Review of Marc Estrin's novel: "Skulk"

Review of Marc Estrin's Skulk

Progressive Press, P.O. Box 126, Joshua Tree, California, 2009

by Charles R. Simpson - State University of New York, Plattsburgh

Marc Estrin's Skulk is a darkly entertaining comedy of misguided if well-intentioned political fumbling. Its unlikely pair of protagonists, coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum, hatch a scheme to make a complacent America ask, "Who really bombed the Pentagon and the World Trade Center?" But wait, wasn't the question of 9/11 answered in 2004 by a the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, otherwise known as the 9/11 Commission? Didn't they analyze 2.5 million pages of documents and interview 1,200 people to conclude that a global conspiracy operating under the name "Al Qaeda" orchestrated the attacks, helped along by U.S. intelligence failures? Why would Estrin push against this juggernaut of political analysis when expert scrutiny and our own eyes--via images of the day from the broadcast networks--have established the contours of this rubble-strewn landscape? And isn't a novel a rather lightweight vehicle with which to plow back the weight of settled history? Estrin's project is ambitious.

Estrin's characters and the America in which they dwell--represented here by the flat expanse of Kansas--exist in a post-9/11 world which is reminiscent of Frank Baum's Oz. Power is hidden and people generally feel unqualified to challenge it. Estrin's protagonists, like Dorothy and her friends, set out on a journey to change all this by hauling back the curtain of illusion so that the public can see the wires of stagecraft shaping their perception of the world. American democracy is depicted as a theater, its audience spell-bound into passivity. How in this contemporary America can one pull back the curtain to reveal the stage tricks of the wizard?

While non-fiction accounts of 9/11 are accumulating--and the pile of such books may eventually rival those challenging the Warren Commission's account of the death of John F. Kennedy [1] --most approach the task as an exercise in weighing forensic evidence, Estrin takes a different tack. He asks the reader to consider why it is so difficult for Americans to treat the events of 9/11 with rational skepticism. Rather than focus on the way the media has crystallized our understandings of 9/11, as Susan Faludi did persuasively in The Terror Dream, Estrin draws us into the quest for truth through presenting empathetic characters who become obsessed with trying to raise doubts in the Heartland about the official account of these attacks.

Estrin's band of truth seekers is small, a group of three that includes a mysterious character who seems to be an agent of the government. The instigator of the quest is Professor Richard Gronsky, an historian with East Coast Jewish roots now loosely anchored at Kansas State University. Like the rest of America, his colleagues have adjusted to the official version of 9/11 by normalizing--more or less--the new security state of airport pat-downs and FBI library surveillance. Political skepticism is nowhere present in Kansas. To ignite the fires of democracy, Gronsky initiates a campaign promoting the secession of Kansas from the Union, its empire, and its war burdens. His effort is inspired by his academic specialty, the history of "bleeding Kansas", that bare-knuckles interlude following the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 when the soul of the new state was up for grabs. From the South came armed mobs seeking to make the territory safe for human chattel. Town by town, they fought to the death with small farmers from the East inspired by abolitionist passion and the vision of free land, among them John Brown. While this saga works well in his class on Kansas history, Gronsky finds it doesn't have much traction outside the campus. Tolerant of inquiry, university culture also isolates it from on-going public debate. Gronsky's vision of Kansans again taking politics into their own hands remains "academic", his "movement" a parade of one.

Into this setting of well-mannered conformity falls Teresa Lee Skulkington "of the Connecticut Skulkingtons", a sympathetic version of Ann Coulter. A product of Yale and patrician privilege, Teresa is forging a career as a right-wing diva by attacking welfare state liberalism. Armed with an erotic stage persona rather than much in the way of argument, she skewers the bourgeoisie in front of the bourgeoisie, and these middle class folk love it, resolving their nervousness by giving her a thunderous ovation. A celebrity speaker at Kansas State, she argues that there's nothing wrong with America and its empire but the hypocrisy of liberals who want the fruit of the imperial tree without the violence of pruning. To make her point, she attacks the Santa figure, central to middle class family culture, as a dangerous myth whose inevitable revelation as a fraud, leads children to conclude that their parents and by extension all adult authority are liars. While liberals might agree that Santa coats the Holy Season with a metallic state, Christmas hucksterism isn't her point. No matter. Glamour and celebrity prove more convincing than argument and the audience is enthralled, none more than Richard Gronsky. Tracking her through the wilds of a post-lecture reception, he provokes her Nietzschean will to power with the challenge of a motorcycle ride under the Kansas moonlight. One thing leads to another and they are soon bedmates on the way to being colleagues. This is an adult-rated Oz.

Skulkington finds a pretext to stay with Gronsky in the form of a book project aimed at proving Thomas Frank's attack on conservatism, What's the Matter with Kansas, has it all wrong. Kansans are not dupes of the political slight-of-hand of Karl Rove types, as Frank has it. They have their feet firmly set in their own self interests. And Skulkington will prove it. Tape recorder in hand, she sets out to capture the real voices of Kansas. Since Gronsky's effort to ignite Kansan independence is stalled--nobody cares--he's available to shepherd Skulkington around the countryside by motorcycle. The interviews turn into an anthropologic revelation to them both. Kansans are bizarre. They include a teenage girl hand-dipping "Jesus candles", what she's found to be a profitable niche in the new artisan economy. Her father, a farmer-turned-sculptor, litters the highway with randomly directed but sterile protest sculpture. Most significantly, they encounter and eventually enlist a single recruit, a mysterious actor who plays Santa in a Wichita department store. His stage is Kaufmann's, a relic of the days when department stores had multiple floors and escalators rather than being big boxes along the highway. This Santa's job has morphed into full-time employment because the management figured out he could just as easily take children on his knee as a friendly leprechaun or Indian, boosting sales all year long. Though our heroes don't draw the obvious conclusion, the true debasement of Christmas is in its reduction to a marketing ploy.

