In “Nothing Lasts,” Stephen Schryer considers Tom LeClair’s Passing On and The Liquidators as paired novels, one immersing the reader in the maelstrom of the social and economic systems that shape contemporary life, the other shielding the reader from those systems. Unlike the massive novels from the seventies that fascinated LeClair the critic, Schryer finds the novelist a “literary miniaturist,” seeking “concise synecdoches for the larger systems” his books evoke.
Tom LeClair’s Passing On culminates in a terrifying scene that comes as close as anything in recent fiction to evoking hell. The place is Alang, India, a ship’s graveyard where boats from around the world come to be scrapped. Along the beach, hundreds of dead ships have run aground, surrounded by thousands of Indian workers who salvage them for parts. The parts are endlessly recycled to feed India’s hungry economy. The workers, however, are expendable:
The men come here from the poorest regions of India. They send money home to their families, and often never return. They work themselves to death in the toxic sludge of asbestos, dioxins, and PCBs released from these old ships. Or they die suddenly in the accidents that happen every day. And when they die, they leave nothing behind. They are cremated on the beach. Their ashes dissolve in the sludge the other workers wade around in every day. (155)
Almost as horrible as the scene itself is the reaction of one of LeClair’s Western tourists, for whom Alang is the last stop in a “no hope” tour for the terminally ill. “This is really wonderful,” she exclaims to her guide. “Where will you take me next?” (158). Her reaction exemplifies the Western consumer’s implicit response to the “creative destruction” of third world labor; she enthusiastically spurs it on in her endless search for distraction.
The incident encapsulates the central concern of Tom LeClair’s two most recent fictions: Passing On and The Liquidators. In these works, LeClair juxtaposes human finitude with the endless extension of man-made economic and social systems. He shows how the terms we use to make sense of the former have eroded given the proliferation of the latter. In approaching these themes, LeClair carries with him some heavy baggage. His first two books, In the Loop and The Art of Excess, were studies of Don DeLillo and the postmodern systems novel, and his subsequent novels often retread motifs and themes from this tradition; indeed, his emphasis upon systems that escape human agency and comprehension precisely mirrors the central obsession of writers like Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and William Gaddis. What is striking about LeClair’s novels, however, is the way that they often work against the aesthetic of the post-World War II writers he describes in his criticism. Unlike most systems writers, LeClair does not attempt to create an “art of excess,” writing massive novels that “take full advantage of the possibilities of their technology (the book) and medium (language) to represent large cultural and often global wholes” (The Art of Excess 2). Instead, LeClair has become a literary miniaturist, one who writes slender, apparently unassuming novels that try to discover concise synecdoches for the larger systems they evoke.
I. Passing On
Of the two books, in spite of its tour-de-force ending, Passing On is less satisfying, in part because its central synecdoche seems less compelling than the one that LeClair constructs in The Liquidators. In addition, the novel recapitulates some of the themes from Don DeLillo’s White Noise - i.e., its focus on a middle-aged male protagonist, obsessed with his own mortality, living in a suburban setting. These echoes are no doubt deliberate, since Passing Off, the novel to which Passing On is a sequel, evokes DeLillo’s The Names with its Greek setting and concern with international terrorism. Nevertheless the effect is that Passing On, like Passing Off, occasionally reads like DeLillo light.
The novel focuses on Terminal Tours, a family-owned company that offers tours for terminally ill adults. Its owner is Michael Keever, a former basketball player, now retired due to a shattered hip. Keever was also the protagonist of Passing Off, in which he saved Athens, Greece from eco-terrorist attack. Perhaps highlighting the fact that Passing On abandons the thriller conventions that dominated the earlier novel, he turns Passing Off into the mostly-fictional creation of Keever’s literary wife, Ann. In the present, Keever is trying to come to terms with his degeneration from sports hero into physically handicapped suburban dad. Driving around in his company van, a “tomb on tires” (11), he feels like he has joined the living dead. Indeed, with his artificial hip, a steel rod hammered into his femur, he is already partially inanimate. This liminal status makes him an appropriate guide for the pilgrims he ferries throughout America and Europe.
Much of the novel unfolds as a series of vignettes about these pilgrims, who try to confront or evade their mortality in a world that no longer offers certainty or fixed rituals for the dying. They take the tours for a variety of reasons - some to relive old memories, some to fulfill neglected ambitions, some to settle scores. Together, these vignettes form a contemporary “book of the dead” - an exploration of how various social types approach their impending demise. In each case, Keever acts as an agnostic sounding board, a neutral listener for whom the pilgrims can articulate their thoughts about mortality. Privately, he makes sense of the pilgrims’ experiences via basketball - his own, makeshift secular faith. “I guess I’m an agent, and I like to think of pilgrims as players,” he reflects. “The clock is winding down, the pressure is on, their minds light up like the web site, their bodies find new strength, they make their move, take their shot or make their pass. Before the buzzer” (20). Meanwhile, Keever is trying to come to terms with the ways in which his own life has been touched and transformed by death. When Keever was young, his mother gassed herself in the family automobile. His father died several years later, slipping on black ice and driving into the river near his home. These events destroyed Keever’s Catholic faith, and his present-day automobile journeys with the dying might be efforts to master this traumatic past.
