In 1936, Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrop, a dreadful demagogue, is elected President of the United States. In short order, he turns the country into a fascist dictatorship in which every form of dissent or criticism is crushed immediately. In a small town in Vermont, newspaper editor Doremus Jessup opposes the new regime.
A biting satire and a cautionary tale of the rise of fascism, this is eerily prescient and a sharp reminder that democracy is fragile and has to be actively protected, and that no country is safe from the encroachment of autocratic tendencies. In the 1930s, the economic hardships of the Great Depression created the perfect breeding ground for all kinds of populism and dictatorial ambitions, just like the inequality prevalent in our current societies does now. Trump’s election in the US and several alarming goings-on in other countries show exactly how far many democracies have already moved in a very dangerous direction, which makes this book as relevant as ever.
There are three facets that I found to be most impressive. The first is the comprehensiveness of Lewis’s approach to the topic. The book is not all that long and most of it takes place in Doremus’s rural backwater, but he nonetheless takes a look at many different aspects of the takeover, ranging from the erosion of the educational system to the role of big business, the establishment of concentration camps, the corruption of the judicial system, the utilization of the media, and so on.
Second, the same comprehensiveness is applied to the characters. They are so diverse in their motivations and opinions that practically all bases are covered. Are some of them little more than stock characters? Yes, and especially some of the bad guys are of the mustache-twirling variety, but even most of them show at least glimpses of some unexpected depth and almost perfectly embody the absolute banality of evil. Last but not least, there is the protagonist, Doremus, who is as unlikely a hero as they come. He is over sixty, has a house, a wife, children and grandchildren, a dog, and an extensive library, and he enjoys the comfort and the predictability of his life. Becoming a resistance fighter is a struggle that lasts almost to the end of the book, but when he makes it we are reminded that the strength to fight for what is right can be found in anyone.
Third, this is a genuinely funny book. When Buzz is called a “prairie Demosthenes” that “would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts – figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect,” or when Doremus accepts being called a “middle-class intellectual” and laments, “The proletarians are probably noble fellows, but I certainly do not think that the interests of the middle-class intellectuals and the proletarians are the same. They want bread. We want—well, all right, say it, we want cake!” it just cracked me up. The wit is sharp and the humour biting, and it makes the bleak setting bearable and the book overall enjoyable.
Some parts are over-the-top, like the one in which Doremus’s daughter-in-law becomes a fighter pilot in order to assassinate a judge responsible for the murder of her husband, and yes, that is as insane as it sounds, and some seem rushed, for instance, the very quick implementation of the dictatorship. I also think that there are problems with the pacing overall because the build-up to the election is rather slow and meticulous in comparison to the ending where it almost felt like Lewis ran out of time. Still, it’s a great and important book that hammers home its message that it is on all of us to be vigilant.