by Terence Hawkins
by Beth Gilstrap
In American Neolithic, Terence Hawkins has created an entirely possible and bleak near future where the US has traded civil liberties for the illusion of safety. Hawkins’s second novel has us fully entrenched in a police state in a terrifying portrayal of what could be if we took one step further, one misstep, if one dirty bomb went missing. Satire provokes and in this way, Hawkins doesn’t disappoint. Poke the bear of religion –all religion. Poke the bear of safety. Poke the bears of authority who claim to have our best interests at heart, but who would like nothing more than to silence us if we question their intentions, their control, and their unyielding lust for power. I don’t know why there are so many bears; just go with it.
We come to this book at an interesting time in light of the show of force we’ve witnessed in Ferguson over the past few weeks. I want to know why our society is afraid of black men. I want to know why suburban police are armed to the hilt. Why we continue to witness the reduction of our rights to free press and assembly. Why we still have two Americas. How long we have travelled and how little ground we have covered. Why atrocity in this country and elsewhere continues in an unending cycle of violence. We need books like American Neolithic to continue the dialogue about race, religion, gender, and hegemony. Books like this one are meant to rattle us. But only if we read them.
In American Neolithic, Hawkins examines what it means to be human by giving voice to Blingbling, the only literate member of the sole surviving nest of Neanderthals. These cousins to Homo sapiens have managed to survive centuries by banding together, keeping their heads down, and scavenging on what humans discard. They hunt and gather as their ancestors and ours did. Their numbers are dwindling. Blingbling teaches himself to read and is sent out to find work. Due to his unnerving appearance and warbled speech, he is only able to find work as a sweeper in a barbershop. He somehow winds up as a dancing mascot for the popular hip hop group, “Think We Dum Niggazz” and is ultimately, implicated in the shooting death of a rival mogul. Though it seems Blingbling is framed, it matters less and less as the truth about his non-human DNA is exposed.
Enter Blingbling’s lawyer, Raleigh. It seems he’s meant to be sympathetic, if cynical, misogynistic, and bitter, but it is difficult to get past his voice. His dialogue definitely feels “hard-boiled” at times:
“ ‘So,’ I said. ‘you want me to represent some hip hop retard with a smoking gun in his hands, several witnesses already staking out positions in his hands, several witnesses already staking out positions in the papers, TV lawyers representing everybody else, and the Homeland cops sniffing around my feet.’…I made a business decision. I made it the same way that I make every business decision. The way that got me a second floor office off Centre Street and a secretary with woman problems that kept her down to a twenty-hour workweek.” (5)
His speech sounds like a 40s-era film; perhaps that’s just the memory of Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder’s infamous Double Indemnity rearing its head. Maybe that’s the intent. I do not like Raleigh, but no one says you have to like a character. That kind of thinking leads to the dismissal of most of the great characters in literature. Raleigh takes the case and things continue to deteriorate.
The story is broken into alternating points of view. We hear Blingbling’s tale from an “undisclosed location, two years later” where things have obviously devolved for he and Raleigh. The tender, life-affirming moments of this book belong to Bling and his nest. They value communal love family, art and beauty far more than any of the humans in this story. Unlike humans, they are not angry, possessive, or jealous. This is both gut-wrenchingly sad and entirely plausible. We bear witness to Blingbling’s continued confinement and torture. It is hard to look, but look we must. What we do to each other even (and sometimes particularly) in the modern world is unthinkable. We should all take a lesson from Blingbling:
“...I can tell you that neither in ancient bardic chants nor present-day gossip around the boombox was a harsh word ever spoken about you. It never occurred to us that whatever you visited on us, disaster or petty slight, was the product of malice. Rather, you were simply part of the natural world to which we so precariously clung, no more to be blamed than calving ice floe or murderous bear. /Given your easy hatreds you may doubt me. Nevertheless, it is true. I continue to wonder whether your habit of mutual extermination because of an offending eye shape or skin color or form of worship springs from that time in which you coexisted with us. Whether you slake your thirst for our blood, the blood of the true Other, with that you have drunk so many times from your own veins.” (179).
That said, however, the novel leaves me perplexed by its alignment of a Neanderthal with hip hop culture and its portrayal of women. I struggled with whether or not to bring it up. Yes, the nest could probably only blend in to the beautiful strange that is NYC. Yes, this is satire. Yes, it is full of dreadful, unspeakable acts, but still I am left uneasy with both these issues. After all, it was not so long ago that America regarded people of color as less than human; some still do. In addition, Raleigh’s love interest is described in predominantly sexually explicit scenarios and isn’t referred to by her name until after he has learned her truth. She is only referred to as “the Iranian.” I won’t spoil the plot, but I do wonder what the implication of this character is. I hope it is meant as ridicule –this representation is part of the assemblage of our own grotesque realities thrust back upon us. I hope Hawkins means to show how ludicrous it is that women are still discounted, distrusted, and discarded perhaps even more readily than a character who is not human. How much agency are women allowed in this book’s world? None. Both these issues beg further study, which I don’t have space for in the span of a review. Whatever the intent in this regard, I recommend reading American Neolithic, to let it push you into thinking more deeply about who we are, what we value, and what it means not only to be human, but to be alive.