Lambda Literary Award finalist Megan Volpert invents a mix of memoir and cultural criticism to engage in roundabout reflection on how the year shaped both America and herself.
1976Publisher: Sibling Rivalry
Length: 240 pages
Author: Megan Volpert
Publication date: 2016-04
Megan Volpert opens and closes 1976 while “waiting for the Percocet to kick in”, a knowing nod to Hunter S. Thompson, the spiritual godfather of the irreverent mix of cultural critique and personal narrative that the volume comprises. A key difference is, unlike Thompson, Volpert was not herself immersed within the time she comments upon. Rather, she ruminates upon events within this odd year of American history, five years before her own birth, to answer the question, “How did I/we get here?”
Part memoir, part rumination on history, Volpert calls this a “retrospeculative” project, inventing a form to fit her function. It may seem odd for someone who wasn’t there to put so much stock into a particular time, but so many of the cultural forces that she identifies as influences upon her youth and ideological development have their beginnings here or are affected by the events of the year.
In many ways, Volpert presents 1976 as the turning point when the US begins to truly gain a deep sense that the promise of the '60s was lost. Watergate earns only passing mention, but the cloud of distrust and dis-ease that spread in its wake infects everything here. It doesn’t need to be said. In no small way, the jingoistic, inebriated patriotism of America's bicentennial year was all the more manic for being a response to Americans' collective loss of trust in government.
The presidential election and the primaries leading up to it form a dominant backdrop of 1976, a tragi-comic point of focus to which Volpert returns amidst her meanderings through a hodge-podge of the year’s other major and minor historical events and figures. The America that Volpert captures here can come across as something of a moody, self-centered adolescent, disinterested in the problems of other countries or, even, their existence.
The year 1976 saw the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention, both of which brought unimaginable horrors and bloody violence, as well as the unification of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, bold evidence that America was no longer the swaggering, unbeaten heavyweight it still imagined itself to be. But for most Americans, 1976 may as well have been a year-long, jingoistic party.
The Gerald Ford that Volpert captures here comes off a lot like Chevy Chase’s irreverent SNL portrayals of a bumbling, ineffectual president whose value rarely surpasses that of a sight gag. Volpert never lets Ford forget that he was elected to neither of the positions in which he found himself and she portrays him as disinterested in the minutia of election politics. As it is, of course, he spent most of early 1976 trying to survive assassination attempts and the rise of Ronald Reagan for his own party’s nomination, only to be upstaged by Reagan at his own victory celebration.
Volpert’s Jimmy Carter is more an opportunist, the “lust in his heart” less defined here than in his infamous Playboy interview, with implications that the plain-spoken peanut farmer facade hid a much stronger ego with a lust for power. Unlike Ford, Volpert reminds us, Carter had a fairly unified party behind him, easily fending off Mo Udall and Jerry Brown for his nomination.
Volpert is especially interested in the peripheral figures from the arts and entertainment whose influences were felt that year. She opens the book discussing Bob Dylan’s album Desire, which, released at the start of the year, would hit #1 on the Billboard album chart. She sets a tone of lost '60s idealism when she analyzes that album’s best known song, “Hurricane”, which inspired a retrial of its subject, the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whose 1966 murder conviction was widely suspected to be racially motivated. The song’s reception resulted in a retrial in 1976, but Carter was found guilty again.
On the heels of Watergate, many read this as just another sign of a system that was no longer working. The popularity of Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July and other bestsellers of the year like Ordinary People and The Amityville Horror also spotlight a growing sense of cultural malaise and distrust in traditional values.
One thing that wasn’t lost or wanting in 1976, Volpert reminds us, was rock 'n' roll. Sometimes it takes the worst of times to initiate the best in art, and she demonstrates this truism with examinations of the Ramones, Blondie, Tom Petty, and the Sex Pistols all in their time, while ruminating as well on performers like Rush, ZZ Top, and Joan Jett, who reflect the spirit of the age. What is that spirit? For Volpert, that spirit would be one of abandon, one that understands the difference between being motivated for success and selling out, one that pisses on America’s tendency towards isolationism and exceptionalism. Like the way she describes riding a motorcycle, the best artists understand how to control a great and dangerous power, giving just enough throttle to keep things invigorating, surprising, and a little scary.
This ain’t no easy zephyr blowing in from off the coast, nor ain’t it a hurricane or a roller coaster. And most of all, asshole, it bears no resemblance whatsoever to driving with the top down. If you don’t wrap your arms and legs around the engine of a speeding motorcycle, you will never have any idea what if feels like to do so. I’m doing my best here, but Jesus, some shit is just too actual to render using words. Right about the same time as “Against the Wind,” Billy Joel did “You May Be Right.” This motherfucker even rode his motorcycle in the rain. We have that in common.
The first time I did it, I was sore for three days. In the minute, I was a king. This heavy, sudden Southern downpour was peppering me from sideways like it was full of clear paint-gun pellets, and I was skidding across the slick blacktop with my jeans so soaked the water was running right off my calves down into my boots. It was getting to me, but I would not be stopped. This bike and I were beating the weather together, butting through the remarkable thickness of space-time like the flesh and steel android creature we had in fact become. It’s not only that the person melts into the bike, but the bike must also inject itself into the person.
You begin to understand the hiddenness of atmosphere. That weight begins to lay on your chest like a pet, curling up around your neck and shoulders and shifting around with you when you change gears. You grow used to it there, comfortable with the physics of it, and that’s when I began to make headspace for noticing the smell of things. There’s the rain, of course. But you can also tell which house is doing laundry, which house is baking cookies. You can tell whether that irregular lump up ahead a quarter mile is a possum or a dog, just by the smell of it. You can pick out the pine trees, night-blooming jasmine, corn fields, pig farms, fresh cement. The layers of it peel down endlessly, getting up into your nostrils and flickering out into the next scene. Motorcycling gifted me an increasingly discerning nose.
Volpert’s 1976 is highly personal and entertaining throughout. She can come across like a pissed off Sarah Vowel, to both good and ill effect. Vowell’s tendency towards light-hearted but deep engagement with her subject draws an audience in, while Volpert’s ironic detachment can run the risk of allowing a reader the emotional distance to put the book down and forget to pick it back up again. This can be a danger in this kind of project.
A long ode to Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused, which is set in 1976, becomes a bit of a slog, as does a side-by-side analysis of Tom Petty and George Harrison records released a few days from each other that year. At the same time, her mile-a-minute thinking and creative associations offer ample rewards. Volpert can blindside a reader with an uncanny ability to capture the bittersweet in life, such as when she relates the life story of a Long Island cabbie or inserts a letter to her grandfather into the narrative.
Part memoir, part cultural history, part political satire, all original, this will hopefully not be Volpert’s lone exercise in retrospeculation. She’s onto something, here.