Loose Change


The cover of Great Expectations

THE NOSTALGIA AMONG LIBERALS for the Obama presidency has lately crested such that it’s a surprise that proposals to overturn the 22nd Amendment haven’t gained traction, even in the fantasy realm of non-feasibility where a lot of American political thinking occurs. Given the centrist fetish for norms and process, a restoration of Barack Obama would be beyond the pale. Let him podcast, produce content for Netflix, and issue biannual lists of his middlebrow fiction faves. Still, there are believers in the restoration of another Obama, both on the paranoid fringe and in the dismayed middle. Lately my primary source of oral political commentary has been the Stephen A. Smith Show, a YouTube broadcast by the ESPN host and longtime sports journalist. In February Smith and guest Charles Barkley speculated on potential Democratic replacements for Joe Biden, who is very old. (Or as Smith put it: “It’s not that you’re old, it’s that you look it. You clearly have lost a step, and we can see it.”) Barkley, surprisingly bullish on flailing Republican challenger Nikki Haley despite her recent comments that the United States “has never been a racist country,” favored California Governor Gavin Newsom “for the simple fact that he’s been in politics and ran a big state before,” but Smith cast his wish for Michelle Obama. “I think Michelle Obama could beat Trump,” he said. “I don’t think Gavin Newsom could beat Trump.” Indeed, the odd thing about the Democratic Party since Obama is that it hasn’t furnished any politicians born after 1950 and not named Obama who even seem capable of winning national elections at the top of the ticket. Sportscasters, who make their reputations on betting advice, are realists on this subject—cynics, you might say. Yet any regular observer of athletes, no matter how cynical, knows that miracles do happen and sometimes the underdog wins.

One of the things that always bugged me about Obama—aside from his extension of his predecessor’s neoconservative foreign policy, the bonanza for private health insurers in Obamacare, the supine orientation toward financial institutions, and so on—was his hostility toward cynics. In his usage, the word tended to designate anyone opposed to him, his policies, or hope itself. He generally meant Republican naysayers (right-wingers took notice: the Cato Institute issued an item on Obama’s “War on Cynicism”), but also disaffected millennials from among his original core of supporters, the recently hope-deficient. “Cynicism often passes for wisdom,” Obama would say. Some of these “cynics” were moving not to the right but toward a less pliant idealism, one that would fuel the left protest movements of the past decade and a half. And after all, Obama himself, like any politician, was clearly a cynic too. How else to understand his ironic boast, “Turns out I’m really good at killing people”?

David Hammond, the narrator of Vinson Cunningham’s not quite ironically titled first novel Great Expectations, isn’t exactly a cynic, but he is possessed of a pessimism beyond his years. Twenty-two at the novel’s start, a college dropout and single father of a toddler daughter, he’s recruited as a staffer for a senator’s underdog presidential campaign in 2007. The name Obama does not occur in the book. The words “cynic” and “cynical” appear once each. The campaign’s “more cynical activities” occur in big cities, where the money is raked in from rich dinner guests (called “twenty-three hundreds” for their maximum donations), as opposed to the evangelical efforts pursued in the provinces of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina in advance of primary elections. The one man in the novel called a “cynic” is a guest at a dinner with the campaign manager (David Axelrod, one presumes, introduced anonymously, as are a rapper and singer who seem to be Jay-Z and Beyoncé Knowles). He expresses skepticism when someone says the candidate’s “high-class chin,” “the accident of his black skin,” and “his class camouflage” make his “ivory tower comportment” “exotic,” and the “mixture . . . God, who knows, but I think on his best days it works.” The dinner guest “ginning up a suspense only a cynic can muster in his audience,” says, “We’ll see.” Behind the curtain of uplifting slogans, cynicism turns out to be both the source of political power (that is, money) and the zone of bracing skepticism.

