As the twenty-fist century accelerates toward a new low point in modern political history, eighty-five people possess about forty percent of the world’s wealth (that’s not a typo),* second- and third-generation war-terrorized children are born to benumbed, dehumanized parents, and most news reports would probably seem horribly unreal to even Bradbury and Orwell.
One may ask, What does twenty-first century art have to say about all this? We’ve heard from activists, a few courageous whistle-blowers; we’ve seen Hollywood thrillers with at least one Cheney-like character snarling with glee as he slaughters the hopes of yet another welfare mom. But where is the nuanced rendering of this story about the death of democracy?
The Contractor (Permanent, 200 pages) by Charles Holdefer is an important work about one crucial detail in the global tragedy that is unfolding before our (blindfolded) eyes. Published in 2007, it was probably the first literary work to question the U.S. “enhanced interrogation” policy. Among the different perspectives from which this story might have been told, Holdefer chose the least obvious, and perhaps the most revealing, that of the interrogator, in this case, George Young, a likeable, ordinary guy who has a job to do.
The one-word title may make you think John Grisham thriller, but with that title Holdefer really nails it. The contractor is central. After the money-as-debt banking cartels—who have finagled themselves the right to charge interest on money they never earned and which they simply bring into being by fiat (and give to their eighty-five friends)—it is the intelligence contractors who wield the power in U.S. policy. The country’s most sensitive and significant intelligence work has been contracted out to a few sinister MegaCorporations, whose CEOs regularly pass through the revolving door into White House cabinet positions. (Actually, I think the revolving door was removed in the most recent Constitutional renovations, and they’ve just merged offices at this point.) Private intelligence/interrogation contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton, Stratfor and Titan, with ties to L3, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Intelligence, extract information, and then they “advise” the President. Democrat or Republican, he does what he’s told. There is no oversight agency, like a court of law, to verify the information because the 2001 AUMF did away with that bothersome requirement. Much of what we “know” about our enemies—much of what we use to define our enemies as “enemies”—comes from enhanced interrogation and drives U.S. foreign policy—and our economy.
That’s just a taste of contemporary backstory that may inform some (few) readers’ experiences of Holdefer’s novel. Holdefer himself does not take the long view. Based on publicly available research, he tells a first-person story from the perspective of an intelligent man, with a taste for foreign adventure, who hasn’t thought too deeply about politics, a loving husband, whose wife is starting to drink too much, an attentive father, a former military interrogator, a man who has just landed a high-paying job at exactly the right time.
The question Holdefer asks is, Who is George Young? Who do these corporations hire to do their work? The answer is, ordinary guys, who, like everybody else in America initially buy into the War on Terror narrative, and only by degrees, do they begin to question what they’re being told to do.
“Who are you?” asks George Young’s interrogation victim repeatedly before he dies suddenly of heart failure. “Who are you?”
This is where the novel begins. A young man known only as #4141 dies in the middle of an interrogation session. The man had come to Omega, the off-shore black site, without identifying papers. The interrogators, George and Bertie (who is CIA), do not know anything about him, nor do they know what kind of information is wanted from him. Their task is just to beat him and pretend to drown him until, with luck, he confesses to something.
How did George Young get to that place in his heart where he could do such a thing? This is Holdefer’s point of departure. He begins a thorough, but gentle and sensitive, interrogation of his hero–of the kind good fiction authors do–starting with his childhood, his marriages, his first jobs, his career in the army, during which, significantly, he witnessed the mass killing of Iraqi soldiers, who were incinerated from above as their convoy traveled the road to Basra.
“…Rising above the odor of smoldering tires and gasoline fumes…came a distinct smell of something animal that had been cooked.
After body hair, after clothes, lips burn the easiest, it appeared. Whatever a person’s contortions, still gripping the wheel, sprawled on a hood, or thrown out of a vehicle entirely; whatever the state of intactness or dismemberment, and some parts of these people were still smoking—body after body appeared to be grinning….…They knew. Realized we were shocked. Was that why they were grinning?
…I tell this not to horrify or to express contrition….No, I say this for other reasons. Because that day, I learned the price. Sure, I was shaken and sickened, and it is something that I’d rather not think about, or dwell on, but it also taught me something, steeled me, gave me the resources necessary to understand politics in the grown-up world and, later, to become a contractor. This is what I learned: what we take for granted and hold precious and celebrate remains viable because of our willingness to do this.”
That’s the “greater good” theory sociopaths in power sell and ordinary people like George buy, for a while. George’s journey will take him down the path that discovers the “foundations of civilization” may run deep, but they do not “touch hell.”
Holdefer’s novel is completely unlike what a Grisham would have done with such a topic. The focus is not on action, but on character. A prisoner dies; the interrogator slowly develops into a would-be whistle-blower and, in the end, is silenced. That’s the plot. But the story is mainly about George’s relationship with his family.