Things take a turn for the worse when two of Keever’s tours end in his pilgrims’ deaths. In the first, Keever agrees to drive Rudy, a teenaged boy who recently lost his legs to a drunk driver, to a game by the Cleveland Cavaliers. It is not supposed to be a terminal tour; the boy is his daughter’s friend and is very much healthy. However, it becomes one when Rudy commits suicide shortly thereafter. Keever blames himself. On the return trip, Rudy had pressed Keever to articulate his thoughts on the after-life. “I feel there’s no round trip,” Keever lied, “no final destination, just journey after journey after journey, a new one replacing the old ones” (80) - a mantra that sums up the novel’s episodic structure. In the second tour, Keever’s elderly patient has a heart attack in the Lourdes grotto, subjecting Keever to a hefty lawsuit by the bereaved family. At this point, Keever realizes that his company is not driven by altruistic motives, by a desire to facilitate the pilgrims’ last performance before the final buzzer. Rather, it takes advantage of and perpetuates their desperate last illusions. “Terminal Tours was a mistake,” he reflects. “Maybe even a sin…The pilgrims were the dumb athletes. I was the agent trying to profit from their bodies” (106).
He agrees to carry out one final tour for his physiotherapist, Alice, the woman who taught him how to walk again after his accident, who has now been diagnosed with kidney cancer. Unlike the other tours, this one will not try to distract Alice from death. Rather, it will tear away the illusions of the dying. It will be a “no hope” tour of world-famous mausoleums, which will prepare Alice for her imminent demise. It is at this point that the novel kicks into high-conceptual mode. The “no hope” tour explores different cultural attitudes toward death, taking the pilgrims from Halicarnassus, to the Valley of the Kings, to the Taj Mahal, and finally to Alang, where the novel concludes. Their visit to the Taj Mahal, in particular, articulates the basic opposition that organizes most of LeClair’s meditations on mortality. The Muslim mausoleum is the ultimate attempt to negate death by creating a lasting, physical monument in its place. Its message, Alice comments, is that “death doesn’t exist” (138). Afterwards, the pilgrims cross the Yamuna River to view the palace from behind. There, they see the ashy remains of the Hindus’ contrasting death rituals. “Dead people are not clean,” their guide explains, gesturing toward the Muslim palace. “They must be burned and put in the river” (141). The alternative to building physical monuments to the dead is to destroy them utterly, leaving no trace behind. The ship graveyard at Alang is the horrifying, contemporary synthesis of these two approaches to death - the obliteration of human life in the service of industrial monuments that no longer memorialize anything except for the capitalist system itself.
These final pages, by far the most impressive in the novel, highlight Passing On’s inherent limitation - namely, the fact that the novel only offers its readers brief glimpses of the worldwide, man-made systems that suddenly reveal themselves to Keever at Alang. For LeClair, in In the Loop and The Art of Excess, the point of the “systems” novel is to reveal our imbrication in such broader systems. In spite of his focus on postmodern fiction, LeClair thus situated his critical perspective and eventual novelistic aesthetic within a tradition of critical realism stretching back to Georg Lukács. Whatever metafictional games or linguistic play the author engages in, the purpose of the systems novel is to enable the reader to connect his or her personal problems to world-historical economic, ecological and social processes. However, for much of Passing On, Terminal Tours seems to close off, rather than enable this perspective. This is, after all, a novel about a series of relatively privileged middle-class Americans struggling to come to terms with the most private of all experiences: their own mortality. Moreover, like White Noise, the novel gestures toward the most inward looking of all American fictional genres: the suburban novel. As readers of Passing On, we are comfortably immured in this genre until the final pages. Even then, the entire “no hope” tour folds back into the suburban narrative whose limitations it reveals; among other things, the tour functions, for Keever, as a flight from domestic responsibilities and catalyst for the potential dissolution of his marriage with Ann.
