Unlike Lady Gaga, whose “statements” with the opening of her Super Bowl halftime performance here in Houston this past weekend were predictably bland, the writer Steve Almond has gotten political. In 2006, he resigned his position as a creative writing instructor at Boston College when they named then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice their commencement speaker, a bit of activism that got him the opportunity to go toe-to-toe, or rather head-to-head, with Fox News’ Sean Hannity–an experience that in subsequent years led Almond to reflect on liberal attitudes. Rereading the title story of his third collection, God Bless America (2011), in the first weeks of Trump’s presidency, one can find a sinister historical precedent for our present moment as Almond explores what it means to act in different contexts.
“God Bless America” begins with Billy Clamm accidentally going into a class on acting when he’s looking for a class on tax preparation. He’s so enthralled by the teacher and his emphasis on “connectedness” that he quits his job and hurls himself into acting (to the apparent chagrin of his father, whom he still lives with). He takes a job as a guide for Sammy Duck Land and Sea Tours, believing he is cutting his acting chops as he enthusiastically leads tours to historical American sites, fantasizing about his American-Dream-style upward rise while hoping to get a role in its climactic reenactment of the Boston Tea Party. His gun-toting boss Augustino doesn’t seem likely to let this happen anytime soon, but when the arrest of one of the other guides disrupts the reenactment, Billy believes his big break has arrived and takes the initiative to play the British lackey who collects the tea after it’s flung into the harbor. He’s so in character he doesn’t notice the police have arrived in force until they start shooting at him and he sees one of his fellow guides, Esquivel, get shot. He believes it must all be a misunderstanding, but when the nervous inflammation of his face reminds him of a comment of his mother’s, he’s inspired to take action, steering the boat away from the commotion. Admiring the color of the sunset that his mother would have liked, he’s inspired with the idea for a new stage name: William Aubergine. Shortly thereafter, he discovers that the boxes he gathered, labeled TEA, are actually full of cocaine. Whereas Billy Clamm would return to resolve the misunderstanding, William Aubergine will take advantage of the dramatic moment. And so he sails off into the sunset to start a new life, marveling at the nature of American opportunity and imagining how it would take a good actor to pull off the sincerity of the moment.
The chronic tension is Billy’s wanting something more out of his aimless life (manifesting in the contrast between his cheerful dead mother and abrasive living father). The acute tension is his discovering acting, which will lead to his discovering the cocaine (i.e., opportunity).
One might read Billy Clamm as representative of the average American–perhaps the liberal flipside to “Joe Plumber,” to dust off some 00s electorhetoric. Even the opening line presents us with a potential political idea: a division of classes, one based on preparing taxes (notably, by exploiting legal loopholes), one on acting. Billy aspires to the former but finds his place in the latter. He believes he is a good actor, but the reader can tell he’s not as good as he thinks he is when he interprets his teacher’s comment that “perhaps you should let your creative engine cool a bit” as acknowledgment of Billy’s professional calling.
Billy’s naivete is on display throughout the story; that he believes the shootout during the Tea Party reenactment is the product of some misunderstanding is reflective of the naivete of the general American populace, believing that organizations like corporations have their best interests at heart, or that they’re not consciously ripping you off when they overcharge you or double bill you–it’s just a misunderstanding.
“Nothing to worry about,” he assured his audience. / But just then Billy realized that there was indeed something to worry about…”
Notably, at this point, the thing Billy is worried about is not his coworker’s arrest, but that the arrest will affect the upcoming performance. He quickly realizes that there’s an opportunity that he believes could be his big break–and in fact will turn out to be, though not in the way he anticipated.
Almond describes how the Tea Party reenactment works:
It was quite ingenious how they staged the performance, especially considering that they used a different boat every day and none of the crew seemed to speak English. The Duckies were hustled on board and Horatio Higgenbottom, intrepid revolutionary agitator, appeared on deck in a long buttoned coat and breeches, and delivered a stirring soliloquy, then flung a wooden box labeled TEA overboard, following which the Duckies joined in until dozens of boxes bobbed in the water and cheers issued forth and the boat spluttered off into international waters, where, if they so chose, guests could gamble by a variety of means while a “British lackey,” usually the ill-tempered Jacomo, sallied forth in a motorboat to fetch the tea.
