What does it mean to be human? Surely there are genetic standards, the communal yet individually unique history of our DNA. There is culture, the institutions we’ve established and shaped, the monuments we’ve erected, testaments to our heroes and accomplishments. We have conquered the world and placed our species atop the evolutionary chain. Yet when one discusses the nature of being human, the conversation often veers to our more tender qualities—our capacity for empathy, the kindnesses we share with our loved ones, the charity we extend to those in need. In his dark and entertaining new novel American Neolithic, Terence Hawkins explores the nature of humanness and its sadly subservient role to our fears and paranoia.
Much of the story is set in New York City in the not so distant future. Hawkins doesn’t offer us a dystopia, but rather a stepping stone to one, a future subtly more disturbing because we have experienced its early rumblings in our own time. Much of Hawkins’ America remains as it is today—there is alcohol and television and Starbucks—but disturbing changes have altered society and government. The fear of terrorism and the rise of Christian fundamentalism have joined forces, leaving Hawkins’ characters in “a police state-lite.” Protest is no longer protected by the Constitution, and the press has been reduced to a Fox-News chorus. Dissidents disappear, and if one wishes to survive, they learn not to ask too many questions.
So American Neolithic is another dystopian (or nearly dystopian) novel, right? Well, not really, because part of the book’s allure comes from its blending of genres. There are elements of courtroom drama complete with a voice straight out of a hardboiled detective novel. This half of the narrative belongs to Raleigh, a New York lawyer who, in time, overcomes his vanity and self-importance to help a client in need. There’s love—well, sex—and a healthy dose of social commentary. Yet the vein that touches the deepest is distinctly literary. This half of the book brims with pathos and wry observations, and, perhaps given the backdrop of a righteously paranoid United States, it’s not so ironic that this voice comes from the novel’s other main character, Blingbling, a Neanderthal thrust into the national limelight.
Yes, a Neanderthal, one of our closer cousins, a species thought to have reached its dead end on evolution’s many-branched highway long ago. It’s poor Bling, hunted and persecuted for carrying the DNA that makes him anathema to the US’s new theocracy, who provides the novel its kindhearted and cerebral undercurrent. Love, selflessness, sacrifice, appreciation for the arts—all of these are found not in man’s world but in Bling’s. His voice, while garbled in real-world exchanges, rings with emotion and clarity on the written page. Consider this passage Bling writes from a cell hidden deep within the US’s penal underground:
“Learning was my downfall. And it appears, that of my people. I had hoped to be the Neanderthal Prometheus. Instead, I am Ahab, dead already, my extended arm pointing the way forward to extinction as I precede my fellows into the depths.”
In Bing’s observations, we find the intelligence and compassion so lacking in the rest of the human world, a sad irony that is not lost on Raleigh, for it’s through his interactions with Bling that he achieves the realization of his own humanity. It’s a gift that carries a terrible price, yet it’s a sacrifice that speaks to best within us.
Interview with Terrence Hawkins by Curtis Smith
Curtis Smith: One of the most interesting things about American Neolithic is its blending of genres. Did this just happen as you discovered the story or was it a conscious decision from the start?
Terence Hawkins: Very much the former. It started out as an account of the Neanderthals' history in America, narrated exclusively by Blingbling--pure speculative fiction. But that seemed a little slow, so I needed to get him into trouble, and being a lawyer I decided it had to be legal trouble. And since it was legal trouble I needed another narrator, who of course would have to be his lawyer, hence the courtroom thriller aspect. And since I spend part of every day in an apoplectic rage as the Republic spirals around history's drain--but see below.
CS: Politics plays a major role in the narrative. Do you really see our country edging toward a theocracy-right wing state?
TH: "Edging towards"? We're three-quarters of the way there. We are unquestionably among the most socially retrograde of the industrial democracies and the only one in which political leaders actually have to talk about their private religious beliefs. While I do think that the increasing acceptance of blue-state values--an African American president, same sex marriage, legal weed--is heartening, I'm also acutely aware that about half the country is permanently red. For that reason a hiccup in voter turnout in the midterms can return control of the Senate to a party that contains a significant minority that denies not only climate change but evolution. Worse, recent Supreme Court decisions have encouraged monied interests to dump their cash into the campaigns of wingnuts who equate environmental regulation with the Crucifixion. But worst, our deterioration into a National Security State, which began after World War II, accelerated meteorically after 9/11, after which our panicked legislators--including my own Blue State Senators--enacted away a lot of our civil liberties with the Patriot Act. And of course our Democratic President is just fine with untrammelled phone surveillance and the extrajudicial execution of US citizens overseas by drone.
I tremble for our country when I consider what we'll willingly surrender the next time we're attacked.
CS: I loved Bling’s voice—it’s full of wonder and wisdom and compassion. How did your understanding of him evolve through the novel’s drafts?
TH: I'm still not sure I understand him. His voice didn't change draft to draft; what did change was its prominence. He was initially the sole narrator, but the density and intensity of his diction led me to think that it would exhaust the reader by page thirty. And to be candid, he was hard to write. That's why I added the second narrator early on.
That said, I wonder where he came from myself. The best answer I've been able to come up with is that I was channeling my late dog Bismarck. If Biz had an IQ of 140 and the power of speech, that's what he'd sound like--tenderhearted, observant, and deeply perplexed by our myriad cruelties.
CS: Once I finish a novel, I always enjoying hearing about its origins. Can you share how this story first appeared to you?
TH: I can tell you with some precision. In July 2000 my wife and I were in Boston, which was getting ready to host the Democratic Presidential Convention. Why we were talking about Neanderthals I don't know--this was before the old GEICO ad, even--but she asked what I thought they'd be doing if they'd survived to the present day. "Not sure," I said, "but I bet it'd have something to do with rap."
A few months later I was on a train from New York to Pittsburgh en route to visit my parents. In a lucid half-sleep I had the image of herds of landwhales--what whales would have been had they not returned to the sea after their brief tenure on land millions of years ago--lumbering across the great plains in an alternate evolution. When my head snapped up from my chest that's when I knew the book had to be written.
CS: What’s next on the writing front?
TH: I'm hoping to put together a collection of short stories in the next year. Beyond that I've been working on a novel comprising the interlocking narratives of my grandfather, who served in the Navy at the end of World War I and during our virtual occupation of China in the 1920's, and the Princess of Thurn und Taxis, a woman from my home town who married an Austro-Hungarian Prince right after World War I and returned after his death just before the Crash. Seriously--it really happened. (The House of Thurn und Taxis features prominently in The Crying of Lot 49, by the way.)
Terence Hawkins was born in Uniontown, PA. His grandfathers and several uncles were coal miners. He graduated from Yale in 1978 and the University of Wisconsin School of Law in 1982. He returned to New Haven to practice in 1985. His first novel, The Rage of Achilles, was published in 2009. He is also the author of many short stories, essays, and editorials. Hawkins is founding Director of the Yale Writers Conference.
Curtis Smith is the author of the novels An Unadorned Life, Sound and Noise, and Truth or Something Like It. His work has been named to the Best American Short Stories Distinguished Stories List, The Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Stories List, and the Notable Writing List of The Best American Spiritual Writing.