alternative fictions

Everything Wrong With Trump’s America Was in Steven Seagal’s Only Novel

Photo: Photo: Vulture.

It’s strange to talk about Steven Seagal in 2019. In 1988, when he broke into Hollywood swordfighting bad guys in driveways? Sure. In 1991, when he was arguably the worst host in the history of Saturday Night Live? Okay. In 2006, when he released the appalling blues guitar album Mojo Priest with the first single “Alligator Ass?” Fine. But today? What reason could there possibly be? Well, two years ago, Seagal — close personal friend to Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin —wrote a novel that is both urgently relevant to the current state of our union and completely batshit insane.

Seagal, a martial-arts enthusiast from Michigan, parlayed a West Hollywood dojo into starring roles in more than 50 action movies, from Hard to Kill to Out for a Kill to Kill Switch to Driven to Kill to Contract to Kill, and with each one, his shiny black widow’s peak gets sharper and his husky whisper less intelligible. Whether his character is ex-CIA or ex-Special Forces or ex-Black Ops, he is first and foremost Steven Seagal, an environmentalist aikido master who does not believe in violence and will absolutely murder you brutally.

It reflects well on the nation’s book-buyers that none of this guarantees a fiction best seller. Published in October 2017, The Way of the Shadow Wolves: The Deep State and the Hijacking of America made basically no impact on the literary world but did come up as the butt of a joke on podcasts or among comedians, usually white men. No one claimed it was good, but it was at least a new lens on Seagal, a man who commanded movie screens, cable TV screens, and straight-to-VHS screens for three decades. Now age 66, the B-movie lead should have faded into comfortable obscurity, yet here I am in 2019 declaring that he has written a book and that, against my own better judgment, I have read it.

There’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start with the cover. Behind a dusty red desktop screensaver image of a desert, the sky is not a “sky” but a huge wolf face. In the foreground (but strangely out of focus) is Seagal’s own floating bust, lifted from a recent photo, complete with orange-tinted glasses, jet-black goatee, and incredulous squint, and adorned with clip art: a tasseled suede jacket, chunky medallion/badge, belt buckle, and the handle of a cartoon gun.

Open the cover and you find a dedication to Native Americans, the tribal police, U.S. Marshals, and all like-minded folk who recognize the threat of the deep state. Turn the page and you see an ominous disclaimer:

This is a work of fiction and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental.

But always remember that the truth comes in many forms.

You see what I’m saying about the blurred line between reality and fantasy. Then there is a foreword by Sheriff Joe Arpaio — yes, that Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona lawman known for gleefully rounding up anyone a shade darker than ecru and imprisoning them in draconian tent cities, a man Rolling Stone called “America’s meanest and most corrupt politician.”

Arpaio’s foreword is one page long. He insists that this story you are about to begin (which he himself certainly did not read) “is less than a hair’s breadth from the frightening truth of what is actually happening today in America.” The action of Shadow Wolves takes place entirely in Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe’s home turf. Linger awhile on this page. How many novels are introduced by a disgraced 86-year-old “cowboy” of the American West?

Please skip Seagal’s preface, a gag-inducing queso of political buzzwords (“fake news,” “mainstream media,” “most history is a lie”) in which every single sentence is phrased as a question. It should be noted that Seagal co-authored Shadow Wolves with ghost writer Tom Morrissey, age 80, who identifies himself on the book jacket as a retired chief deputy U.S. Marshal, martial artist, musician, author, political leader, and activist. (Although Sheriff Joe resoundingly lost his Republican primary campaign for Senate last August, Tom Morrissey was at the same time elected mayor of a small Arizona town. No word on Seagal’s political aspirations in the Grand Canyon State.) For the sake of comedy and simplicity, let’s attribute the words in the book to Seagal himself.

With that business out of the way, the story begins in earnest. We meet our protagonist, a Native American tribal police officer and former Marine named John Nan Tan Gode, clearly a Seagal avatar: a “big lawman” who speaks like a “philosopher poet” in a “fierce whisper” and cuts a silhouette that could be mistaken for a saguaro cactus (not an exaggeration).

Seagal’s attitude toward race is unique among artists of page and screen. On human Earth, he is functionally a white man from Michigan, and he endorses offensive white-constructed minority archetypes like the “Magical Negro,” with their folksy spirituality and connection to the land. But “Magical Negro” has the word “magic” in it, so of course Seagal can’t let another character have it. He wants to be that guy too.

John Gode/Steven Seagal is both a police officer at the top of the entrenched power structure and a Native American prince of the spirit world with access to powers no other man can even comprehend. This is the fundamental oxymoron of the Seagal-iverse. Few other action stars of his ilk — Van Damme, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Gibson, Norris — would ever play a nonwhite hero, much less write themselves as one.

Gode is that rare Native American protagonist who exoticizes himself. At one point he says he is of Mohawk heritage, later he says Apache, and though he is certainly the most spiritual and gifted of some tribe or other, he makes a point of mentioning that “Redskins” is a fine thing to name your sports team.