Billy’s, the reader’s, and any tourist’s perception of what’s happening is later revealed to be only a surface understanding; the term “performance” here has a double meaning. There’s another entirely separate enterprise going on here that, on first read, we don’t realize–this is a drug smuggling routine. The dumping of the tea is literally the dumping of drugs into the water, then picked up by another boat and taken out to international waters. This might be representative of how the surfaces we interact with and/or witness around us, our interactions with corporations, etc., might seem innocuous, but really have some more sinister profit-mongering scheme as an ulterior motive for the whole setup.
Whenever Billy asked about securing a role, Augustino shook his head and put a finger to his lips and and peeled Billy’s pay from a roll of twenties as fat as an onion.
Billy believes good acting is what will earn him a role in the climactic Boston Tea Party reenactment, when really this has nothing to do with it; rather, roles are determined based on who’s in on the drug ring. Of course, as readers we don’t discover this until Billy does, though Almond provides several clues, the first being Augustino’s suspicious response to Billy when he shows up to apply for the job, and the fact that he has a gun. The next being Billy’s payment from a fat wad of cash.
Billy’s pursuit of his acting dream leads him into the path of the drug ring–where the real American Dream is. The arc of the story seems to imply that getting ahead in America is not so much a product of hard work as it is of dumb blind luck–that, and a willingness to disregard the possible negative fallout of your opportunity on others. While Billy’s dumb blind luck is an inadvertent product of his hard work in his willingness to pursue acting–he wouldn’t have been in the position to intercept the cocaine if he hadn’t been willing to take the tour guide job–he doesn’t give a second thought to the coworkers he’s left behind for the cops. Of course, all of this can be easily rationalized away:
This was America and this was how things went sometimes in America, how the entire enterprise had gotten itself started and grown and prospered.
By connecting the Boston Tea Party to a cocaine ring, Almond is subtly drawing a connection between a couple of critical events in our nation’s history, while also calling our understanding of history into question. The Tea Party was a rebellious act that brought the colonies closer to revolution. The cocaine epidemic led to the massively counterproductive War on Drugs. We know who brought the tea over, but what about the cocaine? It’s still debated what role the government has played in its distribution.
By the end of the story, the verb “act,” initially connoting participation in dramaturgy, has started to take on shades of other meanings of the word. A great deal of meaning is packed into the line:
No, he was considering the new direction his life had taken since he’d decided to act.
By this point Billy has not only acted in terms of performing, he has acted in terms of taking action, by driving the motorboat with the tea boxes away from the fracas with the cops:
He could feel the red stain aflame on his cheek, and with it, the voice of his mother suddenly returned to him. “That’s just your way of telling the world you’re alive.” She had said this to soothe him, of course. But the words now seemed to have a different intention altogether. They were her way of recognizing the depth of his passion–a call to arms, or at least to action. Billy watched his hand, in something like amazement, as it grabbed the steering wheel and angled the boat away from the shore. Then his foot slammed the gas pedal.
One interesting thing about this passage is how removed, or disconnected, from his own actions Billy seems to be. It also equates while simultaneously drawing a distinction between a call to arms and a call to action. Most significantly, Billy’s acting here is no longer in the sense of performance.
But the overtones of disconnection are important. The concept of connectedness has been present since the beginning of the story, but with some (intentional) inconsistency. At first, the acting teacher uses it in the sense of being connected to your life, but thereafter seems to use it in the context of being connected to your process. By the end, it would seem that being connected to one might preclude, rather than foster, connection to the other. Billy is so connected to his process when he’s finding the character of the British lackey that he’s utterly disconnected from reality: “…he was busy brandishing his musket.” This moment, approaching the conflation of arms and action, might indicate taking up arms as a problematic call to action.
By design, Billy’s happy ending likely leaves the reader uncomfortable, bringing us into contact with the unseemly underbelly of the American Dream. There’s certainly irony in the story’s final moment of him imagining himself acting out the moment he’s currently living–another indication of potential disconnection. Now, more than ever, people are looking for a way to take action, and we will find out how much this action creates the potential for change. Billy Clamm would have gone back to resolve the nonexistent misunderstanding, and might well have been arrested as part of the drug ring for his trouble; William Aubergine serves himself first and leaves everything else behind. These are the poles bookending the spectrum of our options as Americans, to serve others and get screwed, or to screw others? So what will be your way of telling the world you’re alive?