"Our American King"
(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew SEP 15, 2007)
"Word spread far back into the crowd and then the word returns to the front again, told and retold a thousand variations among the fifty thousand who gather here as the afternoon grows long, we have a king. Tazza is our king. Go see him. Tazza. Go see if you can touch him, he's our king, wear his string. Tazza, king."
Our American King tells the story of "the calamity:" Sometime in the near future the meager remaining reserves of oil and gas and every other commodity are bought up or outright seized and placed in secure locations by and accessible only to governments and the mega-mega rich. This elitist stockpiling and withdrawal tips civilization into chaos and, in the U.S. alone, starvation and mass panic and violence kill off at least half the total population.
Mary, of Lakota Indian heritage, tells -- in a hand-down-the-stories-of-our-people, relaxed style -- her personal recollections of this catastrophe and the dystopia that arises in its wake: In that awful time, she and her husband, John, are thin as rails, but, by hoarding nothing, have avoided being hacked to death by punk marauders they call "the Patagonians." John decides they must make the trek to nearby Washington D.C. where, he eerily insists, they will find a man who can lead the unwashed, suffering masses. In front of the abandoned White House (the faceless government is regrouping in shelters and bases far away), John and Mary join a crowd around a charismatic populist who is hanging the corpses of mid-level bureaucrats upside down from the White House fence. This man calls himself Tazza, and he's set up headquarters in the Executive Office Building next to the White House. He is an extraordinarily gifted orator and uses his talent to inspire, support, and lift up the people. They, in turn, love him and pledge themselves to him. (Comparisons to strongmen in real history are bound to be made....) John, an intelligent man of letters with a gift for strategizing and cobbling speeches from famous old ones, becomes pied piper Tazza's kingmaker. And so begins the erratic and increasingly blood-soaked reign of Tazza, and as one might expect, Tazza is gradually corrupted by his acquisition of absolute power.
First, he consolidates that power in D.C., Then, after he's attracted thousands with scavenged food, clothes, shelter, and protection; Tazza takes his subjects on the road across America. His thousands "persuade" -- either through their king's silver tongue or by brutal force -- other survivor communities to swear fealty to him.
Guru-like, he has sex with any woman he wants, and similar to the biblical King David, he is intimate with the wife of John, his closest counselor. An embittered John leaves Tazza's encampment, never to return to it. Mary feels John's loss deeply (as did this reader). Mary carries on, however. She is destined to play a pivotal role as the mother of a child she never expected to conceive. Will she be the mother not only of a child but also of salvation from tyranny and oppression?
Tazza demands that not only men and women but also children fight in their battles. This decimates their ranks and puts in peril the next generation. He also commands his people to kill without mercy those who oppose them: men, women, and children. Beheadings, sometimes clean, sometimes not, become his terrorizing signature.
While Tazza moves westward and then south, the faceless U.S. government moves to reasserts its authority in Washington D.C. and elsewhere. Mary takes her child and flees Tazza. Will he run them down? How much longer will the tyrant reign and can anyone precipitate his downfall?
Mary tells her story from the relative comfort of fifty years in the future, so we know from the start that she survived the calamity. This narrative choice tamps the suspense somewhat. Mary's narration also narrows the ability of the author to abide by the advice to writers to show, not tell. When Mary isn't a witness, she tends, naturally, to provide less detail; and she isn't always "able" to offer much insight into Tazza, who would preferably be more fleshed out. Also, the last hasty, almost careless, chapters suggest that Martin tired of writing this book. Suddenly, Mary is in a rush to cross the storytelling finish line, and that is regrettable because further scrutiny of certain themes and events could have enriched the novel.
This cautionary tale (for, truly, this hair-raising apocalypse isn't inconceivable) is a grim fable of reversion to tribal social organization. Aspects of it will probably remind readers of other books such as Stephen King's apocalyptic The Stand or the less well known Arslan, a book about a ruthless and brutal conqueror by M. J. Engh. The recent post-civilizational film Children of Men contains Patagonian-like attackers and the archetypal story of a woman whose child brings the world hope. In fact, quite a bit in The American King is arguably derivative.
Nowhere else, though, would one likely find glib, acid-tongued Canadian bashing. That's right: those Canadians are fiends! It's a tongue-in-cheek, yet disconcerting, sub-theme of the novel; the dreaded Canadians, allied for a time with the U.S. government, stage a sneak attack against Tazza's forces. It underscores vividly the absurdity of the situation Mary is narrating.
Martin also underscores the stark, unforgiving nature of this new world with grisly images such as: "If Tazza hears you...in a hour you'd be stumbling on loops of your intestines." The author skillfully sets certain macabre scenes for his readers, and, conversely, he doesn't forget a few tender scenes, chiefly between Mary and John.
Our American King is a timely political commentary, taking both sardonic and solemn jabs at the precarious ferment of our early twenty-first century. It stakes a position squarely alongside "the people" in the decidedly socialist rhetoric of Tazza and John: "...now it is time for us to seize our birthright, seize the wealth of America from those who hold it and then we'll return that wealth to those who produced it." Yet, it also reveals bluntly the craven atrocities any dictator can unleash when harnessing what is essentially the power of the mob. In Mary's remembrance of a time thankfully not realized in our world -- yet -- Martin cannily preaches about the gaping weaknesses of our civilization, and the follies that could lead to unprecedented disaster.
This novel may not entirely meet expectations, but it does pack a punch and may haunt the reader for a while. It might even renew determination to reform the current political and socio-economic status quo....
- Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Our American King at Simon & Schuster
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Tethered (1979)
- The Crying Heart Tattoo (1982)
- Final Harbor (1984)
- The Beginning of Sorrows (1987)
- Lie to Me (1990)
- Bring Me Children (1992)
- Love Me to Death (1993) (a.k.a. Tap, Tap Tap)
- Cul-de-sac (1997)
- Pelikan (1999)
- Crazy Love (2002)
- Facing Rushmore (November 2005)
- Our American King (September 2007)
- Losing Everything (December 2008)
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- The New York Times review of Pelikan
- Salon Magazine on Martin writing Pelikan
- BookPage review of Facing Rushmore
- Washington Post review of Losing Everything
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About the Author:
David Lozell Martin was born in 1946 in Granite City, Illinois. He is known for such creepy suspense tales as Tap Tap and Bring Me Children, as well as for mainstream literary fiction such as The Crying Heart Tattoo, and The Beginning of Sorrow. Martin lived in the French Quarter while writing Pelikan, later lived in New York and now lives in near Washington, D.C.