Seemingly totally irrelevant details come into play. He has brought his family with him to live on a neighboring island, while he takes a boat every day to a job they know nothing about. (They think he is doing something with water supply.) His toddler daughter Ginny spends most of her time watching the same DVD over and over. The annoying theme song irritates George:
is so funky
“After the first two hundred times, it begins to wear you down. Lately I feel like running out of the house whenever I hear it. The opening bars (on a cloying, clunky vibraphone) are particularly grating. Yet it’s a ditty with an insidious staying power. Sticks in the mind. That last line—“who’d a-thunky?”—bugs me even when I’m far away from home. It comes to me on the boat or at work, and triggers all kinds of unwanted speculation. Who, indeed? Why would one pose the question? WHO CARES? I have no desire to wonder about such matters—but against my will, I do. Sometimes I even catch myself humming the tune.”
George also describes the day-to-day activities on the job with comical co-workers, Bertie (think Harvey Keitel), Jamal the translator (who has finally gotten braces on his teeth with company health insurance) and the “Trogs,” the underclass, jealous, mischievous, and competitive military personal who guard the prisoners.
George’s friends, his wife Bethany’s drinking problem, their sexual problems, all bear upon the choices he makes and the way he approaches his job. When George asks himself how he ended up at Omega, the explanation is long and detailed and fairly random. Anybody could have ended up there. In fact, we are all there through our surrogates, like George, who take care of the “necessary” dirty work we’d rather not think about.
George is a likeable narrator who shows empathy. He pays attention to his family and friends and gets a sense of their feelings. His son Christopher is anxious to know that his teacher, Miss Breese, on whom he has a crush, will get the poem he’s sent her on Christmas day. He asks,
“It wouldn’t arrive after, would it?”
He swallows, troubled at the prospect.
‘No no no. Relax. Geez. If you write ‘Do Not Open Till Christmas’ on the outside of the envelope, it should be fine. She’ll figure it out!’
He smiles and runs off in search of a pen. Good thing his dad is a genius.”
Because the reader gets glimpses of George as the concerned, involved and gentle parent, we like him. We like him because he can guess what his son is feeling just by noting that he swallows hard. Similarly, he notices that Bethany does not like Bertie when she blinks several times rapidly when he greets her. George guesses that he has flirted with her inappropriately and she does not like him.
George is a perceptive person. This is probably one of the reasons why he thinks of himself as a good interrogator. But as the story unfolds, we (and he) begin to realize that he has other skills that have come into play more than sensitivity: the ability to get what you want out of someone. We see his manipulative skills at work when George has to convince Bethany to let him leave the family (they are in North Dakota for Christmas holidays) and fly to Garden City to visit his brother.
On that trip to Garden City, George gets drunk and sleeps with his ex-wife Denise, whose brother has recently died in Iraq. Here the plot pivots. Denise asks George why the U.S. is over there. She asks him what her brother died for. He replies,
“’Well, for what we have and value, for everything!’ My hand swept in the air in front of us. My intention had been to indicate the community, our hometown of Garden City and the breadth of good things in America. Somehow, though, the effect was smaller, and the gesture seemed to include only the living room and its furnishings and our naked selves on the couch.”
After hearing himself this way, meanwhile pondering #4141’s fate, and later talking with his brother, George begins to change. I will quote at length the passage (leaving out some nice descriptions some other characters not mentioned here in this review) in which the transformation begins. It is among the most poetic passages in the novel. The writing throughout is good, solid story-telling with the emphasis on developing character, and thus the novel is extremely readable: it is not difficult or experimental literary fiction. However, because character transformations are never linear processes, a more poetic style is required to give them adequate expression:
“A roaring in my ears. For a moment my hearing retreated from our conversation. But it wasn’t a sensation of deafness. On the contrary, it was like a violent jolt from a stronger frequency. As if my head were a conch shell and could capture volatile variations in pressures. But instead of the sound of the sea, there was a hiss of human woes, in many tones, high, low and middle: all resolving into one plaintive chord of misery. Then the chord unraveled and I could hear the distinct strands again, and if I closed my eyes I could see them, to the north my family was in trouble, even as my children slept with curled fingers and puffed lips and breathed unsuspecting into the dark. Bethany was out cold, drunk against her pain…. And another strand, there, look: Denise—still turning restlessly—she pushed her pillow away and curled into a ball. She was sleeping very badly tonight…. And still another strand: a lurch into light many time zones away, where Miss Breese was pedaling her bicycle under palm fronds, her tires crunching on black lava-gravel. Her face was grave. She was in a hurry.
Where, though, was #4141? He made no sound, so I couldn’t see him….”
Without giving away the competently handled plot twists at the ending, let me say that George is made to realize that information given under torture is not likely reliable information. And what factually true information may be extracted under torture, the U.S. government—and its agencies, private or public—do not have a right to know, nor do they have the right to use that information against basically good people, who get in the way of the war.
War is necessary to deplete resources as rapidly as possible in a debt-as-money economy, for reasons that I won’t go into here: knowing the larger political picture, to which I’ve alluded in this review, is not necessary to get the story. That is the point of the novel, it seems to me. What’s really important is how the individual human being, in the course of his daily activities and exchanges with the people he loves, comes to understand his own actions, regardless of how they sit with overall politics. An artistic rendering of the story of the death of democracy concentrates on the individual. It is not based on any political theory; it may not be conversant with the larger facts, but it speaks to the issues better than any pundit or activist ever could.
Charles Holdefer’s The Contractor should be required reading for all those who believe the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal tell us what we need to know about how things happen in the political realm.
–V.N. Alexander, author of Locus Amœnus, forthcoming (also from Permanent) in 2015.