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In 'Subprimes,' Swiftian Satire Hits Close To Home

Karl Taro Greenfeld has written seven books, including <em>Triburbia</em> and <em>Boy Alone</em>.
Sports Illustrated / Courtesy of Harper
Courtesy of Harper
Karl Taro Greenfeld has written seven books, including Triburbia and Boy Alone.

In his new novel, The Subprimes, Karl Taro Greenfeld charges in where most of us would fear to tread. Carol Burnett could have warned him. "It's almost impossible to be funnier than the people in Washington," she once said, but Greenfeld tries his darnedest. He wants to skewer a certain political mindset, and he goes at it with anger, wicked humor and verve. Like many other brave souls before him, the author seeks to follow the Jonathan Swift of A Modest Proposal (Irish infants "stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled" as food for the rich), finding truth in the absurdity of the extreme.

George S. Kaufman could have warned Greenfeld, too: "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." The Subprimes gives us broad-stroke politics and economics, poverty and greed, pressed through the mean and keen flavorizer of satire. For me, Greenfeld's saving grace — as it was in his debut novel, Triburbia — is his artful ability to give us sympathetic, interesting people. He might pummel you with the apocalypse, but he holds your interest with his humanity. Swift, yes, but John Steinbeck, also.

We find ourselves in the America of the near future, spending time with the "subprimes," a caste of characters whose credit scores make them the equivalent of the untouchables in India. They eke out a life on the fringes of society, gathering around campfires in makeshift compounds known as Ryanvilles (referencing the historical Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, and GOP economic guru Sen. Paul Ryan). Deregulated capitalism runs amok. Energy conglomerates frak the country to smithereens. The greenhouse effect has effectively ended life as we know it. Dying whales pile up on the beaches of both coasts.

Since this is not a brave new world but a terrorized one, the poverty-numbed populace appears unable to challenge the status quo. "Blaming the banks would be like blaming the weather," writes Greenfeld. "Sure, they were greedy and ruthlessly profit-driven and served no other master but shareholder returns, but that's what they were supposed to be. Banks acting any other way would be like rain falling upward." A character paraphrases Paul Ryan's favorite author, Ayn Rand: "You make your own dollar, damnit and damn the rest."

Two families intersect in this wasteland of a future. Jeb, Bailey and their children have gone in search of a place to park their SUV, hoping against hope to find a home. Richie, a writer, and his kids, Ronan and Jinx, are losing their tenuous grip in this new economy. With a single good book behind him and an unhappy career in magazine journalism, Richie gets caught out for "inappropriate adult-child interaction" after playing tackle football with kids his adolescent son's age. The cop who intercedes wears ads on his sleeves for Dodge Ram trucks and Discover Card Bail Bonds Inc.

Outsize, Tom-Wolfe-ian characters proliferate. A grotesque pastor runs his Freedom Prairie Church out of a former football stadium. In one of Greenfeld's dead-on descriptions, he portrays the stadium as plastered with ads for Taco Bell, "Dell-Hewitt" and "Pepper Industries." "Congregants now could buy Jesus Man action figures and Jesus Freak T-shirts, mugs, caps, key chains, beverage cozies and iPhone cases." The pastor tells his audience, "God wants us all to be rich." People are poor only because of attacks by the favorite straw dogs of the day, "The Progressives, Big Government, The Regulators, The Environmentalists."

There are Mad Max touches. Sargam, a strong motorcycle mama in white leathers, swoops in to try to save the day in an up-by-your-bootstraps desert compound, where subprimes have settled in unfinished exurban tract homes, awaiting the end — or a new beginning?

Greenfeld's satire fits the harrowing subject matter, especially so when it bleeds into a storytelling that can best be called heartfelt. He opens the book with a quote from Steinbeck: "The little screaming fact ... sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed." As dark as this new American landscape is, The Subprimes ultimately shows us how people knit together, overcoming the cruel machinations of their overlords.

Jean Zimmerman's latest novel, Savage Girl, is out now in paperback. She posts daily at Blog Cabin.

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Jean Zimmerman