As far back as the 1960s, novelist Philip Roth declared that reality in the United States was outpacing the creative capacities of the writer of fiction. “The actuality is continually outdoing our talents,” he wrote back then, “and the culture tosses up figures daily that are the envy of any novelist.” Some 30 years later, Tom Wolfe endorsed Roth’s lament: “We now live in an age in which the imagination of the novelist lies helpless before what he knows he will read in tomorrow morning’s newspaper,” although that did not keep Wolfe from energetically tackling in fiction again and again what he called “the billion-footed beast” of the contemporary scene.
Neither does it keep Lee Oser, some 30 years after Wolfe’s remark, from doing the same in his latest novel, Old Enemies, subtitled “A Satire.” But things that might have been satirical not that long ago can now seem startlingly and simply real to readers who have lived through the recent years of turmoil and change in America that form both the subject and theme of this amusing but still serious work, a multilayered story combining elements from campus radicalism, curricular demolition, corporate tyranny, and media corruption.
For example, a Howard Zinn–like character is named Arnold Benedict Dopp, a satiric stretch maybe, but the title of Dopp’s book, One Nation under White Supremacy—not much of a stretch at all. Militant, violence-prepped students who believe that “western civilization must be destroyed in order to give birth to something new”? Seems pretty familiar by now. Part of the enjoyment for the reader is going back and forth between the two categories of recognition: how much seems real and how much is over the top.
Author Lee Oser teaches religion and literature at the College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit institution in Worcester, Massachusetts. He had four novels to his credit before this one, in addition to literary criticism with a focus on Christian humanism, from Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot. And it seems everything he has taught and written is distilled into Old Enemies.
The main character and narrator is a journalist blacklisted from mainstream outlets (for confronting a powerful female colleague with faking an anonymous source) who now writes advertising copy for a trade journal. Moses Shea, of Jewish and mostly Irish Catholic background, past middle age and unlovely of appearance, is steeped in tradition, especially Roman Catholic. His much-loved father was a world-renowned, slightly heretical theologian especially inspirational to young Catholics of the postwar era. Moses has not been exactingly observant or completely faithful, but the richness of the tradition is an intrinsic part of his makeup and grows richer as he must confront various encroaching nemeses.
At a tech fair in Las Vegas, seemingly by accident he meets an old friend and one-time amorous rival from his youth and Harvard days, the hugely successful billionaire Nick Carty, who offers him a lucrative position on a fledgling project: creating high-level, super-sophisticated advertising campaigns seeking niche markets for new upscale services and products. Nick is very much a man of the technological age but nevertheless knows there is power in the past, “the human touch,” and “the poetry of advertising” that Moses understands.
Thanks to his globetrotting scholar-father, Moses is fluent in languages and in language itself. Indeed, through him language becomes a kind of character in the book. “A word’s full power is rarely present to the conscious mind,” he explains at one point. “The root of a word may be buried beneath its current usages, but that doesn’t mean it’s dead. Good writers will always be aware of the root. A good writer will be conscious of the past, because the past is with us in the words we use.”
The project team consists of a half dozen bright and good-looking young programmers of varied backgrounds and proclivities, “titans of computer science who’d made the crossover into the humanities,” as the novel would have it, who believe they can serve “justice” while also collecting “a juicy paycheck.”
The crew will live and work together on the partially ruined but still pastoral campus of a former Great Books Catholic college, St. Malachy in Massachusetts, now owned by and named after Nick’s Carthage Corporation. (The college did its best to absorb the new politically correct academic trends but was wrecked by Antifa-inspired riots anyway.) Rome and Carthage are among the oldest of old enemies; the dorms on campus renovated for the project are now named “Dido Hall,” and both the campus and New York corporate headquarters feature a bust of Tanit, the pagan Carthaginian goddess.
A belligerent female head of security periodically intimidates Moses, but his most conspicuous enemy is a commissar feminist, the rather deliciously repellent Ann Fitz (a shortened last name suggesting truncated Irish Catholic heritage?), the project manager, also younger than Moses, who takes an instant dislike to him. Ann seems to have grown fully armored from identity politics with nothing else attached, and she burns at hearing Moses’ literary references and linguistic nuances, which she sees as “patriarchal mind control” and “racist fantasies.”
“I’m more convinced than ever that we need to simply destroy him,” she writes in an email leaked to Moses. “His influence on these young people is simply appalling.”
A zany episode with an escaped octopus and the appearance of the Pi symbol in some graffiti (“Western math,” a “construction of whiteness”) helps precipitate a sort of diversity crackdown; Ann warns the staff about “systemic racism” and emphasizes “the values of Carthage,” which begin to look explicitly anti-Christian and anti-American. In woke piety she exhorts, “Let us join together in our determination to end acts of hatred in the community we aspire to,” adding solicitously that the “experience of hate can be traumatic. If you would like one of our counselors to visit you, please reach out to Human Resources.”
But when one of the young people takes Ann’s bait and delivers a tirade that grows unintentionally comical about needing “to hunt out whiteness in every room in every house, in the attic, the kitchen, the cellar, the den, under the rug, in the bathroom and in the plumbing,” her peer colleagues who have begun to see more clearly that “algorithms are not racist” tell her “you don’t know what you’re talking about” and break for beer.
New characters file in, alarming developments unfold, plots unwind, secrets emerge, allies appear, conversions happen toward the good side, and efforts are instigated to win back the college to its former mission as a sanctuary for liberal learning and Christian wisdom.
So much works in this short but packed satire that it can seem captious to fuss about what doesn’t, but the aspect that parodies classic detective fiction doesn’t resonate, with its forced metaphors and similes and a sort of sexual thing with an improbable gray-haired femme fatale. Some unnecessary vulgarity is perhaps meant to suggest the hard-boiled genre, although it didn’t appear back then and is a contemporary addition.
More appealing is the way tradition winds its way through the woke wreckage, this new version of the old enemy, the world of official and unofficial lies about human nature and reality and the country and the West that Moses must navigate. Landmarks emerge as needed, a line from the Sermon on the Mount, something from Flaubert, quotations in Latin, the charming Griffin Café near the campus with “a foot in the American past” forming “a beachhead in the present.”
The sinister atmosphere both on the campus and in the wider world of journalism can’t suffocate the accumulated wealth of human understanding still alive in this postmodern, post-historical setting. When Moses, having survived all the smears against him, is offered a job at the pinnacle of contemporary journalism, the Times’ Times, he finds a poster on the wall demanding that no one enter who does not pledge commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Since he won’t do that, the guard (female again) gives him a verbal quiz, which results in his deliberately missing the DEI point of every prompt: RACE—Olympics; WHITENESS—paper; SPACE—time; SYSTEMIC—circulatory; INTERSECTIONALITY—crosswalk, are among his answers that make the reader laugh but also testifies to the persistence of reality running parallel to current cultural politics. Admitted anyway, he learns that the editors have assembled “a scoring guide,” the “greater the intersectionality, the more valuable the work.” Thanks to Nick’s largesse, he doesn’t need the job and can go on to more hopeful things.
The Times’ Times may still be at the pinnacle. “But,” Moses muses, “the dreamworld woven on our screens by those who spin the narratives and double down on their mendacity without a sense of shame—such sorcery is doomed in the natural order of things. Luck runs out. Time to climb a serious mountain and do a reality check.”
And doing that through this satire is a good place to begin.