Obama’s class camouflage did work for two elections and eight years, and the narrative frame of Great Expectations abides mostly by the familiar history of the 2008 campaign: aside from one plot twist involving a few strictly fictional characters, there’s little counterfactual material in the book. Cunningham was a staffer on the Obama campaign and in the White House; he is now a distinguished theater critic for the New Yorker. That he has waited sixteen years to write a book drawing on his experience and chosen to write a literary novel rather than a résumé-bolstering memoir or a Beltway potboiler speaks to an idealism divorced from politics. And though the novel obviously folds in autobiographical material and David mentions several times a vague ambition to become a writer, I wouldn’t call it autofiction in the way the term has been applied to Karl Ove Knausgaard, who framed My Struggle as an act of confession, or to Ben Lerner, who draws attention to his similarities with his alter egos even as their stories deviate from his own biography. Cunningham is up to something more old-fashioned. David’s status as a youthful observer of events and people larger than life (and larger, it seems to him, than his own life) makes him something like Nick Carraway, though the novel mostly steers clear of tragedy, even if some of its characters face public disgrace. Despite the title (which could be applied to the campaign, to David himself, and to his daughter), Great Expectations isn’t particularly Dickensian: though there’s some suspense its plot isn’t full of cliff-hangers or twists, and though some of its characters are recognizable types, they’re hardly just types.

Barack and Michelle Obama in one of their final campaign stops before the Iowa Caucuses, January 7th, 2008. Photo: Wikicommons/Luke Vargas.
Barack and Michelle Obama in one of their final campaign stops before the Iowa Caucuses, January 7th, 2008. Photo: Wikicommons/Luke Vargas.

Cunningham’s novel partakes of three modes—the political, the personal, and the critical—and some of its most fascinating moments occur at the intersections. In political mode, Cunningham is neither particularly dishy nor exactly revelatory, but at his best he is sharp and cynical (in the good way). David is initially drafted to the campaign by an acquaintance from his earlier, brighter days as a high school star at the fancy Horace Mann School. Beverly Whitlock, a member of the board of Horace Mann—where, David says, “people still vaguely remembered and liked me”—has become a business success, founder of “one of the first black-owned investment banks,” and appeared on the cover of the magazine Black Enterprise. She first hires David to tutor her son, then informs him that the nascent campaign of the senator from Illinois (“I’ve been a supporter since he ran for state senator, right?”) asked her if she knew “anybody young and competent. (The thought that, by asking Beverly, they had also been implicitly seeking somebody black swung athletically through my mind.)” The anxiety within the campaign, and tacitly between David and Beverly, about just how black the campaign of the first African American president is lingers throughout the novel. At one campaign stop Peter Yarrow—of Peter, Paul and Mary—meets David, who, as a fan of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” is awestruck, and says: 

“You work for the campaign?” he asked. I nodded yes, starstruck for the first time in more than a year. Yarrow looked me in the eyes, quiveringly sincere, and made a sighing sound. Then, as if compelled by an outside force, he quickly grabbed my neck and pulled me close to him, settling into a harrowingly static full-body hug.

“Oh God,” he said. “Finally, a person of color!”

When I couldn’t find words for a response, he kept going.

“You know, I’ve been back and forth across the country for this campaign”—all over this land, I thought—“and you’d be absolutely shocked by the demographics of the staff. . . . ”

But white anxiety about the candidate’s and the campaign’s authenticity is a side note to the project’s larger implications. Beverly, as the novel’s avatar of the rising African American elite class, expresses these expectations succinctly:

“You know,” she said once, not long before I left for California, “everybody talks about how he’ll change race in America. Erase it or whatever. By this they mean he’ll change white people, which, if it happened, would be amazing enough. But nobody mentions the better thing, Dave. How he could absolutely, all at once, with one big stroke, end black politics forever. A ‘special interest group’ is a group in which nobody’s really interested. That shit’s over. All these stupid debates I listened to as a kid, going nowhere. Assimilation against separatism. Markets or collectives. Malcolm, Martin. Du Bois, Booker T. All these fucking men, first of all, and their precious ideologies. When the real thing is: How about you get some power and then use it?”

These are the hopes of a woman who can already think of herself as a player in the realm of big finance and national politics. But Beverly’s ambitions for power will also draw her into corrupt transactions, though the campaign can quietly wash these infractions off its hands. One of the historical coincidences of the Obama candidacy was that it occurred when maximum donations from the wealthy, a necessary motor to get the effort off the ground, were soon dwarfed by small donations from regular voters, the cynical yielding to the evangelical.

