September 2012

Jeanne-Marie Jackson

fiction

How I Killed Margaret Thatcher by Anthony Cartwright

My earliest political memory was formed in a large apartment house my parents once renovated. It was 1988, I was not quite four years old, and I had no idea we were broke. No more than once a week my mom would walk my sister and me to Dairy Queen up the street, where we'd eat chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream. It's likely we made this pilgrimage on the day in question, since I recall feeling snug and sated when a face caught my notice that night on TV. It was furrowed but kind, firm but serene, with the sort of genteel smile I'd later associate with dads who probably didn't spend much time hanging drywall in condemned properties. The face belonged to George H.W. Bush, and my own paint-spattered, sweat-stained father wanted him to be president. A few years later we lost that house and my family declared bankruptcy, then fell apart.

By that point I knew we had been unlucky, and that a lot of other people in my small, used-up city had been unlucky too. This has everything and nothing to do with Anthony Cartwright's new novel How I Killed Margaret Thatcher, which takes place in the English Midlands on the cusp of post-industrialization. The book begins with a boy named Sean Bull's memory of Thatcher's first day in office, the recollection's grownup weight refracted through his nine-year-old viewpoint. Cartwright comes out swinging with the opening line, spoken by Sean's fifty-six-year-old Labor loyalist grandfather upon learning that his brother voted for the other side. "Judas Iscariot's here, look," he seethes before punching his loved one in the face. "Here comes Judas Iscariot."

What Sean's grandfather doesn't know is that his own son also cast his lot for Thatcher. We're privy to this through Sean, but the information is mostly irrelevant to the rest of the novel's unfolding. It all seems rather arbitrary, who gets what, who dies how, and as a result How I Killed Margaret Thatcher both spins on fatalism and struggles against it. The brother leads a middle-class life and drops dead of a heart attack, while Sean's father is wrecked by unemployment before bleeding to death when he falls on a factory blade.

Thatcher, as you might suppose, is still standing at the end of the book, after Sean abandons his plan to assassinate her with a family revolver. "It wouldn't do any good, would it?" he asks his cousin Johnny, whose usual volubility gives way to a thick, resigned "No." They have this exchange eating bacon and eggs at a café with a TV, across whose screen Thatcher strides in the wake of an IRA bombing of her hotel. "Some workmen in the corner of the café start to clap," Sean recalls. "They clap and cheer in the hall as Margaret Thatcher gets to the podium, they wave their Union Jacks." We imagine some of these men will make widows of women just like Sean's mother, an alcoholic whose last trip is to lay flowers on Princess Diana's grave.

It is much to Cartwright's credit that this angry dismay does not take the form of derision. He draws even those working-class people who wind up on the "wrong" side of history with finely tuned emotional acumen, mourning their lack of foresight, yes, but never passing judgment that infects his commitment to character. The fool's gold of upward mobility glows with sadness, rather than the cheaper sheen of condescension, in Cartwright's hands. And because he won't say, "I told you so," I found this to be the most galvanizing novel I've read in a very long time.

Why, exactly? First I must confess that though its mid-'80s references to Star Wars and "Thriller" rang true to me, I was initially disoriented by just about everything else in this trim, steady book: the switching between Sean's adult narration and the italicized scenes from his youth, the diction full of throaty "yows" and "yers," the Iron Lady quotations that head each chapter. Part of the problem is that I am of an age and from a place that make me think of Meryl Streep instead of Milton Friedman when this nickname arises at all. What binds the fate of my Northeastern manufacturing town to the coalmines of Dudley, England is therefore not my lived experience of the events Cartwright recasts, which will no doubt be enough to keep some (older) people reading. It is the plaintively personal tones of lived decay: of a region, of a compact, of a sense that every place will find its place in a new world order.

Zadie Smith raises the issue of region in her cover blurb, and it is no doubt integral to Cartwright's writing. In fact, Smith makes a pronouncement that could cut two ways in its implication. "Shines brightly for regional fiction," she writes, the "for" here either a mark of low stakes (that was great, for the minor leagues!) or a challenge to the prevailing standards of the global literary marketplace. What those standards are can be gleaned from everything Cartwright doesn't do: he doesn't show how a Midlands quarry connects to a trading room floor in the City of London, and he doesn't sustain our interest in where Sean came from because he wound up somewhere we'd rather read about. How I Killed Margaret Thatcher is an elegy for just scraping by that turns into a portrait of outright devastation. It is not a call to arms in any obvious sense, but it is a yowl of rage at the fact that we cannot imagine, at this point, what a viable call to arms would even look like.

As the characters in How I Killed Margaret Thatcher are pushed further astray of the lives they worked to have, I got angrier at the Prime Minister's glib encouragement. "In Britain we have the tradition of facing the severest tests as a family," she's quoted at one point, "working together to meet and overcome adversity." But families are fractured, and marriages wilt, and people wind up in straits they'd never imagined. Who's to blame by the time it comes to that? Anthony Cartwright knows where his finger is pointing, but his target won't stand still. Her venom, after all, has been flowing since the novel's second chapter, and it took me until the end to really care.

How I Killed Margaret Thatcher by Anthony Cartwright
Tindal Street Press
ISBN: 978-1906994358
288 pages