In the Course of Human Events / Mike Harvkey

Colter Ruland

Human EventsWhen I was first recommended Mike Harvkey’s In the Course of Human Events by a friend, his tagline was that it had given him nightmares. Sold. I sort of had an idea of what the novel was about: an impressionable kid, a freaky karate trainer, and right-wing extremism. What I picked up, though, turned out to go even further down its explosive, frightening rabbit hole than I’d expected.

The front cover—a bloodied fist—uses the same photograph as the 2005 edition of Fight Club, a choice that, it’s safe to assume, is a conscious one. Whereas Palahniuk was responding in the mid-90s to what he perceived as the feminization of American men, Harvkey is responding to the radicalization of men in towns the “American Dream forgot.” In the Course of Human Events taps into an all-too-real post-Recession anger, anger directed at unemployment, centralized government, taxes, gun control, immigration, LGBT rights, ZOG (Zionist Occupational Government) conspiracies, race, gender and ethnicity. The list could go on and on. With our current political discourse centering so much around extremism since Obama entered its smoldering scene, it’s a bold, polarizing, and I dare say praiseworthy step to write a social novel with ultra-conservatism as the punchline of its satire.

Independence, Strasburg, Boonville—all rural towns in Northwestern Missouri where we find Clyde Twitty wandering a landscape as neglected as his personal life. He makes $40 a week driving cars to sell at auctions, drinks an energy concoction of ‘rocket fuel,’ and occasionally dodges old high school ‘burnouts’ who still taunt him on the street. When Clyde takes a Firebird to one auction, in steps Jay Smalls—a karate black belt, with a horribly racist impression of a Japanese accent and something of a brutal streak—to give Clyde what he’s really been seeking all along: a voice. Jay offers to train Clyde at his home in Liberty Ridge. Physical training quickly becomes more psychological, as Clyde is forced to decide between his time with Jay and his time at home with his mother and paraplegic uncle. Other shady characters show up, like Jay’s cousins J.D. and Dale, who tote tattoos of swastikas and 88s. Jay’s daughter Tina is practically coerced by her father into a relationship with Clyde. Pretty soon he’s spending most of his time there at Liberty Ridge, training, reading The Turner Diaries, and becoming more and more aggressive toward competition like Dale and larger targets like “the system” he believes has abandoned him.

The first half of the novel contains some exhilarating manipulation of Clyde, who Jay believes can become an ‘uchi deshi,’ a warrior. This slow, deliberate manipulation of Clyde through Jay’s training is the novel’s strongest draw. The power of belief is so hellbent and twisted here, it leads to a number of surprising, spoiler-heavy moments. Harvkey plants the seeds, but Jay Smalls fosters them; he redirects Clyde’s internalized aggression into a sort of combatant trance state, what he calls the mai, directed toward the government. In the last third of the book, Tina poignantly tells Clyde: “‘There ain’t a single thing that’s come out of your mouth since you started training with my dad that I ain’t already heard him say.’” It’s a chilling moment. Clyde becomes a human vessel for an anger that’s not originally his own.

Other novels, movies, and music have, of course, tapped into this inner rage before. I’ve already mentioned Fight Club. Taxi Driver has practically the same plot line. Nine Inch Nails epitomizes a similar frustration with lyrics from its album The Downward Spiral: “I want to know everything / I want to be everywhere / I want to fuck everyone in the world / I want to do something that matters.” You can picture Clyde Twitty listening to something like this as he preps himself to rob a store with Dale.

Perhaps this is why the novel’s greatest strength also reveals one of its glaring flaws: Clyde’s “turn” from a malleable innocent to a diehard believer. His switch of character is brought about by external forces, like attending the WAC (World Aryan Congress), or a later incident that results (or maybe doesn’t?) in a brain trauma. Rather than making his own conscious mistakes, or associating personal experiences with pre-existing prejudices—think American History X—Clyde buys into xenophobic aggression without much subtlety. This is especially true given Harvkey’s particular attention to the bastardization of history: Jay’s incorporating karate codes of honor to aid in his white separatist struggle, Clyde’s draping a Don’t Tread on Me flag from his base-of-operations trailer and later over a bomb. They’re misusing history, replacing the gaps with heroes like the Unabomber or texts like The Turner Diaries. That alone is a scary enough observation. So when Clyde becomes Jay’s poster child for his white struggle, it feels a little less complex than it should be. But this is merely a parenthetical in an otherwise knockout debut novel.

Harvkey has created a work that’s as stylistically hyperrealistic as its topic is incendiary. The stakes are constantly getting higher, and it’s terrifying to watch as Clyde increasingly uses violence as a way to discharge his voice, his desire to be someone that matters. It has a dark charisma. The sheer ferocity of its satire keeps you reading and wondering whether Clyde really believes everything Jay is telling him, even in the face of some horrific scenes involving shootouts, car wrecks, duct taping freezer bags to people’s heads, or getting into a truck strapped with a bomb and a suicide trigger for good measure. It is indeed nightmarish. In the words of Jay Smalls: “‘You and me, Clyde-san, this is what I mean when I say superhuman...You ain’t normal now. Maybe there was a time when you was, but you ain’t no more. That time is over. We’s done with normal, me and you. We’re on to extraordinary.’”

