Everyone at some time must respond to their conscience. When Charlie Johnson’s inner voice leads him in new directions in Mike Palecek’s Terror Nation, Charlie finds himself truly a prisoner of conscience in Middle America.
Charlie has retired after spending 35 years as a sportswriter and sports editor in Saint Smith, Iowa. He is a prototypical resident of rural and small town America. He went to work dutifully, raised his family, belonged to the Kiwanis Club and was a Reagan Republican. Yet with his retirement, Charlie has begun pondering the state of America. He ends up writing letters to the president and the local newspaper, among others, questioning the war in Iraq and the direction of the country. His letters and comments cause his townsfolk to start looking at him askance.
With his wife having left him, relatives in Saint Smith convince Charlie to voluntarily commit himself to the Saint Smith Mental Health Institution. Yet this is little more than a pretext by which to lock Charlie up. With an ongoing yet seemingly unknown armed struggle between rebels (“The White Sox”) and government forces (“The Red Sox”), Charlie is viewed by the powers that be as a dissident and potential homegrown terrorist. When Charlie walks away from the institution, SWAT teams and federal forces come in search of and forcibly return him.
What happens to Charlie is a precursor for the rest of the country. Emulating the worst of the Soviet Union, dissidents (i.e., those who oppose the administration) are sent to mental institutions and/or disappear. Shortly after Charlie’s institutionalization, more widespread and public sweeps and detention of dissidents occur on the basis they threaten national security. The message is not only that this could happen but if it can happen in rural America, it can happen everywhere.
This is a tome that points out the personal price people can pay for expressing opinions that may run counter to much of rural and Middle America. It is also one that is heavy on class struggle and the view that many “enemies” are created to divert and control the public. Charlie says in one letter to the editor:
If there weren’t terrorists, there would be criminals, or communists, or dragons, to scare us into letting our government and the rich men who own it also run our lives and the lives of our children.
Be afraid of the Russians.
Be afraid of “criminals”: poor people trying to live or those who have tried to fight the rich.
Be afraid of “terrorists”: whatever that is, and learn to make fun of them for being not quite like the folks you have them live and die in squalor and pain.
Shoot them! There’s one now!
But do not notice us: rich white men and women.
Yet it’s not these kinds of sentiments alone that make Charlie dangerous. His writings have found play and fertile ground amongst the rebels who have taken up arms against the government. They see him as a potential voice for the nation. Thus, Charlie is a threat not only because of what he thinks but because he dares publicly express and spread his opinions.
Like Palecek’s earlier books, Terror Nation is a brassy and dauntless expression of viewpoints too often overlooked or cast aside in today’s America. Here, though, the work’s potential is damaged by the fact advancing those opinions tends to take priority over exploring the consequences of expressing them. As Palecek resides in and writes from small town Iowa, he is uniquely positioned to show what happens to someone like Charlie on a personal level.
Given Charlie’s background and prior status in the community, he is a perfect vehicle to explore the ostracism and animus suffered by those who dare voice a dissenting opinion in rural America. More time spent looking at that aspect of American society may have been a more compelling story than Charlie being institutionalized. The focus on the latter tends to reduce this to a cautionary near future tale of how an authoritarian America run by Homeland Security will reach as far as small towns in the heartland.
There are also some exasperating stylistic problems. The narrative has a tendency to wander and perhaps attempt to incorporate too many elements. The flow is also marred by a tendency to shift perspective too rapidly. One minute the reader is seeing things from Charlie’s eyes. A paragraph or two later, the action is seen from the standpoint of a third person.
These flaws keep Terror Nation from being Palecek’s best work. Still, if there is a genre of dissident literature in the United States today, Palecek remains in the advance guard.