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The Boston Phoenix Snow Job

In Carolyn Chute's latest novel, one hell has been traded for another

By Sarah Schulman

AUGUST 9, 1999: 

Snow Man, by Carolyn Chute (Harcourt Brace), 242 pages, $23.

In Snow Man, Carolyn Chute advocates for a constituency rarely represented in literary novels. Her hero, Robert Drummond, is a white, working-class militia member with a swastika tattoo. Pro-gun above all else, Drummond has just assassinated US Senator Kip Davies and has fallen, wounded, into the protective arms of Kristy Creighton, the daughter of another senator, an Edward Kennedy-type liberal from Massachusetts. Even though Kristy, a Radcliffe graduate, grew up in a big house with live-in servants, she can't help but fall in love with the proletarian Robert. For despite their many differences, he is the first man she has ever seen with a "long, uncircumcised penis," a detail the author mentions repeatedly and clearly considers a major plot point. Oh, and she is also motivated by her opposition to the death penalty, which surely awaits him once he is arrested.

Chute, who herself belongs to what she describes as a "no-wing" militia group, is careful in her author's note to explain that this is not a left-wing or a right-wing book, but a book about class -- as Drummond says, "You're either up or you're down. That's all there is to it." And in her presentation of class issues, Chute is swimming upstream against the literary establishment. Fiction by and about the wealthy is flooding the market these days. Dominant cultural institutions that support literary writing, such as the New Yorker, most corporate publishers, and many private foundations, parade a never-ending selection of yuppie fiction before the public. (The recent "Future of American Fiction" issue of the New Yorker is an excellent example, dominated by the work of straight white men who offered nothing particularly gripping or inventive.)

Such writing is often based in ruling-class assumptions and biases. But Chute's blue-collar heroes are equally prejudiced. Drummond hates men with AIDS, is pro-Nazi and anti-abortion, doesn't know that people of color exist, despises feminism, and loves guns. For readers who are neither culturally powerful nor right-wing, moving from the New Yorker's world to Chute's is like trading one exclusionary hell for another.

On the other hand, unlike yuppie fiction, which exhibits a singular obsession with bourgeois heterosexual romance, this novel deals with real-world constructions: it is pro-welfare, anti-prison, anti-death-penalty, and opposed to union-busting -- the kind of work critics often dismiss as "issue fiction," regardless of the fact that they themselves are hardly neutral or objective.

Yet despite Chute's protestations, this novel does have an ideology: it's right-wing/libertarian working-class fiction. And she misses her chance to make a truly resonant statement about that ideology by presenting us with characters who are mostly illogical stereotypes. In addition to his fabulous genitalia, Drummond doesn't get cold, doesn't know how to sew, won't drink the rich people's chardonnay, and gets all the pretty girls. Kristy is described as "edgy, angry, rivalrous, ultrafeminist," but neither a feminist thought nor an angry one ever crosses her rich-bitch brain of cotton. In fact, the only thing that really moves her is the opportunity to give the wounded Drummond a series of rectal suppositories.

Additionally, Chute's analysis of the militia movement is indistinct, referring vaguely to divisions in the ranks over defensive and offensive tactics. When Chute's characters get into politics in any depth, they often lack clarity. For example, Drummond blames the economic depression in his (and Chute's) home state of Maine on the takeover of local businesses by conglomerates. But he calls this process socialism. Kristy eventually asks him to explain what he means by socialism, but he never does, and we're all confused. He also believes that the ultraconservative senator he assassinated was a "socialist" -- which makes us wonder about his powers of perception. And he excuses his swastika tattoo by pointing out that since he knows no Jews, they won't see it and be offended. Not very persuasive.

It's hard to know, at times, whether the cloudy thinking belongs to the characters or to the author who created them; Chute's storytelling seems to lack any ironic distance. At one point, Chute has Kristy, a women's studies professor, define feminism as "women in power. Women who are successful . . . good role models" -- a statement that a person with her job would never utter. To which Drummond replies, "That's the problem. . . . Ditch great people. . . . Just do folks -- regular ones," which, in actuality, is what women's studies is all about -- making the lives and realities of all women central subjects for study.

Which is more offensive: the literary elite's blithe ignorance of the existence of everyone else, or the explicit awareness and articulated resentment of Chute's right-wing working-class characters, who hold Jews, lesbians, communists, and people with AIDS in contempt? In some ways, Chute's characters -- and, apparently, Chute herself -- hold many of the same prejudices as the people who dominate cultural institutions. The latter are powerful enough to ignore the objects of their mutual disdain; the former have little choice but to hate them.

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