If, when you finish reading River City One (Knox Press; November 7, 2023) by John Waters, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick comes to mind, then you are in touch with a genuine continuity of insight. Waters is a war veteran. Because he served in Afghanistan and Iraq, he is a survivor of trauma, an Ishmael of our times. Like that character, this author has escaped alone to warn us about ourselves.
It is not a foreign or supernatural foe who has destroyed our Pequod and sent its captain and crew to ocean-like depths of despair. As Moby Dick did to Captain Ahab, we the American people have struck back at those who would relentlessly seek us out to serve their need to build a City Upon a Hill, to stand like the Rock of Ages, to have us be strong, brave, stoic, and heroic. We Americans are not up to that task anymore. And so, we have turned on our captains and sunk our own ship.
In the novel, Waters’ protagonist returns from Afghanistan and painfully encounters a moral wasteland, a great spiritual emptiness where pretending and trivial performances have taken the stage. Like so many other veterans of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, this man no longer fits into society after coming “home.” He sees what we don’t see because he is a stranger, an outsider, a pariah. His life conventions are not our social conventions. His standards, conditioned by fear, death, and responsibility, are higher than ours. He has experienced a truth which has escaped us here at home. Put simply, he sees more clearly than we do the hollowness of our lives.
One hundred years ago, a similar insight came to T.S. Eliot.
In his poem, The Hollow Men, Eliot brought us face-to-face with emptiness:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow …
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow …
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow …
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
We are the Hollow People. But where does the hollowness come from?
Avoidance – of truth and responsibility, of our own agency. There’s “no there, there” anymore. We are hollowed out because we avoid the realities of life, preferring more comforting narratives and “blending in” over thinking and speaking from a place of courage. Avoidance has marginalized our self-confidence. All around us are people living in denial, or people who turn their eyes away from what is right before them.
Cancel culture is avoidance of that which discomforts. Gender dysphoria or fluidity is avoidance of something irksome; feminism is avoidance of maternity; homosexuality is avoidance of paternity. Critical Race Theory, systemic White racism, Wokeness, Intersectionality, and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion discriminations are avoidance mechanisms to forestall acknowledgement of personal responsibility. These tropes leave Black Americans without personal agency, a vicious hollowing out of human capital, and discipline White Americans to self-traumatize themselves into irrelevance.
What do Americans seek to avoid? Responsibility, personal agency, and truth.
We blame others. We whine over our poor, little, insecure selves, looking for safe-spaces and comforting narratives to keep us presentable to ourselves and no threat to others. All around us are people in denial or who turn their eyes away from what is right before them. We slink away from tension and run from conflict. In our emptiness, what we experience daily can trigger trauma. We need coping strategies to get through each day dismayed by this atrophy of our souls.
About 49,500 Americans took their own lives last year, the highest number ever.
A new Gallup poll found that depression rates have hit new peaks, particularly among young adults and women. Twenty-nine percent of respondents reported being diagnosed with depression at some point in their life — an increase of nearly 10 percentage points since 2015. And 17.8 percent of respondents say they have depression or are being treated for it — an uptick of about seven points over the past eight years. The survey found women (23.8 percent) and adults 18 to 29 (24.6 percent) have the highest rates of depression or treatment for depression now.
According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 29.5 million people ages 12 and older (10.6 percent in this age group) had alcohol use disorder. About 88,000 people die of alcohol-related causes every year in the United States.
Among Americans aged 12 years and older, 37,309 million were current illegal drug users as of 2020. More than 106,000 persons in the U.S. died from drug-involved overdose in 2021, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids. The number of Americans killed in action during the Vietnam War was 58,000; in Iraq 4,492; and, in Afghanistan 2,219. The contrast in these figures is stark and alarming. We are killing ourselves more than our enemies killed us.
Families, too, are now hollow things. According to the American Psychological Association, approximately 40-50 percent of first marriages end in divorce. The divorce rate for second marriages is even higher: roughly 60-67 percent of them end in divorce. The consequence is that more American children live in single-parent households than is the case in the rest of the world, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, which found that 23 percent of children under age 18 lived with one parent and no other adults. Without sincere devotion to spouses and children, the family becomes just another manifestation of the problem ailing the rest of society.
In the novel, Waters gives us one performative escape from reality after another. Whether at home or in the workplace, his characters excel in pretense, the astute performances of partial truths, the deft acting out of self-regarding in-consequentialism. Beneath this surface functionality is a void: no love, no risk-taking, no reliability, no resilience.
Waters reveals through taut descriptions of what a returning veteran sees, hears, and feels in this America. The veteran is out of place, alone, unable to feel happy amidst the emptiness embracing all those around him.
But it is the civilians at home who have false consciousness, not the veteran.
In war there is no avoidance. In combat every second is precious. In war death is very real: real blood, real broken bones, real pain. In war the brutal truth is driven into you; there is no escape from its teachings. There is evil in the world which can’t be put out of one’s mind with pretenses and performances. In war you are programmed to stand and fight, to confront what is in front of you and make the best of your situation.
Waters lets us intuit from his episodes that, for the veteran, coming home is to encounter a continuing trauma of living with those who are deeply false to the truth and ignorant of love. Perhaps we may conclude from Waters’ novel that, for the veteran, there is a PTSD which starts with coming home and never goes away. Home is not really very homey to one who has fought a war.
In 2023, Vietnam vets still say to each other when they meet “Welcome Home!” Veterans of that war knew there was something wrong about the society to which they returned. Perhaps this hollow greeting lends insight into the final scene of River City One. A man comes face-to-face with emptiness but still, he has a choice. The shadow falls between him and the world that awaits.
Stephen B. Young served in the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) program in South Vietnam as a deputy district advisor. He is the author of The Theory and Practice of Associative Power: CORDS in the Villages of Vietnam 1967-1972. Currently, he is the global executive director of the Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism. His most recent book is Kissinger’s Betrayal.