Powertown: A Novel, by Michael Lind, New York: HarperCollins, 264 pages, $23.00
Movie buffs lovingly remember the name of Edward D. Wood Jr., director of such films as Glen or Glenda? and Bride of the Monster. Wood considered himself something of a genius, but he was so profoundly incompetent that his movies are actually fun to watch. In making his "masterpiece," Plan Nine from Outer Space, Wood used toy-store models to represent flying saucers and randomly alternated shots of daylight and darkness within the same sequence. When star Bela Lugosi died two days into filming, Wood replaced him in the remaining scenes with his wife's chiropractor. The substitute looked nothing like Lugosi, but that didn't stop Ed Wood: He merely had the man hold a cape over his face.
Michael Lind is becoming the Ed Wood of American political writing. Once a low-level munchkin in conservative intellectual circles, Lind has recently won himself a good deal of ink by denouncing his former patrons as divisive and reactionary. Earlier this year, he published Up from Conservatism, combining a memoir of his conversion with a wide-ranging attack on his forsaken ideology. Lind may have intended this book to be his own version of St. Augustine's Confessions, but it ended up as his Plan Nine from Outer Space.
Readers familiar with conservative and free market thought can derive perverse amusement from the book's countless omissions and mistakes. For instance, Lind says the "only libertarian organization of any importance in American politics is the Cato Institute." If you are holding this magazine in your hands, then you know about this other outfit located on South Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles….
Like Ed Wood, Michael Lind works fast. Just a few months after Up from Conservatism, he has published Powertown, whose jacket notes identify it as his "fiction debut." Discerning consumers of the previous book would disagree, but that's not important here. Powertown is a different kind of work, and it's monumentally awful in a different way.
"Powertown" is Washington, D.C., which provides the backdrop for the novel's three loose storylines. The first involves a group of self-absorbed professionals who work in the political establishment and constantly obsess about their careers and sex lives. The second concerns black "gangbangers" who take drugs, shoot one another, and use the f-word a lot. The third centers on an illegal-immigrant cleaning lady, and in these chapters, the other characters mainly consist of people who are mean to her.
There's nothing wrong with a multilayered plot, so long as the author makes sure that readers can keep the characters straight. Within the first 30 pages of Powertown, Lind utterly bungles this elementary requirement of novel writing. We meet Stef Schonfeld, a woman who works for Rep. Jim Ritter on the Appropriations Committee. Stef is the inaugural-ball cover date for Avery Brackenridge, a gay black guest-booker at National Public Radio, whose lover is Ross Drummond, a white Republican political consultant. Ross's cover date is the wealthy Agalia Kazakis, who, as we later learn, heads a charitable foundation. Ross introduces Stef to the handsome Bruce Brandt, who works for Mrs. Gutierrez, the drug czar.
Don't complain yet: We're only up to page six. Now Lind introduces us to Velma and Curtis Hawkins, a working-class black couple who have two daughters, Lorena and Marilyn. With Velma's father, Dad Johnson, staying at their home, Curtis drives to another neighborhood to pick up Velma's sister-in-law Sharonda, together with her four children, Arnetta, Monique, Jamal, and Evander, as well as Sharonda's mother, Stella Morris. The next day, Evander learns from his friend Twon that the gangbanger Lookout Williams has been making threats against him, so he asks for protection from Frizzell, the chief gangbanger.
Meanwhile, evil landlady Mrs. Reyes evicts Graciela Herrera and her children, Rosa and Marcello. The three unfortunates move in with Graciela's cousin Yolanda, whose husband Isidro is displeased. Graciela goes to Senor Martinez, a purveyor of fake green cards, for help in finding a new place. Martinez sends Darryl Shelton, who moves her into a seedy apartment. When Rosa gets sick, Darryl arranges for Graciela to take her to Dr. Sorzano. But apparently, Darryl is seeking sexual favors in return for his assistance.
That's the state of play as of page 29, and it just keeps getting worse. I counted 92 different character names, and I probably missed a few. Powertown is not a novel, it's a census.
The names are as confusing as they are plentiful, so a reader literally needs a computer database. Sharonda, remember, is Velma Hawkins's sister-in-law, whereas Shirrelle is the aunt of black teen Latisha "Teesha" Madison, who becomes Evander's girlfriend. And do not confuse Latisha Madison with Letitia Monroe, who is a wealthy white woman. The same goes for Jack Vincent (legislative assistant to Rep. Lou Mayers) and Jack Dougherty (legislative assistant to Sen. Ted Chappell).
While creating this population explosion, Lind himself apparently got confused. He tells us that Dad Johnson had a son named Luke, who fathered Evander and died of a drug overdose. A few pages later, though, he writes that Evander's father was named Luke Turner and that he died in a car crash. On page 130, there's a character named "Willie." On page 131, we read about "Willy." Has young William suddenly decided to change the spelling of his name, or is Lind treating us to a guest appearance from the famous orca whale?
Lind's literary atrocities go far beyond the name game. He describes Evander's visit to a dance club: "The hammering beat coaxes his heart into sync with it; part of him wants to abandon himself to the amplified throbbing, to become one more stalk of grass in this field riffled by the thundering gale from the stage." He says of the hapless immigrant: "Graciela imagines what it must be like to be a soul floating free of the body, to be dazzled by a milky effulgence that burns through the very fabric of the universe like a flame eating through the walls and ceiling of a burning house."
And then: "The flame will speedily travel around the earth, back along the line of gasoline to the can, or the sun itself. It will explode this source and spread to every place that gasoline, our sunlight, touches. Explode the sunlight here, gentlemen, you explode the universe." Oh, sorry, that last passage really is from Plan Nine from Outer Space. You can see how easy it is mix up Lind's lines with Ed Wood's.
There's one big difference, however: Wood's major characters were all white. In Powertown, Lind tries to get us in touch with the African-American experience by including a large number of black characters. Evidently, he had trouble figuring out what to call them all. He offers two different Jocelyns, one being Latisha's mother and the other being Lookout's girlfriend. After running out of handles such as Rasheed and Jamal, he turned to the names of real public figures. A gang member is called Tito, after one of Michael Jackson's lesser brothers. An NAACP lawyer is named John Conyers, after the long-serving congressman from Detroit.
His dialogue is a middle-class white guy's take on what ghetto dwellers sound like. Here's a reaction to a murder: "'Oh, lawdy,' says Velma, 'Somebody else got shot. Lawd a' mercy.'" And here's a discussion of young love: 'While we was in the kitchen,' Lookout tells him, 'she say, 'Who that boy?' She say, 'He look mighty fine.' She wants you, cuz. Word, cuz. Go for it.'" To his credit, Lind is an equal-opportunity offender. None of his characters–black or white, straight or gay–sound like recognizable human beings.
Lind's Washington bears no resemblance to the real city on the Potomac. The Washingtonians who do the most harm are not the sex-obsessed cynics of Powertown, but nerdy idealists who spend their nights drafting new regulations for the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Perhaps Powertown is not really about people in Washington at all, but about alien creatures on a strange new world. In that case, it might supply the basis for a nifty science fiction movie.
Too bad Ed Wood isn't around to direct it.
Contributing Editor John J. Pitney Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.