To be fair, LeClair incorporates a self-reflexive commentary on this act of self-enclosure throughout his text. Early in the narrative, Ann describes Keever as a homunculus. “Since your operation,” she explains, “you crouch inside yourself, like you’re waiting to become someone else” (21). The metaphor evokes Keever’s sense of disconnection from the world after his operation. However, it also evokes the text’s disconnection from the broader systems it gestures toward. This reflection is consolidated by the fact that Keever is ostensibly the novel’s author. As we learn in the mock commercial website that LeClair established as an accompaniment to the book, Keever publishes Passing On as a promotional vehicle for his company, which he restarts after Alice’s tour. In other words, Passing On is a commercial document whose private confessions are oriented toward expanding Keever’s franchise. Its purpose is to circulate within the systems it gestures toward, without necessarily offering Keever’s customers a more complete knowledge of them. Indeed, LeClair’s website pretends to block off the moment of reflection that nevertheless occurs with Keever’s visit to Alang. As part of a series of supplemental stories, the site offers a happy ending in which Alice’s cancer goes into remission and Keever reconciles with his wife. As persistent readers discover, if they personally e-mail Michael Keever for a further installment of Alice’s story, this happy ending is in fact a lie, part of the “bullshit talk” out of which Keever constructs his website. Alice’s cancer metastasizes into her spine, and Keever comes to hate the Terminal Tours that he seems condemned to carry “on and on and on.”
II. The Liquidators
In contrast, in The Liquidators, the homunculus breaks free. In this novel, LeClair convincingly immerses his readers in the world of retail liquidation - an enterprise whose participants cannot shield themselves from the broader economic and social systems within which they are enmeshed. In so doing, LeClair fulfills the critical realist project gestured toward in Passing On. He also crafts a worthy addition to the tradition of American business fiction that includes William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and William Gaddis’s JR. In particular, LeClair dedicates his novel to Stanley Elkin, whose 1976 novel, The Franchiser, captured the grim mood of the mid-1970s recession much as LeClair captures the deflated energies of the post-.com years.
The novel begins where Passing On ends - with a vision of the massive accumulation of consumer detritus within industrial civilizations. In this case, the vision seems more benign: a vast coliseum filled with bargain goods: “bathroom tissue stacked next to touch-up guns, Ninja Turtle backpacks spilling into Hocking microwave cookware, layers of industrial tarps across from stands of beer-logo pool cues” (4). These objects are collected and sold by Tom Bond, who travels the country with a fleet of trucks, selling products purchased from bankrupt businesses for discount prices. His company is a testament to the fact that in business, “everything fails”: “Retail and wholesale, manufacturing and service, ingenious start-ups and old-line standards, the narrow-niched and the broad-based, the local and the international, businesses, companies, firms, conglomerates, they all fail” (1). In the process, jobs are lost, lives ruined, and the ecosystem disrupted - all integral features of capitalism’s ongoing creative destruction (the broader meaning of the liquidation referenced in LeClair’s title). Bond’s company, Midwest Liquidators, exists in order to profit from and facilitate this built-in destructiveness; its Heraclitean motto is “nothing lasts.”
Bond himself, however, views his company idealistically and offers frequent paeans to its virtues. “You too are giving aid,” the opening chapter intones in the voice of one of Bond’s advertisements, “not full-fledged salvation of distressed businesses but the dignity-saving payment of some outstanding debts. Like us and with us, you’re transforming total failure into partial success, participating in our fractional philanthropy and decimal deliverance” (9). Bond sees the company as enabling a sense of lost community characteristic of an older, small-town America: “Women and men in middle age,” he reflects, “see our stock and remember small-town ‘sidewalk sales,’ when bins of unsold goods - swimsuits and paints in unpopular colors - appeared outdoors in August” (33). Indeed, Midwest Liquidators conjures up an earlier, entrepreneurial era of American capitalism; the company seems quaint in comparison to the globalized behemoths responsible for much of the human misery that LeClair describes. Bond owns the company himself and deals with his employees on a first-name basis, and it remains one of the only successful enterprises based in the rust-belt city of Middletown, Ohio. He is one of the few remaining members of the old, property owning middle class long ago displaced by successive waves of modernization and expropriation. In this sense, Bond is very much like Michael Keever from Passing On; he’s another old-fashioned small businessman profiting from the physical and psychological dislocation produced by corporate capitalism.
This success, however, has come at a substantial personal cost. Bond’s life on the road drove away his wife and alienated his two children, Henry and Judith, both of whom have rejected his vision of liquidation as capitalist redemption. Henry has joined the ranks of the white-collar middle class, attempting to enter the world of electronic, corporate finance shunned by his father. Judith has renounced enterprise and commercialism altogether, becoming a ski and scuba instructor with no possessions other than those she carries in her two suitcases. Neither wants to have anything to do with Midwest Liquidators, leaving Bond without an heir. In addition, the years on the road have taken their physical toll. Bond weighs 250 pounds and is suffering bouts of amnesia that he fears are the first symptoms of the Alzheimer’s that killed his mother. In constructing this drama, LeClair loosely evokes the family triangle (Thomas, Henry and Judith Sutpen) of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. He thus envisages Bond as the archetypal class outsider who tries and fails to build a lasting family empire. In this case, the disintegration of the empire comes about when Bond, as a test of his idealism, runs a “liquidation of the liquidators” sale in several of his cities. The crowd reacts like vultures; they swoop down upon Bond’s rented coliseum to prey upon his ostensible failure much as he preyed upon the misfortune of others. Bond’s vision of his customers as an organic community is replaced by a vision of them as laissez-faire cut throats.
