Mike Harvkey’s In the Course of Human Events opens with a scene nearly unrecognizable from the rest of the book. Two characters walk through a Missouri graveyard and read the headstones of veterans of the Civil War. But the prologue is connected to the main plot, because a sentiment about Civil War-era slaves from the opening passage echoes throughout: “They was so loyal to the white woman who owned them that they fought against their own interests.”
That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of In the Course of Human Events. Anyone who’s ever wondered why poor, disenfranchised, rural Americans join the Tea Party in protest of government programs like the minimum wage or socialized medicine—programs designed to assist poor, disenfranchised, rural Americans—will find the answers in Harvkey’s book. We follow the unassuming, likable Clyde Twitty on his journey from down-on-his-luck lost boy to rage-filled monster. The trip is all the more terrifying because we buy Clyde’s humanity right up until the very end. Harvkey tests the limits of our sympathies. He challenges our ability to see the world through an unsavory pair of eyes. He dares us to look at unimaginable acts of violence and consider that they might have been performed by an actual human being.
The nightmarish downward spiral that is the novel’s plot reveals itself in such refreshing, surprising ways that to give any of it away would be to spoil the whole thing. I’ll tread lightly. After being laid off as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, Clyde takes a job working part-time at Wal-Mart, and can barely make ends meet. He’s a product of bad luck (he owes the IRS $862 by no fault of his own) and harsh circumstances. But he’s an interesting case, because despite a mounting frustration with his lot in life, he never complains. The people around him recognize this quality, and either reward it (like Esther, his flirtatious Wal-Mart coworker) or take advantage of it (his mother treats him like an employee). He’s exactly the kind of candidate Jay Smalls, a mysterious and charismatic stranger, has been looking for.
Jay “sees something” in Clyde and bullies the kid into coming to a family picnic, whereupon he introduces Clyde to the concept of anger. “Everybody thinks anger’s a bad thing,” he explains to Clyde. “You got a right to be pissed off,” he finishes, and we’re told that “the way Jay said it made it attractive.”
Already it’s clear that there’s something off about Jay, and it’s not just how clearly he’s exploiting Clyde’s unsuspecting nature. He demands that Clyde join him for karate classes; his nephew has strange tattoos under his hair; he has a bizarre relationship with his daughter, whom he all but uses as a sexual recruitment tool to woo Clyde. But Clyde is made to feel special, and the reader can even understand, at least a little, Jay’s “right to be pissed off” logic, seeing as poor sweet Clyde gives so much to the world around him and gets so little in return. Clyde does start to get angry, and to follow Jay almost religiously—even after Jay’s dark plans are revealed. Jay begins ranting about minorities and his disdain for the government, offering a copy of The Turner Diaries for Clyde’s perusal, somehow convincing him that reading the book is a natural extension of his karate training.
Harvkey convincingly pushes the scary process of Clyde’s brainwashing to the breaking point and then, rather less convincingly, turns Clyde from an innocent victim into an active agent of hate. After a night in a pit, one of the most terrifying sequences in recent literature, Harvkey refuses to let up. The ante is raised in every chapter, the violence heightened. The book becomes so dystopic that the smallest bit of kindness brings the reader to tears. “My dad would be nice to you,” Esther tells a teetering-on-the-edge Clyde, in an attempt to pull him back from the brink, “which you deserve, cause you’re a good person.” It’s been so long since we’ve seen someone recognize Clyde’s humanity at this point, it breaks our hearts to realize it’s still there.
The obvious reference point for Clyde is Travis Bickle, or his real-life inspiration, Samuel Byck: sad-sack losers whom America saw no use, who retaliated by attacking its institutions. Harvkey, in his attempt (and considerable success) at empathizing with a madman recalls Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins as well. Even when Clyde has crossed what seems to be a line he can’t come back from, Harvkey allows him to hear out a Mexican man who chastises his use of “wetback”: “Growing up, Clyde had heard words like ‘wetback’ and ‘nigger’ all the time, practically on every street corner. Nobody’d ever taken offense.” And even when Clyde has seemingly lost his mind, Harvkey reminds us that Clyde’s not evil—he’s got his reasons: “You may not know that the last few years, before I met Jay, were the worst of my life,” Clyde writes to a friend. “I wallowed in self pity and accepted my sad fate as if I had no choice in it at all.”
The book’s nadir is also, unfortunately, its centerpiece—a visit to the World Aryan Congress during which Clyde evidently gets converted, but which takes us out of his head exactly when we should be closest inside of it. On the other hand, maybe that’s the point of In the Course of Human Events. Like the book’s ending, which forces the reader to only imagine the horrifying events to follow, the real challenge is to empathize with someone like Clyde, even when he’s doing the unthinkable, and even when a brilliant author like Harvkey refuses to spell it out for you.