The Pleasant American: Touch 17

Saturday, 26. September 2009

Rupert is by all accounts a nice guy. The people at the office get along with him and his work is respected because it is solid and delivers the goods. He’s fairly senior for someone aged 35, but not such a ruthless high-flier that he breeds too much resentment. There are one or two who don’t get on with him but you would expect that. Rather, he is generally regarded as a team player who understands the commercial drivers and applies himself with precision to a complex area that demands scientific background combined with writing skills. It is expected that some day he will head the department, maybe.

At home he is a good father with a tidy lawn and a European car. He spends a lot of time with his children, Debbie and Rueben, and his wife Jennifer is a lovely person who contributes a great deal to the local community. Once in a while they do have a stand-up row where the sound spills out of their house but next time you see them it all looks fine and they’ll be taking the kids out on a trip, maybe, nothing wrong except that little Debbie wants to take their dog, who howls all the time they’re gone.

Rupert works long hours but Jennifer often turns up as a volunteer at the school or some local event and she has tried her hand in the town drama group, where everyone says she showed some promise. People who’ve been to their house say the kids aren’t allowed candy and cola and that Jennifer has a thing about eating responsibly sourced food, which you’d assume they can afford and they never seem extravagant except at Thanksgiving, when they always throw a party for the neighbourhood.

If you were scripting a horror movie you might give the characters such a normal façade but in real life these do seem pretty tight, healthy, happy and well-adjusted. This year they rented a camper for a driving vacation covering an ambitious itinerary of places of interest and natural wonder, including a trip to an animal sanctuary where chimpanzees rescued from medical research are housed. It happens to be run by some friends of Jennifer, who said they could stay and organised special visits for them, hoping of course for a large donation to help with the costs. Rupert gave them a hundred dollars, letting Jennifer think it was more. When she finally found out, some weeks later, she was ashamed.

Anyway, that night there was a vegetarian barbecue at the home of the director of the animal sanctuary, a friend of certain celebrities and herself no stranger to television. For once in his life Rupert was feeling slightly outclassed by the smooth talkers but as people stopped drifting and applied themselves to the food he managed to steer his family to a large table around which sat no-one so special they might eclipse him. Here they all were, eating prawn flavoured vegetable protein shaped to look like prawns by a Thai chef, feeling good about themselves and mixing with other people who feel good about themselves, the conversation ebbing and flowing over ecological and animal welfare and sustainable food issues in a complacent kind of way, some of the guys having beards and wearing sandals, some of the woman wearing light, ethnic, organic garments on a warm summer night with cicadas calling and only mosquitoes to ruin the world.

One guest, however, was a secret troublemaker, a writer, a journalist and a teller of blunt truth. When he’d finished raking through the celebs he noticed a table full of nobodies with this perfect family at its head: the handsome dad, the pretty wife, the cute children, the healthy tans and upright postures. He joined them and he listened at first, acting the ingénue and a little shy, which was easy for him because he really is.

He noticed how everything that Jennifer said went nowhere unless someone down the table picked it up. She would speak, her husband would nod, her children perhaps, and then it would drift off into nowhere with maybe half a comment in response but never something that opened the topic up. Her husband, by contrast, launched many interludes of some length by the pleasant tactic of asking people around him about themselves and sitting back like a good listener in the warm glow of their gratitude. Time and time again he accomplished this, gradually adding more and more footnotes of his own so that he too was being revealed and in every case slightly outpunching them. Someone had been to Paris, but he spend six months there, studying in French and he knew the best restaurants and could pronounce them properly, though they probably were not vegetarian. Somebody else started talking about his interest in astronomy, which Rupert let pass for a while until pointing to the starlit sky and asking an innocent question that made the guy look stupid so Rupert could answer for him. A nervy woman wondered in hesitating tones about this depression that she just couldn’t shake and she was talking straight at Rupert with slightly suggestive lip language, because he was now the table’s resident, expert know-all. Quick as a flash he was back to her with a rundown of humanistic and pharmacological responses to depression, which he defined in different ways, trying to pinpoint her problem to deliver a final diagnosis, by which time she was confused and apparently close to tears.

Most fascinating of all to the observer, however, was how Rupert dealt with his potentially fractious kids while all this was going on, which was masterful. Right from the start their eyes had been wandering over to more exciting parts of the party, to animals and a bonfire and a children’s play area with other kids. And since the food held no allure for them whatsoever, they were restless, especially Debbie, because she was not as tame as her brother. What Rupert did to control them was simply beautiful to observe: like a liberal and democratic and loving father he involved them in the conversation, asking them questions: sometimes easy ones that he knew they could answer and sometimes difficult matters of opinion that would stump the average adult and were attended by the terror in their eyes showing how much they dreaded his follow-up questions, asking them to justify their opinions.

Reuben was generally tight-lipped, embarrassed, in recoil and reluctant to say anything the slightest part debatable. Debbie, at this point less wary, was prone to getting into trouble with her second answer and kicking her feet together under the table. Their mother never intervened, though it did not seem to the observer that she was enjoying the demonstrations of progressive home schooling and when Debbie almost lost it you could see she was ready to gather up the tears. Rupert continued, prince of all he surveyed, perfect in every particular, unchallenged in any way. Dynamic, solutions-driven, benevolent and cunning, like the USA herself, he effortlessly subdued an entire table of educated people who are probably themselves the centre of attraction in different social circles. Each phrase he placed was perfectly nuanced and very subtle, sometimes slapping someone down in the nicest possible way, at other times encouraging them to speak up to give him a further opening for his wisdom. And like America in the greater world, spoilt and perfect in image not substance, he had no idea whatever that he was doing all this… He was simply acting out his idea of being a great guy.

Unfortunately that night a sinister force was seated at the table, and almost unknown presence in America, someone who can step back enough to actually notice the minute eddies in the tides of conversation and has a degree of intuition about what they mean. When the moment was right the observer struck, first by deflecting a couple of undermining questions from Rupert as if it had never been spoken and second by asking Rupert about his work. Whereupon, delighted to have the opportunity, Rupert began to describe the joys of being in marketing, in particular his world-famous copywriting skills, in particular the niche he had between science and art, requiring a subtle mix of psychology and blunt speaking, just like he is in real life. He’s been lucky, he admits that, though he doesn’t mean it. What he thinks is that he’s been talented and that he is big-time entitled.

The observer realised without being told that Rupert works in big pharma and that they market their products by deceiving and bribing medical practitioners, one of the most entitled groups of assholes in our society. With a couple of questions he got Rupert to admit this, though the specificity and confidence was now drained from his voice and he looked ready for a counter-attack.

“So it’s an irony for you, I imagine, to be invited here by an animal shelter that houses apes who’ve been tortured in useless tests on drugs that are probably being developed by your company?”

Rupert turned white with fury and stood up in a threatening body-language way that alarmed his wife and scattered his children. It took him several very deep breaths to refrain from an all out nuclear attack and return, gradually, with a false smile, to more cunning forms of domination and aggression. Because he never backs off.

That, more or less exactly, describes the American mind. The one that dominates our earth and shapes everything we will become. No American, as far as I am aware, has ever noticed that they all do it, spontaneously and without pause, endlessly competing with each other to be the best in whatever slot they occupy. Even would-be rappers in ghettoes do it. Even lonely truckers at desolate diners do it. Even hippies do it. Even Bob Dylan does it. They perform. They have utterly lost contact with any archaic notion of sharing the human space, even though they so often retain as vestigial manipulative tools the good humour, friendliness and nice manners that were once a sign of decent societies in other lands.

previous parts of Touch are here

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