Much has changed in the eighteen years since Fight Club was published. In 1996, the flourishing economy awarded President Clinton a second term; today, the unemployment rate is stagnant. Someone who bought a hardcopy edition of Fight Club may have wanted to explore the moral trappings of consumer culture, but today’s reader is considerably less curious and considerably poorer.
Enter Clyde Twitty.
On its surface, In the Course of Human Events (Soft Skull Press, April) bears more than a passing resemblance to Fight Club. Both were written by first-time authors – Mike Harvkey and Chuck Palahniuk, respectively. Both address male alienation in modern times and the fellowship to be gained from bare-knuckle fighting.
As such, the comparison behooves Human Events; after all, Fight Club was made into a feature movie with Brad Pitt and Ed Norton, and placed Palahniuk on the literary map. But the truth is that Harvkey has provided greater insight into his characters, as well as the political and cultural moment that inspires their neuroses.
Similar to Tyler Durden, the psychotic antihero of Fight Club, Clyde Twitty is a man with nothing to lose. Not so long ago, he was flush with success: a local baseball hero, he was gainfully employed at the Longarm, where he made 18 dollars an hour. Now he’s working at Walmart and driving cars to auction – part-time work that won’t pay the bills, nor will it stave off the IRS. How has Clyde sunk so low, in so little time?
Here, the answer is clear: the economy has collapsed. Clyde belongs to the present moment – as does Strasburg, Missouri, the town he calls home. Between familiar depictions of the housing bubble and corporate malfeasance, the reader is inclined to sympathize with Clyde. There’s nothing crazy about despair.
Even Clyde’s radicalization follows a familiar pattern: the stout defense of Second Amendment rights, casual substance abuse, and, yes, punching. Lots and lots of punching. In Clyde’s case, the punishment is meted out by Jay Smalls – if not at his hand, certainly at his direction. Smalls advertises himself as a martial arts expert, whereas his homespun brand of karate more accurately reflects his Nietzschean sensibilities. With each blow that Clyde receives, his resolve is weakened, until he’s rendered totally malleable.
So why do these books find an audience? What does the neutered protagonist (as he is wont to self-identify) have to impart? Tyler Durden advocates on behalf of anarchy – civil disobedience taken to its rational limits and beyond. But Clyde is a follower, not a leader. He desperately wants to reclaim his former glory, and is willing to accept Smalls’ philosophy of empowerment. He wants someone to rail against – someone to punch, bite, and kick, even if that person is himself.
When misfortune results from bad luck and not the misdeeds of another (or even one’s own poor decisions), there’s nowhere to assign the blame. Today, many Americans find themselves depressed and with diminished opportunities. Harvkey addresses this constituency – he sees how they live. Whereas Tyler Durden is a cartoon, Clyde Twitty is a portrait. To the extent that his behavior veers toward the extreme and the novel skews toward satire, Clyde’s message is still one of hope. It may not be the antidote to depression, but it sure beats a kick in the teeth.