Land That I Love
by William Freedman
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
On the final page of his satirical debut novel Land That I Love, author William Freedman makes the following disclaimer: “Everything you just read was a joke. Except the title.” Depending on your sense of humor, you might take issue with the first half of that statement.
In some nebulous far future, humanity has spread out among the stars and Earth is just one of many planets in a larger collective known and the Eminent Domain, run by the fiercely myopic President Sajak Pickfour, who has a habit of murdering any staff members who bring him news that doesn’t mesh with his narrow view of reality.
But when MetLifeWorld is blown to smithereens by an Earth separatist group, the Eminent Domain launches a preemptive strike against America, determined to root out and destroy the Terrahists. This development doesn’t sit well with American President Watts Barber, who launches a counterinsurgency from his presidential palace in Las Vegas, with America’s Well Regarded Militia forces led by General Camille Dishinstaller to undermine the Eminent Domain, and show the invaders that America may be tougher to conquer than they anticipated.
This should give you a flavor of Freedman’s brand of humor, which relies heavily on hyperbole, wordplay and puns, and runs the gamut from clever to corny to cringe-worthy. There’s only one apparent guiding comedic principal: go as broad and as far over the top as possible, and don’t let basics like character or story get in the way of a gag—which goes a long way in explaining some major flaws in Land That I Love.
First and foremost, the book’s plot drives the characters. Instead of presenting us with a group of people to care about and root for as the story progresses, Freedman bombards us with a series of events featuring a cast of caricatures existing solely to facilitate whatever joke/radical idea/subversive observation he feels like conveying at any given moment. And the caricatures fall into one of two categories: “good” clueless dopes and “malicious” clueless dopes.
In addition to the aforementioned Camille Dishinstaller and Sajak Pickfour, the rogue’s gallery consists of Iman Appdev, General Sanmateo Veecey, Emelem Cox-Arquette, GQ Celltower, Merv Griffin Croupier, Reit Daytrader, and Admiral Ziglar Tobaccoflack. Now if you find these names worth a chuckle due to the not-so-sly wink they give to the trappings and foibles of modern culture, then the humor in Land That I Love will be right up your alley. If, on the other hand, you find them kind of hackish, then you’d best gird yourself for a long ride.
But since humor is a matter of taste, it would be unfair to rate the book solely on those grounds. Which leads us to the book’s structure, which might best be described as haphazard. Freedman unfolds the story in a series of text blurbs that makes chapters superfluous, hopping randomly from one character to another in order to keep the invasion plot steamrolling along—which ironically serves to stunt the narrative momentum because we never spend enough time with any of the characters to really start caring about them. And though the book does manage to reach something of a critical mass toward the end, and a few of the clueless dopes turn out to be somewhat sympathetic after all, it’s too little, too late.
That being said, Freedman is brave to attempt this kind of narrative approach in crafting a modern American satire, and in good company. The premiere example is Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, where Vonnegut relentlessly piles seemingly errant thoughts, one atop another atop another, until the book becomes a writhing, percolating brew of surreal ideas that somehow distill into a grand catharsis about America. Unfortunately, Land That I Love never bubbles beyond a sour mash of comedic misfires and shallow observations.
And that’s where Freedman must be held to strictest account if he wishes to be taken seriously as a satirist. Yes, the narrative of Land That I Love sputters along in service to the plot, and the characters and situations portrayed in that plot exist for the sole purpose to set up gags. All of that could be easily forgiven if the punch lines to those gags were fresh and revelatory. But they’re not.
Freedman spends a considerable amount of time and energy to make observations about recent history that are old hat at this point: George W. Bush is a jingoistic hillbilly who lets blind faith in a higher power and his own decisions trump reality; the pretenses for the Iraq war were fabricated; American culture has been subsumed by celebrity gossip and corporate greed. We’ve heard it all before. Freedman is exploring territory that almost every left-leaning comedian and pundit claimed a decade ago, and hasn’t come back with anything new to report.
Which is a shame, because if Land That I Love proves anything, it’s that William Freedman is game enough and brave enough to straddle himself to a missile, Slim Pickens style, and rain madcap destruction upon the conceits and ideals that Americans hold so dear. He just needs to ride that rocket a bit further, to less heavily-bombarded ground and blast some new craters of his own.