Book Review

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

powerful, tho rushed, 1930s novel about fascism in the USA

I first heard of this novel a few years ago, during the protracted – and successful – presidential campaign of Donald J Trump. Having now read it, I understand exactly why all the people who had, back then, kept bringing it up.

Sinclair Lewis was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (though this had happened a few years before It Can’t Happen Here was published) and he wrote this piece of [deadpan satire/] political fiction in 1935. In this novel, he imagines what would happen if a fascist leader were successfully installed as President of America. He writes it bluntly, believably, and a bit too familiarly….

Lewis’ novel reentered the zeitgeist in 2014/2015 for a lot of reasons, and many of those are tied to the character of the imagined dictator himself. Buzz Windrip (what an American name!) is a gaudy, confusingly-engaging, attention-loving businessman turned politician who used empty promises, bullshit rhetoric and overt racism to seduce sufficient masses of America to vote for a president who promised “change” and prosperity then delivered neither, though somehow made bankers and industrialists happier and comfier and extra-hyper-rich.

Some thoughts:

  • It sounds familiar because it is familiar. The ways in which Lewis imagines extreme, fascist opinions arriving into popular American thought and becoming election-winning ideas is exactly how these same rancid opinions did reappear earlier this decade.
  • Lewis describes the same hypocritical alliances between popular Christian preachers and deeply-corrupt political figures whose personal lives would ordinarily receive their condemnation.
  • Lewis describes the ever-diminishing inner circle of incompetents, the doubling down on misconduct and the denial of behaviour that is considered criminal and/or immoral.
  • There are the concentration camps, the racist violence, the funnelling of wealth to the wealthy and the continuous misinformation and attempts at labelling accurate information as “fake”.
  • Lewis’ vision of fascist America is painful in its similarities to Trump’s America, though – to be begrudgingly fair to Trump’s administration – the violence isn’t quite as unbridled, but it’s fucking close.
  • In Lewis’ set-up and evocation of a fascist-riven USA, he creates a novel that is potent, but also flawed in many ways.
  • It Can’t Happen Here feels rushed, which it was: it was written quickly to make a political point, at which it succeeds, but what it doesn’t succeed at is structural consistency, full characterisation and, alas, not feeling like an ageing white man’s escapist fantasy.
  • The protagonist is a provincial journalist in his early sixties who has a gorgeous younger mistress and a devoted, tolerant, wife, and over the course of the novel he becomes key to the anti-fascistic resistance, though perhaps it might just be because he feels emasculated by his former handyman doing well out of fascism.
  • It is, it has to be said, alarmingly prescient, but the structural inconsistencies stack up in a frustrating way. There is a lot of unexpected jumping about of perspectives during the final few chapters, looking at the machinations of Windrip’s government from the inside, which previously had not happened. This might have fared better, literarily, if there weren’t other factors making the book feel a bit slack. Most chapters – but far from all – start with an extract from Zero Hour, the fictional Buzz Windrip’s fictional version of Mein Kampf. There aren’t enough of these for the reader to feel Windrip as a character rather than a construction, so suddenly entering into (via the close third person) his perspective feels unexpected and jarring.
  • Having the central character as a middle-aged white man has pretty clear problems, too, though perhaps it could be argued that it demonstrates the idea that repressive totalitarianism will eventually come for everyone who doesn’t do exactly what they’re told. That, though, is a message that time has emphasised repeatedly, though perhaps it hadn’t when Lewis was writing. Obviously, fascism is worse for the victims of arbitrary, prejudicial violence than it is for the “upstanding” white people who eventually get a taste of the same thing.
  • Lewis’ book is rightfully angry, but the tone of his work slips into rather crass, ribald, attempts at humour that don’t really fly, imo. The main protagonist is too virile and too brave to be believable. He’s also too old and too materially comfortable to realistically have this risk-taking response in the defence of “freedom”. As I said, it’s a rushed novel and it feels like that. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t great.

It Can’t Happen Here is a difficult read, due to its familiarity. It is emotive and engaging, tho, because it feels so powerfully believable.

The horrors are horrifying, the banalities of oppression are banal and oppressive and the reactions and responses to totalitarianism mostly ring true. I’m excluding, of course, the broad success of the horny centrist grandpa.

Uncharacteristically, in opposition to its many flaws, I’d recommend reading this. It is impressive in terms of its validity, its detail and its scope, even though it’s not a perfect version of itself. It Can’t Happen Here is so well done that it is able to feel underworked without being shit. It has many faults, and it’s still great. Low effort, high returns. Give it a go.


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