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Bubba, the Easy Protagonist

People from New York want to explain things to me very slowly, since I must be having trouble following along. A native Southerner, I’m as dumb as a bag of hammers, right? Then again, when I meet someone from Alabama I think Dial it back, boss. This one is going to be a pinhead.

You would think because of Bill Clinton we would know that Southerners can be quite bright, if not genius – so don’t prejudge a hayseed since he may have a Harvard law degree. Clinton is a tour de force, an all-time thinker. So long as he keeps his pants on.

Clinton’s legacy is still being written, and he casts a long shadow in America, a sometimes lurid shadow. Think Banksy or bathroom stall art. In the South, Clinton remains enigmatic. He’s a liberal’s liberal in the South, though truthfully he is the father of moderation, the messiah of the Democratic Leadership Council – the Democrats’ moderate think tank that has pulled right of the Kennedy left.

He has generated his share of pages in American nonfiction writing – the books you see discussed on CSPAN2, the ones the old guys at the VFW skim through for their War Veteran Book Club meetings. But has he seeped into American fiction? And, chiefly, Southern fiction? Yes and no. Yes to the first, no to the second.

Where our forty-second president burrows his way into the fray is in mainstream literary fiction, primarily that stuff being written in the New York area – the birthplace of American literature (my apologies, Massachusetts). Specifically, it is his notorious, wayward libido that has leeched into recent New York Times bestsellers. The protagonists in male-penned novels reek of Slick Willy, the son of Little Rock who took the American zeitgeist by storm in the 1990s.

Consider Jonathan Franzen, Jess Walter and Michael Chabon, to name a few. The damaged men, heroes and lesser good guys of their novels, the protagonists who mill about in their books are all middle-aged guys who are looking to look laid. They all have manly tacks to their careers and blow away younger females at the office with their machismo and large intellects. Imagine a Bill Clinton who listened to Fall Out Boy. A Bill who rides a motorcycle or in a convertible and has a nagging wife (Hillary) or a distant, once-loving ex (hence the “damaged” types).

Now this might not be so much a Clinton archetype as it is an homage to Ian Fleming’s James Bond. It might even be a bit of both, in an effort to sexy things up. It doesn’t matter since you can feel the palpable, magnetic, sea-current pull that our beloved authors inject into the women who cross paths with these protagonists.

Perhaps in revolt against this, David Foster Wallace wrote Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. Somebody needed to. The Lewinsky-era suggestions in much of this Manhattan (give it a 100-mile radius of Farrar, Straus and Giroux) writing are strong. You know, Vader-voiced ... “the Monica is strong in this one.” This is the selfish Bill Clinton, the Elvis guy who jazz-saxed in Ray-Bans on The Arsenio Hall Show. The man who lied to a congressional committee about his tryst with Monica Lewinsky, whose shameful arrogance brought Gennifer Flowers – pre-nose job – to the stage of U.S. politics and media culture.

You have to sift through a cadre of vixens, some headstrong and some not, in these bestsellers. This is not Amy Bloom’s idea of a complex adult relationship. Even in Freedom, when you think the Hillary model may be introduced.

Liars, weak-willed, hard drinkers, flawed and yet forgiven – these are all men who are irresistible to women. And these dudes notice. They work the dance floor. They eschew all attempts by Al Gore sidekicks to tag along (as moral consciences), and they say “Hell no. You will not feel my pain.”

Here in the South, be it the New South or the old South – it depends on who you ask – Bubba has not infiltrated the prose. Nor should he. What president has ever been archetypal, protagonist-wise? Guys like Norman Mailer and Robert Penn Warren shaded works around mid-century politics, but there’s little sign that the original New England tradition writers leanded on any of the Adamses or Jefferson or Washington.

As always, Bubba is on a raft all by himself. A one of a kind if there ever was one. He is an inimitable figure pressed into a sloppy canon of modern novels. I can see the temptation: a very flawed but incandescent man seeks mate, divorces mate for younger version. It happens in life a lot but in literature it gets boring real quick.

I prefer the Macbeths, Lady and Lord, and the more intricate loves and loveless relationships found outside of our bevy of midlife crisis novels. The South still scorches with desire and glaciates with loneliness, no heed here for these plastic, myopic affairs.