It’s been a little over a year now since a mob of angry protesters swarmed the United States Capitol and threatened to lynch the former Vice President for having the integrity to certify a free and fair election. The scariest part of January 6, for me, was realizing that the people who were trying to overthrow democracy thought they were fighting in the old American grain, defending freedom from tyranny. Most of them really believed they were upholding truth and justice.

How have we come to a place where the experience of reality is so skewed that we can’t tell a peaceful protest from a putsch? Looking for the key to reality I turned, as I always do, to a book of fiction. I looked to an old favorite, George Saunders.

Saunders’s first published short story collection, “Civil War Land in Bad Decline,” marked the beginning of a career in which he would seek empathy along the blurry border between reality and make-believe. His stories trace the degradation of the American worker in the decades since Ronald Reagan and his trickle-down economy. Saunders’s downtrodden workers are usually employed at theme parks that glorify an unreal past or sell futuristic virtual experiences in which the consumer can hide from life. His protagonists are mostly kind-hearted dreamers who want more from life but are too timid to stand up to their friendly-but-ruthless bosses. Sometimes these folks get steamrolled by the system; sometimes they manage to eke out a small act of courage or empathy that makes the world a little better, if not their sad life.

Although originally published in 1996, the title story of his first collection, “Civil War Land in Bad Decline,” could be said to sum up the state of America in 2022. The title itself says it all, really: a country that can’t agree on what its past is but is nonetheless so obsessed with that past that we neglect the present.

The story is told by a nameless narrator who is the manager of a historical reenactment theme park called Civil War Land. Before becoming the manager, he was “the verisimilitude inspector,” tasked with making sure the reenactments were true-to-life. Of course, they are not true-to-life, because what paying customer would want to see the grisly reality of the American Civil War? Instead, people come to see the crisp uniforms in grey and blue, the milking of the cows, and the daily “rousing speech” given by the star actor who always whips up the boys for another bout of play-acted battle.

Not only nostalgia, but commerce, too, interrupts the verisimilitude. The narrator is constantly under pressure from his boss to boost visitation and revenue. At Halloween, the reenactors dress up as spooky versions of their characters and the park sometimes offers Mother Goose Days to attract families with young children. The meaningful act of trying to learn or teach history is disrupted by the profit motive.

The action opens with the manager losing a potential investor because a “gang” of teenagers has defaced a part of the park. The investor has been hoping to connect with the memory of his ancestors. Instead, he is confronted with street graffiti painted by the kids who live in the poor neighborhood outside the park. The manager tells his boss about the lost investment and the owner decides something must be done about the gangs. He wants “to fight fire with fire.” They decide to arm some of the fake soldiers with live ammunition to defend against the gangs. When none of the actors proves capable, they hire a troubled war veteran to dress in Union blues and lead the effort. He proves terrifyingly effective against the gangs and begins policing minor offences by regular visitors. The owner is satisfied with his work and overrules the narrator’s weak objections. I won’t give away the ending, but as you can imagine, things begin to spiral. Things seem to be spiraling in America now too.

We learn early on that Civil War Land is haunted by real ghosts. The narrator knows how poor his verisimilitude is because the ghosts of a real family from the 1860s tell him so. They are confused about why anyone would want to relive the American Civil War. So am I.

In recent months, several mainstream news outlets including NPR and The Economist, organizations not known for their bluster, have carried stories discussing the possibility of a second civil war. We all know our current political environment is intensely polarized. Some people are increasingly willing to suggest that violence is the only cure.

I won’t pretend that America’s problems are simple enough to be captured in a 20-page metaphorical story. Saunders wouldn’t either. His theme parks always prove to be sad replicas of a made-up world. They are escapes from reality that turn out to be worse than reality. In this way they reflect part of the human condition. Failing to fully understand our surroundings, we build up narratives and monuments and organizations — whether gangs or businesses — to help us fill the emptiness. The emptiness is still there, though, behind the Disneyfied façade.

I know some will read this and assume that I hate America. I must not be a patriot because a patriot would never compare America to a failing amusement park. But no one assumes you hate your house if you acknowledge it’s on fire. No one thinks you hate your body when you accept it has pneumonia. I love America more than I can express. I say what I see is wrong with it in the hope that I might see it get even better. You should too. We can all leave the guns in the basement.

Saunders doesn’t only see emptiness in his theme parks. He sees people. Kind people who love their kids and miss their parents and share traditional American values. The people in his stories don’t always find meaning, but those that are looking do find each other.

W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Thomaston, where he weaves tales about Maine’s coast and mountains.

 

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