The aspirations of David and others he meets on the campaign’s lower rungs have a less ruthlessly transactional valence. After a stint working as a fundraising assistant in New York City, where he lives in Morningside Heights with his mother and shares custody of his daughter with her mother (called only “the dancer”), David goes to New Hampshire in advance of its primary. Among the other young staffers there is Regina, and they have a brief and sweet romance. The first time they get together, David tells her of his daughter, “the facts of dematriculation, ‘co-parenting,’ tenuous employment.” Her silent and tender response indicates that she “understood herself to be the recipient of some grave trust” even though “nothing I told her was secret.” There is a paragraph break, and then Cunningham writes: “Her confession was that she’d like someday to be mayor of San Francisco.” As in the encounter with Yarrow, here is an example of Cunningham’s subtle way with comedy. Of course, the hinterlands were canvassed by young careerists with their own grandiose political dreams that they hardly dared speak of. Regina, the daughter of a black American woman and a largely absent Ghanaian father in California, has her own childhood traumas to get over and her own reasons for wanting to change the world. Most novels about young people are written by young people and tend to rely on comic exaggeration, which tyro novelists lean on to cover for their lack of experience. Coming to the art form in middle age, Cunningham doesn’t need that crutch. His humor is hard-earned and dry.

Since David is only an accidental worker in the realm of politics, his mind is often on other things. There are many passages where his narration seems to fuse with Cunningham the critic, and we read pages on a painting by Renoir on the wall of a rich donor’s apartment; found photographs sold by a man at a flea market in Los Angeles; a basketball game playing on a television at a bar in New Hampshire. These digressive passages are about real-life things (like similar digressions on Cornel West and Jeremiah Wright), and sent this reader googling for them. Unable to track down the Renoir and at a loss about the found photos, I wished that Cunningham had availed himself of W. G. Sebald’s technique of including images among the text. The basketball game, however, was easy to find, a December 20, 2007, game between the Detroit Pistons and the Boston Celtics. The game prompts a conversation at the bar between David, Regina, and a Haitian cook called Prince. David is a fan of the Celtics star Paul Pierce, who “looked like he could’ve played back in the seventies or eighties, when even the best players never worked out over the summer and, during the season, rode charter buses and smoked cigarettes.” Prince prefers Ray Allen, lean and sleek and notorious for the practice ethic that made him the greatest long-range shooter of his era. (Regina, being a Lakers fan, hates them both and prefers Kobe Bryant.) Prince compares Allen to Obama, whose story about himself involved a transformation: “Have you seen the pictures of him as a kid? Bit pudgy—looks like I used to. He talks all the time about how he was lazy in school too. How he’s this skinny workaholic who went to Harvard or wherever. He’s a model of hard work. He did fucking coke, and now he’s . . . this.”

The idea connects to a strain of religious thinking David engages in throughout the book. David was raised in the Pentecostal Church, and his first impressions of the senator remind him of a pastor from his childhood: “We believed in predestination, he said, not in destiny . . . your life—and this was freedom—was a gesture minutely choreographed by God. To seek salvation required free will, but the one who had planted, and could count, the hairs on your head had also engineered your mechanisms of choice.” Was Obama’s appearance on the scene as a figure of national racial redemption somehow divinely ordained, or a matter of brutal politics and historical circumstance? Are the problems of David’s life—fatherhood, dropping out, the death of his father during his childhood—strokes of bad luck or part of a larger system of blessings? I would normally be inclined to a materialist view of these questions, but Cunningham’s novel makes them impossible not to consider. David himself, watching the candidate declare victory in Chicago in the novel’s last pages, lands in a place of ambivalence: “He was a moving statue, made to stand in a great square and eke out noise. He mattered and didn’t, just as my own history did and didn’t.” When he raises his phone to photograph the president-elect, he does so “unprayerfully.” It’s the gesture of a disappointed young man with a walk-on part in an episode of history that has both restored his idealism and hardened his cynicism.

Christian Lorentzen is a writer splitting his time between New York and Albania.