One of the qualities that distinguish Americans from other people is their naive suspicion that any foreigner with half a brain would rather be one of them. Perhaps it is all those hours we’ve spent watching heart-rending docudramas in which Europe’s tired and oppressed steam gleefully toward Ellis Island and families of Mexicans breast-stroke gaily onto the Texas banks of the Rio Grande. (The most zealous Japanese patriot doesn’t for a minute think that other peoples actually want to be Japanese. Ditto the French.)
Our national vanity has been satirized by foreign writers for ages, or at least since the middle of the last century, when Charles Dickens roasted our forefathers in “Martin Chuzzlewit.” But rarely has it been done so delightfully or with such sympathy as it is in “The Americans Are Coming!” Alex Beam, a columnist for the Boston Globe, finally has brought the old joke home. But don’t worry: It’s still on us.
Beam’s story opens in late 1999. The harmonic convergence of brand names continues apace. People read Newstime magazine, drive BMVWs, shop at Montgomery-Sears and drink Lowenbud beer. Bill Cosby is soon to wed Princess Di. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been President of the United States for the last four years. Gorbachev was last seen in a series of Visa/Express advertisements. And the Soviet Union is about to lose the shortest world war yet, after which it will become a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States. The world seems to grow smaller every day.
Especially for Martin Teasdale. Martin is the CIA functionary sent to remake the Russian town of Uglich after World War III. Martin’s job is to mold Uglich in the image of America, complete with shopping mall, political consultants, democracy, aerobics, capitalism and a Fat City weight-loss program. If he succeeds, Uglich will then be held out as an example to the rest of Russia.
A Yale man who lost his virginity in a Russian telephone booth during a year abroad at Moscow University, Martin has a problem. Actually, Martin has several problems. The first is that he “rather likes Russia” just as it is, and so wavers in his ideological commitment to the Uglich Experiment. The second is his wife Marilyn, a parody of the American feminist, who cusses the air purple and sleeps with everyone but her husband. Marilyn doesn’t fully understand why she is being asked to move from her cozy Washington suburb to Uglich. “This is a chance to be a part of an important event,” Martin tries to explain. “This project could change the course of Russian civilization.”
But Martin’s biggest problem is the truculence of the Russians themselves. They simply lack the virtues of the average American. They understand neither capitalism nor democracy. “We don’t want to be Wall Street, we don’t want to catch up to the Japanese. We just don’t give a damn,” a shapely Russian lady whispers into Martin’s ear. “Pravda had been right all along; an American job was a hell you would wish only on your worst enemy,” muses a woman forced to labor for an American capitalist.
“Now you bring us the new America on our television,” a Russian farmer tells Martin. “False people, fake politics. And THINGS, this great religion that America has given to the world, the worship of things. Electronic things, video things, clothing, food, drink. Everything has been turned on its head--now it is anything we don’t need that America sends. Along with these politics and lies.”
Having spent only a week in Russia, I must take the portraits of everyday Russians on faith. I do this happily. They are among the most exquisite of the many pleasures in this book; rightly or wrongly, I will never again be able to watch without smiling at the 6 o’clock news clips of the Russian people taking to the streets. And I will smile with sympathy, not superiority. My favorite of Beam’s many creations is Kolbasin, a henpecked husband and bureaucrat who views the approaching Americanization of his village with a rising sense of dread. But I should let the author make the introduction:
“Sheeplike obedience, a pathological fear of creativity, and a series of timely deaths in the City Soviet have elevated him to the rank of deputy city administrator for agricultural affairs. Apart from drawing his salary and carrying out occasional pro forma safety inspections, he does no work whatsoever. Each of the region’s 19 collective farms sends him quarterly reports, which he never reads before turning them over to his superiors, who never read them either. Even after his country’s military humiliation, Kolbasin remains a staunch patriot. In American society, he suspects, jobs like his are few and far between.”
Even greater than his fear of the market economy, however, is Kolbasin’s dread of democracy:
“The new voting area was unlike anything he had ever seen. In the old days, he would have walked over to the one wooden box and dropped his ballot through the slot. Back then, the ballots automatically endorsed the entire slate of Communist Party nominees. No other candidates’ names appeared on the form. There was no other box. There was no alternative to voting the Party line, short of tearing up the ballot in front of a roomful of uniformed police officers. Under the Soviet regime, voting always felt warm and reassuring, like mailing a letter to your mother.”
Inside the booth, Kolbasin panics and pushes buttons at random. He never discovers who he voted for. He exits, “certain that he had just signed his death warrant,” and runs smack into a camera crew from an all American television station. The interviewer asks him a question.
“ ‘It’s the interrogation,’ Kolbasin thought. . . .
“The voice intruded again, soothing and suggestive, ‘How do you like democracy?’ It sounded just like the laxative advertisements on the new American television stations.”
The lone American creation that the Russians care for is the Uglich shopping mall built by the imported American entrepreneur, T. Makkro Fixx. Beam devotes an entire chapter to the grand opening of the Uglich mall. It opens with Martin making the dedication speech. He never finishes. The crowd begins to press up against the ropes to catch a glimpse of the merchandise. Just as Martin’s speech approaches its climax, a Russian voice cries out:
“ ‘Le Piece!’ The sight of the legendary Velcro-lined bikini bottom was the spark that set the tinder aflame. Fifty women stormed the police line, burst through the loosely hung ribbon, and streamed into the brightly lit atrium, shoving Martin off to one side. The first wave gawked momentarily at the scaled-down replicas of the famous Peterhof fountains in the middle of the hall before rushing into the Piece outfit and attacking the shelves . . . they picked the tiny store clean like locusts stripping a wheat field . . . years of shopping in Soviet stores had inured the shoppers to promises of future supply.”
But these people are the heroes of the story; the Americans who turn up to exploit the Uglich Experiment are the villains. In this little contest of superpower cultural values, the Russians win on points. Arriving as it does at a time when we are busily congratulating ourselves on our natural superiority, “The Americans Are Coming!” is especially refreshing.
One of the purposes of satire is to undermine the established order of things. Another is to spot tiny blemishes and magnify them so that they become noticeable to all. The best satire offends only those who deserve to be offended. It is a measure of Beam’s abilities that even those whom he offends probably will laugh.