Tax time is upon us, and with it the scramble to fill out forms, fill in the blanks and, if need be, make up convincing stories about what did or did not happen.
Read more new and notable fiction this April.
Taxation and the people involved on either side of the enterprise haven’t figured widely in literature, save of the do-it-yourself variety. We have the biblical stories of the publican Saul and the tax collector Matthew, of course, and the mighty satire of Nikolai Gogol’s tale The Overcoat.
Another Russian-language writer, Chingiz Aitmatov, worked as a tax collector but for the most part kept his peregrinations into double-entry bookkeeping out of his fiction, while Michele Bachmann, a thoroughly Dostoyevskian figure, has explained with artful fictiveness her work for the IRS thus: “The first rule of war is ‘know your enemy.’ ” She got to know the enemy for four well-paid years, it seems, before deciding that her study of tax law was in fact done in order to “be faithful to what God was calling me to do through my husband.”
David Foster Wallace is, alas, no longer alive to deconstruct such fabulous verbal artifices, but his parting gift to readers—at least until editors haul off the next trove of manuscript in Trader Joe’s bags–was last year’s big, booming, not entirely successful novel The Pale King, whose title bespeaks the woundedness of soul that an auditor might suffer, if not the actual paleness of the ordinary auditee.
If the punch line of Wallace’s book was stolen in advance by the goofy movie Dinner for Schmucks, a title that would do Philip Roth proud, then Lydia Millet gives unexpected depth to the taxman’s soul with last year’s Ghost Lights, a book both lyrical and snarky. An IRS agent finds himself in Belize seeking a missing person, lost without “the security of known formulations and structures” until coming into his own. And who ever would have guessed that he might harbor the stuff of Indiana Jones with a pocket calculator?
On this tax day, one might do well to reread Henry David Thoreau’s famed—if forgotten after high school—essay “On Civil Disobedience,” in which the writer finds himself enduring the injustice of being jailed for refusing to pay tax in protest against the United States invasion of Mexico. That south-of-the-border setting was not much on the minds of the architects of the Cold War, but taxes were at the heart of the literary critic and novelist Edmund Wilson’s life for decades, beginning in the 1940s. As with Dick Cheney in the case of going off to fight in Vietnam, Wilson found it inconvenient to pay taxes in support of the military-industrial complex, when, that is, he had any money at all. The IRS disagreed, naturally, and Wilson’s spirited polemic The Cold War and the Income Tax is a record of their pitched battle.
Taxes are inevitable. So Susan Dunlap, among others, instructs us in her whodunit Death and Taxes, a title anticipated by the earlier mysterian David Dodge. Pay up. And if there’s anything left over, buy a few books. Happy Tax Day. Or not.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to and longtime reviewer for Kirkus. His latest book is Aelian's On the Nature of Animals (Trinity University Press).