Finding out where they're going and how they get there is reason enough to pick up this 300 page firecracker of a book. If you’re looking for someone who’s going to stick with you and give you those haunting yet intoxicating nightmares that both my friend and I ended up having, then Harvkey (or Jay Smalls) is your guy.


In the Course of Human Events
Mike Harvkey
Soft Skull Press, 2014
ISBN 9781619022942

Reviews


2015
2014
2013

Beyond and Back: Writing That Risks
Robert O'Connell


Making Americans: Children’s Literature from 1930 to 1960
Charlie Kennedy


Sunday Best: People on Sunday by Geoffrey G. O'Brien
John Gibbs


I've Always Wanted to Use Malarky in a Review: Trances of the Blast by Mary Ruefle
Cassie Duggan


The Streets of Buffalo, à la Carte: Thea Swanson’s The Curious Solitude of Anise
Charles Haddox


A Witty and Delightfully Engaging Collection: Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby
Charlie Kennedy


Spanish Author's Debut in English: End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente
Erin Berman


A Riveting Read: Emmaus by Alessandro Baricco
Erin Berman


We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter by Rachael Hanel
J. Haley Campbell


This Feeling of Empathy: Participants by Andrew Keating
Joe Ransom


Portrait of a Poet: Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine
John Gibbs


Rediscovering Levine: A Reissue of Sweet Will
John Gibbs


Meandering Toward Meaning in Michelle Herman's Stories We Tell Ourselves
Morgan Vogel Chinnock


Skin I'm In: Ariana Nadia Nash's Instructions for Preparing Your Skin
Cassie Duggan


SplitLevel Texts: A Cruel Nirvana and The Treatment of Monuments
Patrick James Dunagan


A Race to Understand a Troubled Place: Michael Lavigne's The Wanting
Alex Rieser


Lenore Zion's Wicked Smart Novel Stupid Children
J. Haley Campbell


Into the Tangled Dark: Jay Ponteri's Wedlocked
Morgan Vogel Chinnock


Stalking Wolf Haas's The Bone Man
Charlie Kennedy


A Painter's Poet: Karen Rigby's Chinoiserie
John Gibbs


Bridging the Gaps: Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra
Erin Berman


Manu Joseph's The Illicit Happiness of Other People, A Novel
Charlie Kennedy


Courttia Newland Explores London’s Social Rifts in The Gospel According to Cane
Andrew Blackman


A Sharp Debut: Jamie Sharpe's Animal Husbandry Today
John Gibbs


Susan Wheeler's Meme: A Contagious Book of Poems
Cassie Duggan


Joshua Cohen's Verbal Gymnastics: Four New Messages
Juli C. Lasselle


2012

The Grittiness and Challenge of Zadie Smith's NW
Charlie Kennedy


Minnesotan Dragons in Mindy Mejia’s The Dragon Keeper
Inge Lamboo


Pianos and Poems: Oni Buchanan's Must a Violence
John Gibbs


Verbal Tumbleweeds: Davy Rothbart's My Heart is an Idiot
Catherine Wargo Roberts


As Labyrinthine as the Streets of Moscow: Caroline Clark's Saying Yes in Russian
paul kavanagh


A Bell Ringing in a Place Thought Dead: Safe as Houses
Michelle Boise


Purple Passages and Captain Poetry’s Sucker Punch
Patrick James Dunagan


On Lecturing Poetically: Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey
John Gibbs


Travels in Puerto Rico
Charlie Kennedy


Breaking New Ground: Between Heaven and Here
Erin Berman


Invest in Stock: Norman Stock's Pickled Dreams Naked
John Gibbs


As if it Fell from the Sun: Celebrating Poetry from EtherDome
Chelsea DeRose


They, Too, Sing America: Buckley & Ott's Poets' Guide to America
John Gibbs


Renegade Documents:
Tlemcen or Places of Writing & Opera Omnia
Patrick James Dunagan


Something Out There: Catherine Chandler’s This Sweet Order
Jonathon Penny


Jennifer Miller's Daring The Year of the Gadfly
Eric D. Goodman


Coastal Poetry: Dear Oxygen and California Redemption Value
Patrick James Dunagan


The Cosmology of Transience: Kevin Opstedal's California Redemption Value
Alex Rieser


Collective Memory in Evelyn Posamentier's Poland at the Door
Trena Machado


We Have to Stop Being Fearful: Paul Kavanagh’s Iceberg
Charles Haddox


A Life's Work: Sheer Indefinite by Skip Fox
Patrick James Dunagan


Syntax as Music in Arisa White’s Hurrah’s Nest
Karen Biscopink


Alone Together: David Landrum's The Impossibility of Epithalamia
Robbi Nester


Nature, Terror and Renewal in Zilka Joseph’s What Dread
Michelle Regalado Deatrick


Meditating on Aline Soules' Meditation on Woman
Carol Smallwood


A Little Night Music: Kenneth Frost’s Night Flight
Christina Cook


The Joy of Carol Smallwood's Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity and Other Realms
Aline Soules


2011