President’s skull—which she has examined—the similarities between the President’s skull and the skull of a chimpanzee indicate that the President may be the missing link. There are rumblings from the masses. Throw the Chimp out!
Discouraging at Best was published in 2007 when the economy was first starting to crash, when Bush did the first big—$1.6 billion—bank bailout. Lawson is prescient on how the dynamics of that gigantic giveaway to the elite would play out. Here’s a discussion in the White House between a politician and a businessman on how the government could manipulate the currency market so that businessmen can make more money:
“… We are all guaranteed profit from this exercise; decreasing the value of the dollar means selling products for higher prices over-seas.”
“And if any of our institutions were to be hit with substantial losses or succumb entirely during the process?”
“Don’t worry. We can just use taxpayer money to bail you out.”
When one of the business leaders asks if this strategy is ethical:
For a second there is a grim silence as the men hesitate, looking around at each other before erupting into gales of laughter that rage out of control for minutes.
The funniest chapter is the last, in which the Hardline Nation newscasters wrap up the day’s stories. Even the newscasters are dysfunctional.
Discouraging at Best is like flying over the country and dropping down at random to eavesdrop on the thoughts of citizenry at all levels of our society. Read this book slowly to savor Lawson’s righteous anger and skillful comic buildup in a satire in the spirit of Jonathan Swift.
Discouraging at Best