Deconstructing the legacy of muckraker Upton Sinclair, this kaleidoscopic novel gives the Old Left a postmodern spin, with results that are frequently funny and occasionally exasperating.
Except for perhaps a musical comedy based on these pages, it’s hard to imagine a less likely cultural artifact than this madcap romp through the lives of Upton Sinclair, best remembered for The Jungle, yet sometimes confused in these pages with Sinclair Lewis (Babbitt). Upton Sinclair died in 1968—just months after his 90th birthday, in a year that saw the class struggles to which he’d devoted his life and art take a New Left plunge into counter-culture chaos. Within the vivid imagination of Bachelder (Bear v. Shark, 2001), Sinclair never really dies—at least not for long. Instead, like the “Joe Hill” of the famous union anthem, he lives on within the movement whose ideals he had embodied. Yet Sinclair’s brand of socialist Utopianism has become as anachronistic as his finger-pointing, exclamation-pointed fiction, once highly celebrated, now consigned to oblivion (he in fact won the Pulitzer Prize for 1942’s long-forgotten Dragon’s Teeth). Slapstick farce combines with social satire as the impossibly prolific novelist, well past 100 and showing his age, continues to proselytize to diminishing effect. He keeps writing (A Moveable Jungle!, in response to outsourcing) and keeps dying, killed by assassins who become folk heroes for defending the American way of life. Amid the vast indifference of the public at large, he and his adversaries form a symbiotic relationship, each needing the other. Though the novel’s depiction of an impotent, intellectually bankrupt leftist movement in America might anger liberal sympathizers, Bachelder ultimately proves an equal-opportunity offender, capable of enraging those on both sides of the cultural divide. Ultimately, his comic vision sparks a comparatively serious inquiry into the nature, power and possibilities of art, in these times, in this country.
Imagine E.L. Doctorow (who makes an appearance in these pages) on psychedelic mushrooms.