At first it can be hard to understand why Gass dedicated so much of his career to writing in such an unbearable voice. As we learn more about Kohler, however, we find that Gass is assembling a case study with the meticulousness of a psychological profiler. We gradually discover that Kohler — who keeps a trunk of Nazi memorabilia hidden under his porch — is drawn to the Hitler era because it reveals the unspeakable truth about his own soul. As a young man, he studied in Germany, and on Kristallnacht, he was so swept up by the fury that he hurled a brick at the window of a Jewish grocery store.
After brooding over his actions, he concludes that violence is an eruption of disappointment — the attacker hurts those whom he sees as unfairly advantaged, even if it costs him everything. Kohler connects this irrational longing for revenge to the Holocaust, as well as to a distinctly American bitterness caused by “an implicit promise broken, the social contract itself,” which deprives its victims of the happiness that they had seen as an inalienable right. This theory of history reflects his own toxic envy, but the picture that emerges of Kohler himself is painfully real, and his humiliation over his own minor failures leads him to exhibit what Gass diagnosed as “a slightly hidden fascist mentality” common in the United States.
This is an immensely important theme, and Gass explores it relentlessly. His narrator’s memories begin with his bigoted father, who scorned the ideas — “free trade, for instance” — that his son learned at school, while dismissing immigrants as “parasites, scabs, seducers” and ranting against “those who let these people into the country in the first place, when there were few enough jobs.” Gass methodically depicts what he elsewhere called the “fascism of the breakfast table,” as domestic combatants “crow over every victory as if each were the conquest of a continent, grudge every defeat as if it were the most meanly contrived and ill-deserved bad luck a good sport ever suffered,” in performances that can expand outward to define an entire culture. He also devotes many pages to the small towns over which “sunsets were displayed in the deepest colors of catastrophe, the dark discordant tones of the Last Trump.”
As Kohler recalls the resentments of his father’s generation — “They were America, damn it, and Americans should come first” — he offers a word of advice to those who have been abandoned by history: “Don’t invest in a future you will never see, a future which will despise you anyway, a future which will find you useless. Pay for your own burial plot. Get the golf clubs out. Die with a tan your daughter’s thighs would envy.” This sense of betrayal, which can shade into vengefulness, leads to a radical strain of politics that Gass later described in an interview: “Fascism is a tyranny which enshrines the values of the lower middle class, even though the lower middle class doesn’t get to rule. It just gets to feel satisfied that the world is well-run. It likes symbols of authority and it likes to dress up. It likes patriotic parades.”
In the novel’s most prophetic passages, Kohler fantasizes about forming a movement called the “Party of the Disappointed People.” He draws pictures of its insignia and merchandise (including special caps) and explains: “What the other parties avoid, we shall embrace. We shall be the ones with the handshakes like the Shriners, the symbols, the slogans as if we were selling something, the shirts, the salutes and the flags.” By definition, its constituents feel disenfranchised by life, so they need powerful collaborators: “If we were to recover a bit of pride, we might be able to make ourselves into harassing gangs. So we shall make our pitch to the huddled elites, the ins who are on the outs.”