The emotional and moral torments of a teddy bear drive this surprisingly effective allegory of our terror-stricken times.
This first novel by Chase, author of the 1995 memoir The Hurry-Up Song, opens as if it were a parody of TV crime dramas, with a teddy bear named Winkie arrested by federal agents under charges of performing acts of Unabomber-like domestic terrorism. (The book even includes a mug shot, among other photos.) But this wacky setup is girded by sober, elegant writing that neatly balances both political and domestic themes—from our broken criminal-justice system to little girls pining for violins, Winkie’s seen it all. First named Marie when she was bought in the 1920s at a Chicago department store, Winkie observed and supported her owner, Ruth, as she grew up in a strict Christian Scientist household; Winkie was later passed down through Ruth’s children and helped the youngest, Cliff, weather a move to New Orleans and a host of childhood insecurities. With Cliff grown up, the abandoned Winkie strikes out on her own, beginning a tender, if odd, domestic life before her wrongful arrest. The courtroom scenes are wildly, brilliantly comic—Winkie is charged with a list of felonies (including “Corrupting the youth of Athens”) that takes more than five hours to read, and he’s saddled with a hapless, stammering lawyer, the appropriately named Charles Unwin. But Chase isn’t just being cute here. Tinkering with the idea that a teddy bear is a repository for all our insecurities, he throws even our largest concerns at him: love, God, death, patriotism, racism, sexual identity and what it means to be human (or in Winkie’s case, human-like). Winkie’s clearly meant to speak to our fears about innocent “detainees” and “military tribunals” becoming kangaroo courts, but the author is never didactic on this point; at heart, the book is an argument for openness and inner strength on every imaginable front.
Chase makes this out-of-left-field story work brilliantly; a funny and sweet yet seriously topical novel.