Review: Imagining a power takeover by a right-wing cabal
“The Unfolding,” by A.M. Homes (Viking)
If you ever wondered who was behind the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, pick up a copy of A.M. Homes’ new novel, “The Unfolding.” The book, Homes’ 13th and her first novel in a decade, imagines what might have happened if a powerful cabal of wealthy, white, Republican men, horrified by the thought of a Black man in the White House, conspired to undo the 2008 election of Barack Obama and restore America to their nostalgic view of the way things used to be. It is a strange, scary, often very funny mashup of political thriller and family melodrama, although at nearly 400 pages, it drags a little at the end.
The ringleader, coyly referred to throughout as the Big Guy, is a 1 percenter with a ranch in Wyoming, a second home in Palm Springs, California, and enough political juice to fly his family to Phoenix to watch the returns at the same hotel as the McCains. The crew he assembles to carry out his plot includes an assortment of malcontents and eccentrics seemingly ripped from the headlines, including a retired military man reminiscent of the loony general in “Dr. Strangelove,” who orders a nuclear attack on the Soviets to defend his “precious bodily fluids” against a Communist plot to fluoridate the water.
Meanwhile, all is not well at home. The Big Guy’s wife, Charlotte, an update of Tom Wolfe’s social X-ray, is an alcoholic with a horror of being fat who winds up at the Betty Ford Center after a suicide attempt. Then there is Meghan, their indulged only child, who keeps a horse at her exclusive Virginia boarding school and idolizes her dad but begins to question his judgment and her privileged upbringing after a long-buried family secret is revealed.
Homes, a fluid writer and brilliant thinker utterly besotted with American politics and history, deftly weaves actual historical facts and personalities into the fictional fabric of the novel. Unfortunately, the political story overshadows the personal one, and many of the characters, including Meghan and Charlotte, never truly come to life on the page.
In an interview over the summer, Homes joked that she was glad the book came out after the Jan. 6, 2001, attack on the Capitol, otherwise, she’d be in “big trouble.” After reading it, you can see why. Though she started writing it well before the 2016 election and finished it before the insurrection, it practically reads like a road map of events we witnessed before our very eyes.