The tale this time is a mystical Manichean parable of an alternate America, and it’s a story that uses severe simplification to highlight our governing myths.
(Let me pause here first to say that an inn with a library full of many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore seems to me the perfect rest stop in a storm. The Worlds’ End becomes a stranger building with each chapter, but the addition of a bibliophile’s wing seems eminently civilized to me.)
Successful nations need national myths, and the United States has been particularly successful at mythologizing itself. Neil Gaiman gets this, as is perhaps most clearly shown by his novel American Gods, a novel that situates the U.S. as a sort of last-ditch Olympus at the edge of apocalypse, a place that is always also an idea.
“The Golden Boy” gives us Prez Rickard, the apotheosis of the myth that in America anybody can grow up to be President. Prez is predestined, his fate sealed in his name by his mother’s hopes. He’s blonde and blue-eyed, male and middle-class and entrepreneurial: the ideal Presidential material.
Prez becomes not just the embodiment of his mother’s hopes, but of everyone’s. He’s pure and honest, incorruptible, like the love child of George “I Cannot Tell a Lie” Washington and Honest Abe Lincoln. He’s Jesus of the Oval Office, the President as superhero.
The tale’s setting is important, the time in recent U.S. history when good and evil seemed to some folks to be most starkly set against each other. The President that Prez replaces is obviously Richard Nixon, known for his deleted expletives and jowled corruption. Nixon was hardly the most criminal President the country has ever had (Watergate was tawdry in comparison with Iran-Contra), but he’s the punching bag of American presidential history, the figure the liberal left, especially, loves to remember as a demon. He even seemed, himself, to relish the role.
The world of “The Golden Boy”, though, is the world of Boss Smiley, the blind watchman. He’s a happyface dark lord, the cartoon of Dick Cheney’s id. He’s the Bad to Prez’s Good.
America is the place where conspiracy theories go to thrive, and Boss Smiley is the personification of all the powers suspected to be behind the throne. Conspiracy theories are hypotheses of efficiency and power, and they flatter all our images of ourselves – the person who claims to know the true and secret story of the puppet masters gets to feel superior in that knowledge, while the true and secret story itself says that there is greater power behind the forces we see than we know. Conspiracy theories don’t posit a messy, contradictory core at the heart of America; they say that America is even more powerful, capable, and far-reaching than you had previously thought. Boss Smiley is the Illuminati and the Bilderberg Group and Who Killed Kennedy and every other paranoia – but he’s more American than any of those groups because he’s one guy, the lone puppetmaster, the ultimate individualist. The American myth is not one that much likes the messiness of systems analysis; the American myth is lone cowboys pulling a nation up by its rugged bootstraps.
Prez is the lone cowboy up against Boss Smiley, and he is also the dream of Presidential perfection come alive. The best-loved Presidents in America are not pragmatists or policy wonks, but engineers of persona – mythologists. All politicians are a mix of compromises and bargains, corruptions and moments of grace, but this isn’t what makes them rise or fall. If we love them, we love them not for what they do, but for who they are, the story they tell, the myth they inhabit. They channel our hopes and our dreams. Richard Nixon wasn’t a bad president because he did anything much worse than his peers; he was a bad president because he lost his mythology in a perpetual five o’clock Jungian shadow.
Prez becomes not just the best president of all time, but the best myth manager, the best storyteller for the tale of himself. He’s a kind of dream prince, and it’s no wonder, then, that he is saved in the afterlife by the Dream King. He wanders away as a kind of messiah, an everlasting hope to be followed.
It’s a waste, though, to wait around for a savior. Perfection is disempowering. We see that when Prez abdicates. “Things were no longer golden in America,” the narrator says. “It wasn’t that things got bad. It was just that they weren’t spectacularly good anymore.” The image accompanying those words is suffused with sad hopelessness: a superhero left to languish at the bottom of a bottle in a bar.
We can hope for saviors and dream of good and evil, but the world is more complex than all that. There are conspiracies, but they’re mostly out in the open, recorded in the minutes of board meetings, sealed in the offices of K Street, reported on the business pages of newspapers. There are heroes, but they can’t make it alone. The narrator of the story of “The Golden Boy” will keep seeking and following, but he’ll die discontented, having sought a single savior, a myth instead of a reality.
The reality is that the world is not made by any one Boss Smiley, nor saved by any one Prez.
But what would become of the myth of America if any of us actually believed that?
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.