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American Weather

Charles McLeod

Average Review Rating Average Rating 9/10 (1 Review)
Book Details

Publisher : Harvill Secker

Published : 2011

Copyright : Charles McLeod 2011

ISBN-10 : PB 1-84655-333-4
ISBN-13 : PB 978-1-84655-333-2

Publisher's Write-Up

Meet Jim Haskin. He's forty years old. He's worth around thirty-five million. He runs his own San Francisco ad firm, American Weather. AmWe's image is green, modern and forward-looking: if your product is upcycled or hydro or vegan, they'll make you an ad. But behind the scenes, Jim manufactures ways to support the old captains of American industry; bleach, beer and guns. But all is not well: Jim's wife, Denise, has been in a coma for over a year, a state brought on by a drug Jim helped promote. A live-in nurse, a former Salvadorian gang member, helps Jim tend to her. And Haskin's only child, Connor, has been sent away to a boarding school three thousand miles away, after assaulting a student at his former high school. Orphaned at 14, Jim and his three closest friends grew up at Mr Hand's Home for Well-Behaved Boys. All have profited from the American dream.

In 2008, on the brink of the Presidential election, the quartet finds themselves short on cash and look to Jim for a solution. The scheme he devises involves a Death Row inmate, pay-per-view television, and most of America's major corporations. Everything is set for it to be his greatest achievement yet.

About the Author:
Charles McLeod's fiction has appeared in many publications. A Hoyns Fellow while at University of Virginia, he has also received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown; San Jose State University, where he was a Steinbeck Fellow; and the Jentel Artist Residency Program. He is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Illinois University. American Weather, his debut novel, will appear simultaneously with his debut collection of stories, National Treasures, published by Vintage.

'A solid debut by an author with a strong, original voice and sharp wit.'

Yorkshire Evening Post

'Channelling Bret Easton Ellis from Less than Zero to Glamorama, McLeod has produced a strident satire on the American-dream-turned-nightmare... The writing is sharp and clever...'

The Guardian
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Reader Reviews

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Review by Megan Martin (310811) Rating (9/10)

Review by Megan Martin
Rating 9/10
Satire is difficult terrain; to write a good one, a novelist must have a lot of tricks up his sleeve. Not only does satire have to be thought-provoking, rich in ideas and funny, but to really succeed, it has to achieve a kind of balance between these seemingly rogue elements. Despite its impeccable prose and philosophical brilliance, even a great book like Huxley's Brave New World disappoints me because its characters remain figureheads who represent sophisticated ideas, but never quite emerge as people. I love satire and am also wary of it, so I approached Charles McLeod's debut novel American Weather with excitement and apprehension. But I was happy to discover that in this ambitious debut, McLeod was able to create a satire of American culture that provokes reflection, outrage, and laughter - and ultimately transcends what we expect of the genre by offering complex and engaging characters.

McLeod's America is not far from our own: it's a place where identities are created by the brands we consume, where human relationships and ethics have been destroyed by capitalism and technology, loneliness and isolation. The territory the book covers in 350 pages is epic - McLeod hits the economic collapse, environmental destruction, plastic surgery, and capital punishment - and connects all of them back to centuries of corporate greed. Heavy territory; luckily the book is funny.

The book's protagonist, Jim Haskin, runs the San Francisco ad firm American Weather, abbreviated as AmWe. On its surface, Haskin and AmWe are the model of corporate social responsibility: Haskin drives a Prius and proudly sports "flip-flops made from used bicycle tires and discarded rope from docks wrecked by Katrina." His firm designs ads exclusively for companies whose "product line, and soul, body and mind are eco-friendly." Its interior is something akin to how we imagine the Googleplex, where cubicles are banned because they are found to "inhibit lively fun." AmWe's employees are the lost, spoiled, liberal-minded members of Gen Y: vegan riders of $4,000 mountain bikes, wearers of "$65 cotton t-shirts" and "alloy water bottles that cost twice that." They get into fights as they compete for etsy items, lounge in beanbags, drink organic tea and fall asleep to South Park during work hours while nestled inside a break room Haskin dubs the "DreamPod" where "it's always time for a time-out." At AmWe, there is vegan birthday cake and "Green Field Trips (work days where our collective packs into vehicles and burns gallons of gas to venture out and make our community more eco-friendly)."

McLeod's pithy descriptions of AmWe are reminiscent of the best George Saunders: laugh out loud funny and over-the-top, particularly to readers who have worked in such places. But as the book goes on, readers are taken beyond AmWe's humane exterior, into a darker, more terrifying truth. Haskin is not only a total phoney, but a downright evil one: sleeping with tennis stars while his wife lays in a coma and making under-the-table deals with America's corporate giants. Haskin perfectly exemplifies the hypocrisy of corporate social responsibility: wholly PC on the surface, but ultimately driven by greed for profits, not any genuine sense of responsibility for humanity's future.

Haskin's narration is as slick and polished as the character's own bogus image - and it's McLeod's prose that is the great and perfect treat of the book. Haskin's narration alternates between brilliant hilarity, utter self-absorption and a cruel delight in the disregard for life that is at his core.

Moving through American Weather with Haskin as your guide is frightening and jarring, like being on a plane during extreme turbulence: the reader is never on firm ground, never certain how to feel about Haskin - whether he should be laughed at, pitied, feared, or admired. This is mostly due to McLeod's huge range as a prose stylist: capable of dark humour and sophisticated social critique, but also of sincere feeling. When an electric fence Haskin has installed around his estate kills three of his neighbours' pets, he responds wickedly:

"This saddens me; pets are big business. Pets need to be bathed. Pets need to be fed. Pets need to be housed over summer vacations. Pets get in fights. Pets get hit by cars. Pets need their limbs amputated. And leashes for walking. And small rubber toys. And round granite headstones to remember them by, when direction of sojourn means meeting of maker."

