Book Review: In the Course of Human Events by Mike Harvkey

by Colter Ruland —
In the Course of Human Events book cover

When I was first recommended Mike Harvkey’s In the Course of Human Events by a friend, his tagline was that it had given him nightmares. Sold. I sort of had an idea of what the novel was about: an impressionable kid, a freaky karate trainer, and right-wing extremism. What I picked up, though, turned out to go even further down its explosive, frightening rabbit hole than I’d expected.

The front cover—a bloodied fist—uses the same photograph as the 2005 edition of Fight Club, a choice that, it’s safe to assume, is a conscious one. Whereas Palahniuk was responding in the mid-90s to what he perceived as the feminization of American men, Harvkey is responding to the radicalization of men in towns the “American Dream forgot.” In the Course of Human Events taps into an all-too-real post-Recession anger, anger directed at unemployment, centralized government, taxes, gun control, immigration, LGBT rights, ZOG (Zionist Occupational Government) conspiracies, race, gender and ethnicity. The list could go on and on. With our current political discourse centering so much around extremism since Obama entered its smoldering scene, it’s a bold, polarizing, and I dare say praiseworthy step to write a social novel with ultra-conservatism as the punchline of its satire.

Independence, Strasburg, Boonville—all rural towns in Northwestern Missouri where we find Clyde Twitty wandering a landscape as neglected as his personal life. He makes $40 a week driving cars to sell at auctions, drinks an energy concoction of ‘rocket fuel,’ and occasionally dodges old high school ‘burnouts’ who still taunt him on the street. When Clyde takes a Firebird to one auction, in steps Jay Smalls—a karate black belt, with a horribly racist impression of a Japanese accent and something of a brutal streak—to give Clyde what he’s really been seeking all along: a voice. Jay offers to train Clyde at his home in Liberty Ridge. Physical training quickly becomes more psychological, as Clyde is forced to decide between his time with Jay and his time at home with his mother and paraplegic uncle. Other shady characters show up, like Jay’s cousins J.D. and Dale, who tote tattoos of swastikas and 88s. Jay’s daughter Tina is practically coerced by her father into a relationship with Clyde. Pretty soon he’s spending most of his time there at Liberty Ridge, training, reading The Turner Diaries, and becoming more and more aggressive toward competition like Dale and larger targets like “the system” he believes has abandoned him.

The first half of the novel contains some exhilarating manipulation of Clyde, who Jay believes can become an ‘uchi deshi,’ a warrior. This slow, deliberate manipulation of Clyde through Jay’s training is the novel’s strongest draw. The power of belief is so hellbent and twisted here, it leads to a number of surprising, spoiler-heavy moments. Harvkey plants the seeds, but Jay Smalls fosters them; he redirects Clyde’s internalized aggression into a sort of combatant trance state, what he calls themai, directed toward the government. In the last third of the book, Tina poignantly tells Clyde: “‘There ain’t a single thing that’s come out of your mouth since you started training with my dad that I ain’t already heard him say.’” It’s a chilling moment. Clyde becomes a human vessel for an anger that’s not originally his own.

Other novels, movies, and music have, of course, tapped into this inner rage before. I’ve already mentioned Fight Club. Taxi Driver has practically the same plot line. Nine Inch Nails epitomizes a similar frustration with lyrics from its album The Downward Spiral: “I want to know everything / I want to be everywhere / I want to fuck everyone in the world / I want to do something that matters.” You can picture Clyde Twitty listening to something like this as he preps himself to rob a store with Dale.

Perhaps this is why the novel’s greatest strength also reveals one of its glaring flaws: Clyde’s “turn” from a malleable innocent to a diehard believer. His switch of character is brought about by external forces, like attending the WAC (World Aryan Congress), or a later incident that results (or maybe doesn’t?) in a brain trauma. Rather than making his own conscious mistakes, or associating personal experiences with pre-existing prejudices—think American History X—Clyde buys into xenophobic aggression without much subtlety. This is especially true given Harvkey’s particular attention to the bastardization of history: Jay’s incorporating karate codes of honor to aid in his white separatist struggle, Clyde’s draping a Don’t Tread on Me flag from his base-of-operations trailer and later over a bomb. They’re misusing history, replacing the gaps with heroes like the Unabomber or texts like The Turner Diaries. That alone is a scary enough observation. So when Clyde becomes Jay’s poster child for his white struggle, it feels a little less complex than it should be. But this is merely a parenthetical in an otherwise knockout debut novel.

Harvkey has created a work that’s as stylistically hyperrealistic as its topic is incendiary. The stakes are constantly getting higher, and it’s terrifying to watch as Clyde increasingly uses violence as a way to discharge his voice, his desire to be someone that matters. It has a dark charisma. The sheer ferocity of its satire keeps you reading and wondering whether Clyde really believes everything Jay is telling him, even in the face of some horrific scenes involving shootouts, car wrecks, duct taping freezer bags to people’s heads, or getting into a truck strapped with a bomb and a suicide trigger for good measure. It is indeed nightmarish. In the words of Jay Smalls: “‘You and me, Clyde-san, this is what I mean when I say superhuman…You ain’t normal now. Maybe there was a time when you was, but you ain’t no more. That time is over. We’s done with normal, me and you. We’re on to extraordinary.’”

Finding out where they’re going and how they get there is reason enough to pick up this 300 page firecracker of a book. If you’re looking for someone who’s going to stick with you and give you those haunting yet intoxicating nightmares that both my friend and I ended up having, then Harvkey (or Jay Smalls) is your guy.

In the Course of Human Events
Mike Harvkey
Soft Skull Press, 2014
ISBN 9781619022942

Colter RulandColter Ruland is currently pursuing his MFA at the University of San Francisco after moving from the no-man’s-land that is Arizona. His short fiction has appeared in Persona Magazine and Danse Macabre. He is working on his first novel.