Allies for Kansas Independence or examples of down-to-earth good sense prove equally scarce. The citizenry are respectively locked in religious delusion--the candle maker--febrile protestors ignored by their neighbors--the sign maker--or dramatists whose critiques are left on theater seats like discarded programs. This last category is represented by a university troupe who present a revisionist version of Hansel and Gretel, set in a Middle Eastern slum. The children, caste out by their parents as an intolerable burden, tumble into disaster rather than salvation. In a Disney-be-damned ending that also turns Frank Baum on his head, the witch makes them her dinner by means of a symbolically resonant oven. But in post 9/11 Kansas, art no longer informs life.

Without supporters, the two adventurers descend into political solipsism, a slide lubricated by marijuana and LSD which are Estrin's replacements for Baum's poppy field of lassitude. Mistaking dramatic imagery for political leverage, they give in to what Marx famously called "infantile disorder". Terrorism beckons. Abetted by the Kaufmann Santa, a trickster that no sane political operative would trust, Gronsky and Skulkington hatch a plan to shock downtown Wichita into questioning the assumptions of the 9/11 Commission by showing that aircraft can't bring down skyscrapers. The idea is that if they can demonstrate that a plane--in this case a small Cessna stolen from the local factory--can't bring a building to its knees through impact, then it will become obvious that a commercial jet airliner would be unable to de-bone the 110 story Twin Towers, turning their myriad and massive steel columns to instant jelly. So first the plane collision at a safe moment--early Christmas morning; then the visual evidence of the still-erect building--in this case Kaufmann's Department Store, and then its collapse at free-fall speed. The third and final act was to be the appearance of Gronsky and Skulkington, having parachuted to safety in a near-by park after piloting the Cessna toward its target, would hold a press conference to reveal the trick behind the smoke and mirrors of the building implosion. That trick would be hundreds of pre-positioned explosive charges that their confederate, Santa Claus, had placed expertly in the building's structural supports. The TV anchors and the crowds on the street were then expected to draw an analogy and ask, who put the explosive charges in the World Trade Center skyscrapers?

Gronsky and Skulkington's project is, of course, crazy. As drama it resembles the normality-moving-in-small-steps to insanity that characterizes the bleak cultural critiques of Nathaniel West. Politically, the plot resembles the nihilism of the Weather Underground who in the 1960s thought that small explosives would shock America into withdrawing from Vietnam. Estrin's characters are innocents. They have to be handed every tool to pull this off--flight training, parachute practice--and all by their chameleon-like confederate, who additionally provides the plan and the explosives. Santa also re-writes the ending. Gronsky, goaded into making a heroic gesture, may well have ridden the plane to his own death--we aren't sure--while Skulkington is immediately hooded and removed from the field on which she lands before she can gather up her parachute silk, much less hold a press conference. They become two more pawns in a game they don't understand, whose dramatic impact confirms the presence of "terrorists-in-our-midst". As Orwell forecast in 1984, the ability to describe events is also the power to turn political illusion into substance.

Having depicted an America lost in a political dreamscape, Estrin seeks to shock the patient into wakefulness. To do this he must first draw the reader in with the power of his prose and the attractiveness of his characters. He succeeds. The exposition--and there is plenty of it dealing with Kansas history and the mysteries of 9/11--never sinks the narrative. The writing has descriptive gems, among them Skulkington entertaining in abbreviated attire, "Her navel [making] eye at her guest." And Estrin plays fancifully with language, surprising the reader with such terms as "adrenergic". The second dimension of success or failure involves politics. Will Skulk contribute to a popular movement to re-examine the circumstances surrounding 9/11? In trying to normalize skepticism, Estrin's is an innovative attempt.

[1] For a recent and persuasive account of the murder of John Kennedy treated as a successful effort to reshape U.S. foreign policy, see James W. Douglas, J. F. K. and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, Orbis books, 2008.

To the footnote: (James W.

To the footnote: (James W. Douglas, J. F. K. and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters) This book IS a gem, and is recommended by Daniel Ellsberg, Vincent J.Salandria, Gaeton Fonzi, Peter Dale Scott et. al.
See also

(My quibbles with the book are minor: First: I have a problem with the intercut tecnique of the narrative in chapter 6, Washington and Dallas distracting and frustrating, would prefer one chapter Washington and another Dallas and had to organize my reading accordingly (by jumping the pages). Second, less important: I am not religious and find Douglas minxing in Christianity in this history rather off topic, but it doesn't happen frequently and who else than me would care? The book is warmly recommended!)

I gave James W Douglass 13 DVDs at his Book signing in Dallas

He mentioned Barry Zwicker and David Ray Griffin whom he says he knows. Among the 13 DVDs were
"The Great Conspiracy"-Zwicker and "The Myth and the Reality"- Griffin

North Texans for 911 Truth
North Texans for 911 Truth Meetup Site

Inspired People Perspire

....for 911 Truth

13 DVDs is an Inspiration.

This is how Force Multiplication works. Same thing Paul Revere was doing many years ago......

Whether we sound the alarm via riding horseback in the cold at midnight or through digital media in a book signing, as long as that ALARM is Sounded, People will rally.

That's what it is all about.

Sooner or Later.
The CONSTITUTION is NOT going to "collapse" into pulverized dust no matter how much thermate/explosives or planes they throw at it