What is Absolved? Posted on his blog in serial form, Absolved is Mike Vanderboegh's militia novel about a bunch of good old boys in Alabama taking on the dastardly ATF. Who is Mike Vanderboegh? He's an Alabama resident who got a lot of media attention back in 2010 when a post on his blog inspired numbskulls to break the office windows of Democratic lawmakers who supported the Affordable Care Act. Now he's gone and posted his inspirational novel, Absolved, online. Inspirational in the sense that it inspired this gang of geezers to buy silencers, make plans to toss ricin out of car windows, and blow up a bunch of "guv'mint bildins" as their first step in a war on the Federal government.
The only flaw in their master plan was that their co-conspirator was an undercover FBI agent.
*Sigh* And so it goes.
Just as you can count on two out of every three Army helicopters crashing, you can count on the fact that if you hire a hitman, find a dude to sell you illegal weapons, or finally come across that one guy who seems like he'll really kick your racial holy war up a notch, he's going to turn out to be an FBI agent. Every. Single. Time.
So, how is Absolved? A lot of people have written about it, but I don't think many of them have actually read it. I did, but I'll let the author do the talking as to its quality. In his introduction, Vanderboegh says that writing this book "actually depresses me," then he strikes fear into the reader by praising Kevin Costner's The Postman, goes on about the "mind-numbing" and "deadly details" you can find in his book, and brags about its "terrible opening." Someone get this self-proclaimed "gunnie" a publicist, stat!
Then again, maybe he's an evil genius of marketing since his novel has received coverage on every major network without anyone actually reading it. It hasn't even been officially published yet. The media says that Vanderboegh is an ex-militia nut, but I say he's an ex-militia nut...like a fox! And, when you compare Absolved to most other online novels out there, you realize he's actually not a bad writer.
The first chapter of Absolved starts in media res, which is a fancy way of saying that Phil Gordon is being raided by ATF agents (referred to throughout as "thugs"). Phil is a grandfatherly guy who always did the right thing. He worked hard, fought in Vietnam, and raised what seems to be an enormous brood of children. In his world, beloved sergeants are "wise in the ways of killing" while drunk drivers are "from Mexico City." Phil is angry that the ATF are going to raid his house because they think his stockpile of weapons poses a danger to his neighbors. Then he kind of proves their point by using said stockpile to blow his entire neighborhood to hell while shooting wounded ATF agents in the head.
Phil dies a martyr to the Second Amendment, content in the knowledge that he's on his way to meet his Maker Um, really? Let's hope it's a loving God of forgiveness who considers the well over 100 cops Phil killed, and the 20 or so rocket propelled grenades he fired into his neighborhood, to be a display of boyish enthusiasm rather than a kill crazy rampage.
The death of this heavily armed senior citizen becomes an inspirational Waco-type event for the other characters in the book who wind up fighting the Federal government and its Brightfire mercenaries (Brightfire = Blackwater. Bright/Black, fire/water. See what he did there?) hired by a spineless government to assist the ATF in cracking down on gun owners. For some unknown reason, the governor of Alabama sides with the local militiamen against the Feds and a minor war breaks out. This being Nerd Fiction of the highest order (see below) the forces of gun ownership, individual responsibility, and limited Federal government carry the day.
Those hoping for a bloody new version of The Turner Diaries or Unintended Consequences (Me! Me!) are going to be disappointed because Absolved is certainly no more violent than your average Tom Clancy thriller. The only difference between the Clancy and Vanderboegh is that Vanderboegh is a better writer. If only he could keep his nerdish enthusiasm for guns and right-wing politics out of his books, I'd happily read him instead of Clancy any day. I mean, does Tom Clancy spend pages having characters debate the biological nature of Gonzo the Muppet? And does he top this riff with an extremely convincing assertion that the taxonomically unclassified Gonzo is actually a chickenhawk?
Just listen to the poetry in this passage about the effect eating military-issue Meals Ready to Eat has on the human body:
"When you first eat MREs with regularity, your intestines are a mess. You will not be able to defecate for several days, sometimes weeks. Then you hit the point where you are so bloated you don't want to eat and you start to feel the contractions and think, "Oh, thank you, blessed Jesus!" But then you run to the head and you are forced to give birth to a 15 pound iron rod. O'Toole's anal sphincter twinged at the memory of it.