McLeod's use of language is innovative and surprising - it moves from dark to beautiful to hilarious to poetic and is sometimes all of these at once. During one of Haskin's frequent, lengthy outbursts, he expresses his contempt for the fearful, depressed, dissatisfied consuming selves who need products to feel human. McLeod manages to harness a voice that is angry, poetic and emotionally disruptive at once:

"the You that I make is the new You, the now you, the You who is perfect, the You who will chew what You've been told to eat, the You of true greed, the You of acts violent, the You who feels small, the You who feels slighted, the You of divorce, the You of depression... and when You Buy Items you are a warm blue day in our Nation of nations."

Whether you enjoy inhabiting Haskin's mental space or not (the above excerpt is taken from a 6-page rant), the narration is so close that you are privy to every second of his daily existence - every opinion, every thought. The voice can be stifling: Haskin's pride in his own cruelty wears on us, but as we learn his life story through flashbacks recounting the death of his parents when he was 14, his life growing up in an orphanage, and his younger life spent with his wife and son, Haskin becomes more complex and also engaging in new ways. Is he a shell of a human being? Yes. But beneath the claustrophobic mask of the slick ad man who makes his money by exploiting Americans, Haskin has multiple, conflicting selves.

In a crucial and moving chapter at the centre of the book, just when we're certain we know Haskin (and are perhaps getting a bit tired of him even as we titter), we're allowed a brief and surprising glimpse of who he was before the advent of technology and AmWe. Here we meet a younger Haskin, someone both hopeful and sincere: he's just dropped out of college and stolen a car so that he can elope with his fiancé. The chapter is ripe with American romance, narrated in beautiful, nostalgic, longing prose describing a road trip where Haskin and his fiancé sleep in their Buick, buy beer and marvel at the American West. In some of the best prose in the book, Haskin narrates:

"We were twenty years old. We owned no cell phones. Slovenia wasn't a country. There was no euro, no PlayStation 3, no Tennessee Titans or MySpace. Honeybees buzzed in numbers unconsidered. The world was enormous, was breathtaking."

At its heart, American Weather is a tragedy - and this is why it succeeds. To me, this chapter is the crux of the novel: he, too, was once an everyday American, in love with his fiancé, wooed by the romance of the road trip, connected to the natural world. Gen X readers like myself, who grew up during the Reagan administration, saw the lightning-fast rise of digital technology, witnessed corporate takeover and scandal, and saw the market crash by the time we turned 30, are able to mourn not only Haskin's transformation, but our own and our culture's. McLeod asks us to remember a different, simpler age: when nature still occupied a space in our lives; when there was time for road trips; before the ever-present distraction of emails and iPhones. When we return to Haskin's slick, present-day narration after meeting his younger self, the character suddenly has more gravity because the reader understands where he came from: we are forced to consider how much and how quickly our world has changed and how these changes have shaped us, sometimes into people we never imagined becoming or wanted to become.

The tragedy of the book is also its terror: namely, the enormous distance between who Haskin was, an everyman we can relate to - and the monster he has become: disconnected from the past, greedy and isolated and without identity, trapped in the small, meaningless world he has created and ruined, but ultimately unfazed by his inability to connect. What's more terrifying is that by this point, the reader has become Haskin in a way, or has at least identified with him. McLeod requires us to question ourselves: could we become this? Have we already, unknowingly? We are left to mourn the past we once knew, to remember what has been sacrificed and ruined - often by our own actions. Haskin disturbs us, yes, but at the same time, he is us.

Which leaves the reader with a constant desire for the old Haskin to return, for the new Haskin to redeem himself. But instead he moves further and further from who he once was. We see him destroy a series of paintings before an artist's eyes, sleep with his sexy but vapid VP, and conspire with his best friends (also orphans and corporate superpowers) to televise a public execution of death row inmate Robert Lott (but not before he's thoroughly exploited him by selling "ad space" all over Lott's body in the form of corporate logo tattoos these giants have paid for).

As Haskin and his cronies sit watching the execution, complaining that they should have brought snacks, the reader is left outraged and hopeless: if Jim Haskin and those like him are in charge, is there any chance for redemption?

Chapters narrated by Haskin's son Connor, in the form of letters to his father, offer some hope. Connor, recently exiled to boarding school for severely beating a high school classmate, shares Haskin's intelligence, disconnection from the world, and his freakish attention to recording the details of his life, but Connor sees the world through softer eyes: those of a lonely outcast, different from his peers and compulsive shopper girlfriend, who locate their identities in what they buy. Connor, like Haskin, is capable of anger, yes, but also of wonder, and he is someone who desires a better world, different from his father's. As the reader moves between Connor's sincere narration and Haskin's madman rants, we wonder: if Connor's father was once human, who will Connor become? But unlike Haskin, Connor is able to acknowledge that "his mind is not right."

Although the characters in the book who succeed on a superficial level - Haskin, his best friends, and his VP Simerpreet Sweeney - do so through their ability to maintain a slick façade and disconnected emotional life, Connor is the book's true hero: someone able to connect with the world that exists beyond consumerism. And luckily Connor arrives right where he belongs: in a commune-like place where he can survive by exiling from his father's world:

"No taxes, no internet, no tapwater, no bleach... no cubicle spaces, no plasma flat-screen color TVs... no brightly striped ties; no bras with rhinestones... no lab rats... no surgical lasers... no factory smog... no sloth and no greed and no lust and no envy."

It is a sad but true fact that these places still exist on earth, but that one has to leave mainstream society to find them. By the end of the book, McLeod leaves us to reflect on one question: how shall we conduct our lives in the face of this reality?
Megan Martin ( 2011)

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