We meet Gode in a theater, watching a screening of what seems to be a three-minute documentary on the Trail of Tears, a story so moving that he slowly backs out of the theater altogether. Outside, he begins a vague spiritual dance, chanting and shaking his fist in the air, until he is approached by a wolf from the underbrush. The wolf “kisses him on the forehead.”

Twice in the course of the story, Gode receives a forehead kiss from a wolf. Twice he pulls a gun on his grandfather’s ghost. Gode is one of the Shadow Wolves, “those who were trained in the old ways because they had the natural instincts of a wolf and could do things like track people and animals based on factors that others couldn’t see or smell.” The Shadow Wolves are a real federal law enforcement unit of Indian officers, operating since the early 1970s, who track smugglers along the Mexican border within the Tohono reservation. But their role in the fight against deep state operatives within the U.S. government doesn’t appear to be documented. (Or is it?)

Gode discovers a different kind of “bad hombre” coming over the border: OTMs, or “other than Mexicans,” who are actually Middle Eastern people in a terrorist caravan (reminder: this was written two years ago). Gode cracks the case using his preternatural connection to the spirit world as well as just finding a shit-ton of Korans all over the desert. (Could this be the source of the infamous “prayer rug” meme?)

The jihadists intend to come up from Mexico through the American Heartland until they reach their destination of “Ithica, New York.” (Seagal must be referring here to Ithaca, that liberal enclave of twee tapas restaurants and millennials who own looms.) Gode can’t alert higher U.S. authorities, because of course the CIA and former President Obama are colluding with the bad guys.

As a writer, Seagal excels at car chases and shoot-outs and car-chase shoot-outs; he never forgets to note how much dust our protagonist’s SUV is kicking up. The action sequences read like they were lifted directly from the goldenrod pages of Half Past Dead or Exit Wounds: full of Sig Sauers and bon mots. The antagonist’s motivations never make much sense. All we need to know is that they are the bad guys and they are definitely in cahoots.

John Gode does not have sex, but he does pull a gun on his girlfriend, a fellow Shadow Wolf who is for some reason always shaking debris out of her long hair. It seems impossible for Seagal to imagine relating to a female person, which isn’t surprising, given that he is the subject of some of the grossest and most credible sexual-assault allegations of the #MeToo era.

Seagal does have notable strengths. Character names, for instance. Gode’s friends include Maurice “Scotty” Random, his sidekick “Noche,” a casino security guard–slash–deep cover DEA agent named “Sunday,” and a wayward youth named “Sweet Tooth.” He also has a way with similes:

“He had a heart as empty as a hollow cave where nothing dwelt, ever.”

“His stomach was sinking like the first car on the steep downward side of a tall roller coaster.”

“The big man moved completely out of his way like a cloud riding the evening wind.”

“Sunday had an accent similar to the late character actor Chief Dan George.”

It’s difficult to say for sure what really happens in this book or how it ends. It is a poorly written story from a deluded mind. It would be perfectly acceptable to conclude that Shadow Wolves has no value and accomplishes nothing. But since I’ve bothered to dissect it in such detail, and I don’t want to admit I’ve wasted my time, let me offer a different conclusion: What Seagal has done here is take the next step in the evolution of the written word, and define a new era of art in general.

More than a century ago we entered the Modern era of art, philosophy, and culture, shaped by the entry of science and industry into daily life. We could investigate and experiment and discover objective truths. If we could understand the world, then we could improve it, perfect it. In books, our narrators were omniscient, they knew more than we did, they were smarter than us and they knew where the story would end.

Two World Wars later, we lost that faith. We hadn’t created a perfect world: Science and industry were just bringing us better ways to destroy ourselves. Our narrators became unreliable, they had biases and flaws and blind spots. They could mislead us, intentionally or not. The truth became subjective. If no one knows anything about anything, really, what do we have the authority to write about? Only ourselves. Suddenly we were drowning in authors named Matt writing characters named Patt. We were reflecting on ourselves and we were skeptical. This was Postmodernism.

Steven Seagal crashes through these cultural developments like Kool-Aid Man with a katana. He gives us something beyond the unreliable narrator: an unreliable author. He has never asked himself, “What is real?” and doesn’t feel the need to start now. He accepts a world that doesn’t make sense and creates a fictional space by breaking rules he doesn’t even see. It’s a lovely kind of self-hypnosis: to create your own truth and believe it utterly. To ignore the intelligence agencies, the statistics on illegal-immigrant crime and border crossings, the indictments approaching. To lie to yourself without realizing it.

Maybe this is what comes after Postmodernism. Characters written by a deranged author, children of a distracted god, not looking for the answers to questions they’ve never heard. Opening their mouths soundlessly, walking by mirrors with no reflection. Happy and already dead.

Anyway … two stars?

Everything Wrong With America Was in Steven Seagal’s Novel