FIVE YEARS in small-town Idaho taught me two things: 1) underage greasers and rednecks will always be able to buy alcohol, and 2) the highway is where they'll drink it. In light of this, the government's connection of highway funds to raising the drinking age always seemed a little sinister to me. This federal blackmail, I figured, must be a plot to accelerate human roadkills--take away stationary place to drink, then provide more highway space on which to go drinking and driving. With natural selection fading out of vogue, the government must have thought this was the perfect way to rid our nation of the stupid and dangerous. And for us innocent civilians?--pah! let us dodge.
The Last Election
By Pete Davies
Vintage Books; 233 pp.; 6.95.
This kind of caustic paranoia provides the atmosphere of Pete Davies' The Last Election, in which the government is subsidizing national death and decay. What's really frightening about Davies' 1980s 1984 is that there's no inconceivable, highly organized superplot behind the government funded oppression. His 1984 is formed merely of little pieces of filth from our own culture twisted to their most dangerous extremes.
IMAGINE THE scummiest dregs of politics and pop culture accelerating into a putrid whirlpool that covers the nation and world with junkies, trash t.v., and half-witted--but brutal--bureaucrats. The population is smothering under a technicolor cultural vomit of drugs, shoddy food, and mind-numbing music. And it's all financed with government money.
Everyone's on the dole; the less people work, the more time they'll spend vegging out and shooting up, and the less they'll notice that the government is letting the country rot.
The kids spend all their time in the government-funded Dance Barns numbing their minds on the music and the uncontrolled black market drugs. At home, the "oldies"--and the kids too wacked out even to crawl to the Barn--are watching channel 147, which plays an around the clock, brain washing mixture of snooker, music videos and government advertising. MTV may not bug you now, but just give it a couple years...
Advertising and media have become the real government; Nanny, head of the Money Party and the nation's prime minister, is a senile figurehead who can barely remember lines from her press releases. (Sound familiar?) She is carefully propped up, powdered and filmed by the advertising firms that keep the country deluged with brightly packaged misinformation. And the ad execs who push the Money Party through the elections are as mind-blown as the street junkies.
Into this spiraling degeneracy infiltrates a mysterious new government-produced drug that gradually draws the book's characters together as it kills off the population. A little more science fiction than highway funds and drinking laws--but also a lot quicker.
The characters (who have names like Wally Wasted, Grief, and Cairo Jones) variously try to aid and hinder the government dissemination of this killing drug, and the conclusion becomes a carefully staged media event which eventually escapes even the government's control.
Davies' style is rabidly visual, propelling the chaos onwards with a manic mixture of anguish and humor. A character stopping at a video store prompts this description:
Music bellowed and posters screamed..... 'Maria Pulls It Off! 'The Sickening Galactic Evil of Gargoyle the Globekiller--your guts will run and your flesh will crawl!... On monitors in the window, men boxed and played cricket, barbarians slaughtered hordes of demon invaders, outer space warriors zapped each other in fountains of gore, a caveman swung across what looked like a missile silo towards a control room in which a mad masked axeman made ready to hack up a screaming pubescent girl, and women wanked ferociously in a variety of imaginative positions.
DAVIES' UNSUBTLE attack on contemporary cultural and political degeneracy focuses around our obsession with media. He's better at portraying his paranoid vision of its future than at moralizing about it, but you get the point. Channel 147's carefully targeted druggie DJ-snooker commentators, who are aimed both to reflect and numb the population, are perfect examples of Davies's vision:
For the god squad, there was a wine-soaked vicar with a musty mix of religious and classical musics; and for the oldies, folkies, and general weirdos there was a dazed flowerchild called Tina who played sweetness, light, and obsolete acoustic instrumental stuff. Tina performed under a plastic oak tree, with a huge cask of cider beside her on the astroturf....
So if you're worried about the rise of MTV, the spread of drugs, the power of media, and Reagan's amnesia, allow yourself a purging experience by diving into Pete Davies dark and witty vision of our degenerate future. Even if it doesn't convince you to stop sucking in mind-destroying pop culture stimulants, The Last Election will keep you off the drunken highways.
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