It was the kind of thing where you hold onto the seat for dear life, your legs fully extended and there's this stabbing pain that convinces you your guts are being lanced open from the inside out. And you grip that seat even tighter, and the only thing that you can think about while you groan and grit your teeth and the sweat pours from you is that there was once upon a time when your ass did not hurt that much."
Walt Whitman lives again. That said, there are more than a few clunkers. His obsession with straining bowels carries over into his techno-jargon ("Captain, this order originated in the E-Ring.") and there's a bizarre obsession with the expression "Well, shit and shove me in," which is spoken no less than five million times over the course of the book.
It's also one of those books in which fully a third of the text consists of quotes from other writers, often John Locke (which is weird when you consider that Locke firmly believed in the separation of church and state, and established the legal precedent which was used to seize lands from the Native Americans, who are venerated throughout Absolved). Its structure is also confusing. Chapters skip around in time resulting in a scene set in the 1960's nuzzling up against scenes set today with very little connective tissue, and a large cast of characters, each of them dragging an unwieldy backstory behind them like a dinosaur's tail, wandering around looking deeply and purposefully into each other's eyes. Also, the first several chapters open with sentences describing how sick, exhausted or generally unwell the narrators are. You begin to wonder if these are future Constitutional heroes, or hypochondriac retirees.
Absolved, with its old-fashioned fear of Clintonistas, its news media hopelessly compromised except for talk radio and local TV news, and its alarmingly specific fear of drugs, pornography, abortion, and "Devil-worshiping chaplains in the US Army," belongs to that old timey genre of "God Bless America" fiction that includes I, Martha Adams and USSA. It's peddling pride in the way things used to be ("You could just FEEL the Army regain its bearings and its honor, especially after Ronald Reagan became President.") but at the same time it's kind of fun because it's stuffed with gleefully ridiculous alternate history sentences like, "The 5-4 decision in Barney vs. Boy Scouts of America which mandated that the Scouts include homosexuals and even pedophiles as scoutmasters along the Canadian model resulted in the destruction of that historic youth group." I just love that "along the Canadian model." You don't get jokes that funny in your Tom Clancy.
What keeps this out of mainstream bookstores is the fact that it's Nerd Fiction. Folks like Vanderboegh aren't racists, other than holding a lot of unexamined assumptions about other countries and possessing a particularly insensitive kneejerk veneration of rebels, even ones who owned slaves. But to their minds, their poor, upcountry, non-slave-owning ancestors were victims of the slave owning elite during the Civil War, sent to fight and die for the Confederate 1%. They love William Wallace and Scotland's warriors for independence. They feel for the dwindling Native Americans and the IRA, and in their minds there isn't that much difference between the two groups: both are outnumbered resistors of centralized power. Like many militiamen, they draw a line directly from the Civil Rights movement to their own cause (skipping the antiwar and free speech protests that are inconveniently in the way).
But more than that, no matter how many "hate maps" the Southern Poverty Law Center publishes, these guys are nerds, not threats to society. They're like gun-loving Trekkies. You love Star Trek and so you debate the merits of Shatner versus Stewart. Same thing, except they debate the merits of the M-14 versus the AK-47. And their rabbinical conviction that salvation lies in the mastery of mind-numbing details is equally as gripping as debates over who was the better captain, Kirk or Picard: "We thought of that, but we couldn't lay our hands on seamless steel tubing of the proper dimensions. We also wanted to maintain a heavy projectile throw weight," one character gravely intones. It gets kinkier. How about a 2000 word debate on what caliber of ammunition and what firearm should be standard for all milita groups, followed by another 2000 word ode to the M-14 rifle? Then again, we'll never understand each other's fetishes: multi-arm, furries, 8000 word of discussions of rifle grenades...someone somewhere is turned on by everything.
But for every page on the delicate social interactions of a fire team, you get a passage like this that manages to be so completely over-the-top in such a blissfully unironic way that all you can do is stand and gawp at it in wonder. Life as a militiawoman sounds like a dream come true:
"Lucy stood there, as beautiful as the day he married her despite the two daughters she'd borne him and a third child almost here any day now and everything else in a hate-filled world gone crazy. His glass of water was in her left hand and the bandoleer marked '.30 Caliber M-2 Ball' in her right."
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. This is truly marital bliss, militia-style. God Bless America, and somebody get this guy Tom Clancy's old job.
Link to all the chapters of Absolved in case you, too, want to learn about the obvious superiority of three-man buddy teams over two-man buddy teams.