In his new memoir An American Child Supreme, John Nichols quotes naturalist John Muir's observation that "when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." An American Child Supreme offers a concise but rich explanation of how Nichols has discovered the meanings of that interconnectedness in the course of his 36-year career as novelist, essayist, photographer, screenwriter and troublemaker. Nichols is a masterful storyteller, full of the humor that springs from honesty, and this is one of those books you begin to wish would not end after you've read the first 10 pages.
That doesn't mean it will make you comfortable. In fact, it aims to challenge any reader who does feel comfortable with the current situation of this country, this world.
Nichols' own discomfort with a country and a world dominated by capitalism was seeded, perhaps, by his father's remark, "The trouble with me is that I was brought up to believe in a stability of existence that just doesn't exist." To which Nichols adds, "He understood that hypothetical stability is the central prevarication driving most Americans in their hopeless pursuit of lucre, equity, things. He also knew that the more we consume, eager to be 'secure,' the more we undermine every level of resource and community that sustains us."
To the relentless pursuit of "security" -- on both personal and national levels -- Nichols counterpoises the vision of a democracy underlying the Declaration of Independence, a document signed by his ancestor, William Floyd. In the Jeffersonian ideal, independent producers of necessary goods and labor govern themselves, aware that the individual not only should not but cannot prosper at the expense of the whole, over the long run.
Nichols' "liberation ecology" insists that "the whole" comprises both human social and political systems and their interrelationships with the natural environment that support and include human existence. He insists that we and the planet will survive only if we learn to see and live from these interconnections.
That's a gruesomely abstract summary of the argument of An American Child Supreme, making the book sound like some sort of academic potpourri of political science and ecology. The beauty of the book is that it is none of the above. Rather, it is a remarkable exercise performed by one man looking back at what he's done with his life and realizing very clearly what pattern he's made, why he's made it and why he believes he should continue to tell other people about it.
In this pattern, many seemingly unrelated elements have woven together, all important to the whole. An ancestral, historical figure like William Floyd carries no more weight than a school kid named Emerick Tedeski, who long ago punched Nichols in the face for preferring the Brooklyn Dodgers to the Yankees in the 1947 World Series. (That punch led to Nichols' lifelong love for the Dodgers and, by extension, for the underdogs of the world.) Nichols' encounters with open, unabashed racism as a child in Virginia prepared him to see the racism inherent in American foreign policy when he first visited Guatemala, a visit that reverberates through all his subsequent writing. In short, Nichols' life exemplifies the very interconnectedness he wishes his readers to perceive.
Robert Frost once said he had "a lover's quarrel with the world." Nichols, American child supreme, has concentrated his life on conducting a lover's quarrel with his country. When lovers quarrel, they do so out of hope and love. In a book that is not short on anger, grief and a view of our current situation that might well lead to cynical despair, Nichols finds in his formative experiences cause for love, laughter and hope.
The heroic effort required to maintain hope in an age of apparently ubiquitous capitalist triumph infuses Nichols' new novel, The Voice of the Butterfly.
Joe Mondragon's little town of Milagro, from Nichols' best-known book, The Milagro Beanfield Wars, was morphed through relentless development into the Chamisaville of The Magic Journey and Nirvana Blues, his two subsequent novels. Twenty-seven years later, Chamisaville has become Poisonville, its indigenous population confined to their very own ghetto, in which "everything ... had been burned: the grass, the wooden fences, the old porches on the row houses that cost eight hundred a month to rent. ... Dumping grounds for the uneducated hoi polloi ... the little people who kill the chickens and disembowel the cattle and pick the cotton and work in the sweat shops and wash the dishes, scrub the toilets, mop floors, and buy all the cigarettes."
The more fortunate denizens of Poisonville are no less isolated, "anonymous voyagers on a road to hell in an autocentric America where thanks to voice mail, email, caller IDs, Internet-shopping Web sites, and frosted auto glass, actual human contact has become an unnecessary luxury and a true impediment to the final total alienation of humanity from the universe."
Yet The Voice of the Butterfly's narrator, Charley McFarland, who has never abandoned the resistance envisioned in the 1960s, finds the energy to take one more run at the massed forces of capitalism when his back road neighborhood, home to an endangered though unprepossessing bufferfly, is threatened by a proposed highway bypass. He rallies a small force of nearly ruined allies -- Lydia Babcock, an ancient survivor of '20s radicalism; Kelly McFarland, Charley's terminally alcoholic estranged wife; Luther, Charley's son, a pillar of negative energy with a six-inch Mohawk and Nazi-inspired earware; and Luther's girlfriend Miranda, who has built her philosophy on the pillars of non-engagement and multiple chemicals.
This seemingly doomed bunch prevails, stumblingly, hilariously and tragically, over not only the financiers, businessmen large and small, religious rightists and their hired press, but over the aging baby boomers who oppose the results of exploitation on their bumper stickers while mocking Charley's efforts as extreme and over-reactive.
The Voice of the Butterfly is a difficult novel to describe, a weird combination of Wendell Berry and Juan Bosch as illustrated by R. Crumb and Hieronymous Bosch. It is not, in other words, a conventional novel; rather, it's a desperate and passionate plea to Americans to pull their heads out of the clouds of media dreamland and begin to connect again -- with each other and with the natural world.
It seems a long time since James Baldwin issued the warning whose title was derived from a spiritual: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign: no more water; the fire next time." In The Voice of the Butteffly, John Nichols, who knows that hope is a virtue only in hopeless times, tries again to make us feel the heat of the fire we all, at some level, know we're feeding. And he makes clear the fact that, if hope is currently mocked and scorned as some sort of silly, unfashionable atavism from the '60s, the despair and alienation we see reflected in children like Luther and Miranda has its own dreadful costs.
"Only connect," E.M. Forster insisted, and these two books eloquently restate that message in the face of our increasingly disconnected times.