Commonwealth, Joey Goebel’s third novel, begins as a broadly-drawn political cartoon, but it deepens into a timely meditation on families, wealth, rebellion, and, of course, politics. In 2008, amidst an endless presidential campaign that seems incapable of avoiding inconsequential drivel, no book could seem more timely.
Goebel’s hero is “Blue” Gene Mapother, one of two sons in a wealthy tobacco family. Blue Gene is a privileged, polo shirt-wearing prepster until he gets involved in a car accident that lands him, ignominiously, in the hospital and in depression. Not only does Blue Gene skip college, but he ignores his inheritance and shacks up in a trailer with his girlfriend, Cheyenne Staggs, and takes a job at Wal-Mart. When the book begins, he is selling off his childhood action figures at a flea market at the age of 27 — a mullet-sporting, tattoo-covered, monster truck-loving, Love-It-Or-Leave-It-spouting man of the people.
And that is exactly why Blue Gene’s family wants him back in the fold. Inspired by his mother’s prophetic dream, Blue Gene’s older brother runs for congress but desperately needs credibility among Commonwealth County’s blue collar voters. Soon enough, Blue Gene is happily working the crowd at a professional wrestling event and basking once again in the bosom of his family. Until, that is, he meets Jackie Stepchild, the lead singer of the punk band, Uncle Sam’s Finger. Jackie happens to share Blue Gene’s passion for professional wrestling, but her politics fall to the left — and she is more than happy to point out to Blue Gene that his family’s politics are all about taking advantage of him and other regular folks.
Goebel sets up the world of Commonwealth County with great care but antic humor. The book is written in quick, thick brush strokes — tobacco magnate Henry Mapother is a rigid, soulless stiff; candidate John Mapother is a former addict with a plastic wife; Jackie Stepchild is angry and has a foul mouth. Though not “post-modern” or surrealistic at all, the book has the plot-jammed goofiness of a Tom Robbins novel. As a political novel, Commonwealth shares Robbins’ clear if implicit sympathy for the little guy — it’s no shock to discover that the author himself used to front a Kentucky punk band called the Mullets. But his book also grows beyond the merely cute or clever as it moves toward its climax.
As Blue Gene falls for Jackie, he cools on his brother’s campaign, particularly when he learns that his family has been lying to him for very nearly his whole life. Then he discovers that his parents have mistreated the maid who raised him and so demands his inheritance, using it to fund a massive social services center that happens to double as a rock club. The election nears, the police crack down, a murderous giant wants revenge, the media reports it all, and past secrets are revealed. Amidst it all, the Mapother family starts to seem less like a string of stereotypes and more like the fairly realistic creation of a society that is uncomfortable with authentic individualism and quick to pigeonhole.
Goebel’s style is blunt but fun. He doesn’t go in for fancy sentences or breathless descriptions, but he writes dialogue and personal observations that crack and pop in mid-air. When Jackie won’t let Blue Gene avoid a hard conversation, the narrator muses: “And there she went again, trying to scratch off his surface like a lottery ticket.” In another scene, John Mapother gets frustrated with Jackie’s natural cool and notes: “What could she possibly know about life when her armpits are bone dry?”
What makes Commonwealth sing, however, is not its prose. Rather, Goebel captures the tenor of the political times by allowing his story to face up to matters of cultural division, class division, and religious motivation. Sure, there’s cynicism in the notion that a tobacco baron is peddling “family values” to blue-collar folks treated poorly by his own company, but it’s not expressed as a matter of plain deceit. Similarly, Blue Gene’s turn away from his family is not a matter of suddenly (or inexplicably) embracing the left, and Jackie is far from the clichéd NPR-listening liberal. Indeed, the book ultimately undermines most of the caricatures it initially sets up.
As a parable, Commonwealth endorses a spirit of independence over allegiance to party or candidate. What is so appealing about Blue Gene when we first meet him is his sense of freedom — he is not tethered to family wealth or material pride. His lack of pretense, however, is not romanticized as some kind of natural wisdom. Similarly, Jackie has appealing spunk, but she’s not a role model of hip values. She retains a measure of immaturity even as she grows up. Even Blue Gene’s mother turns out to be more complex and interesting than the religious harpie we first meet, yet neither does she pull some absurd about-face.
Goebel suggests that our politics are flawed, certainly, but so are we. And the best we can do — while hoping that our politics follow
— is to be as authentically ourselves as we are capable of being. That kind of independence matches the spirit of this book — fun, unique, inviting, and like few others you’ll read in 2008.