The rest of the novel focuses on Bond’s retirement, as he, like Michael Keever, tries to find a new direction for his life now that his guiding obsession is over. Midwest Liquidators had been, in part, a monument to his father - a plumber turned auctioneer who died while he and Bond were lifting a heavy cabinet into their moving truck. Bond blamed himself for the accident and expanded the family business in an effort to expatiate his father’s death. As Bond learns after his retirement, his father had in fact been dying throughout his life from poisoning acquired from years of working with lead pipes. This poisoning destroyed his family life, making him taciturn and withdrawn, inaccessible to his wife and children. Reflecting on his father’s fate and the fate of other workers like him, Bond starts to agree with Judith’s critique of Midwest Liquidators, that it facilitates the “over-produce, over-sell economy that depletes resources and pollutes the environment” (78). He decides to transform himself from a high priest of consumerism into a prophet of capitalist doom. He plans a gigantic “Museum of Lead” dedicated to revealing the debilitating effects of lead poisoning. Located on the site of his old warehouse, this museum will be epic in scope, dramatizing the argument that lead has at once enabled and destroyed Western civilization since the Ancient Greeks. It will offer an alternative response to the capitalist dictum that “nothing lasts”; the museum will dramatize the fact that the devastating material consequences of capitalism survive, even if individual enterprises do not. It will also function as an alternative monument to Bond’s father - a permanent memorial akin to the Taj Mahal.
In the end, this project also fails. Bond’s children denounce his museum as a financial folly and colossal act of egotism, and he flees Middletown in his Winnebago. For the last thirty or so pages, The Liquidators morphs into an episodic road novel, as Bond travels the back roads of Kentucky and Indiana and witnesses the impoverished communities ruined by capitalism’s liquidating effects. This anticlimactic conclusion appropriately mimics the logic of liquidation that LeClair explores throughout the novel; the novel liquidates itself, successively undoing its various plot contrivances. This ending suggests that Bond, in spite of his various epiphanies, imagines no real alternative to the runaway processes that have shaped his life. Indeed, Bond perversely finds hope in the liquidated communities he visits, whose residents, in spite of their setbacks, are still feverishly engaged in entrepreneurial stratagems to regain their economic footing. The novel finally offers a qualified optimism - in spite of the fact that everything fails in modern society, something remains - the human capacity for surprise, for doing the unexpected. Human beings can always start again, even after their most devastating failures.
The Liquidators occasionally stumbles. The novel’s use of Absalom, Absalom!, in particular, does not quite work, especially when LeClair tries to crow-bar some of Faulkner’s racial themes into the narrative. For instance, Bond’s well-paid truck drivers are mostly black, which establishes a not-so convincing parallel between Midwest Liquidators and Sutpen’s plantation. Bond himself is occasionally mistaken for an African-American, which evokes the crisis of identity surrounding Sutpen’s similarly named mulatto son: Charles Bon. Finally, Bond’s ex-wife briefly echoes Faulkner’s racial essentialism, when she comments on blacks and whites’ respective cultural legacies of failure: “Your blacks inherited their skin color and a century of domination and two centuries of slavery. No wonder they want to ride around the country in large trucks. We didn’t get the skin. We inherited books instead” (107). These allusions gesture toward the idea that the victims of capitalism’s liquidating effects are disproportionately men and women of color. But they don’t really do justice to this idea.
However, enough of The Liquidators works to override these flaws. LeClair meticulously recreates the day-to-day texture of retail liquidation, a carnie-like community with its own lingo and culture. At the same time, he deftly moves between private and public worlds, between Bond’s business enterprise and shattered family life. In so doing, LeClair comes closest to accomplishing the critical realist project that has motivated his entire body of criticism and fiction. He takes what seems to be an obscure, antiquated sector of the American economy and uses it to illuminate the larger systems that we inhabit. In Midwest Liquidators, in short, LeClair has discovered the perfect objective correlative for the possibilities and dysfunctions of late capitalism: its liberation of creative energies, destruction of human hopes and lives, and production of material junk.
LeClair, Tom. The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.
—. Passing On. New York: Greekworks.com, 2004.
—. The Liquidators. New York: Greekworks.com, 2006.
Chris Messenger has reviewed the prequal to Passing On - Passing Off - which reveals more about Keever’s career as a basketball player. Messenger delves into the relationship between LeClair’s critical interest in the systems novel and his fictional work.