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Only Americans Burn in Hell: A damning indictment of both conservatives and liberals

Jarett Kobek's ferocious satire on modern American politics fires up at just about everybody.

When I read the first 20 pages of Only Americans Burn in Hell, I laughed so hard that I had to stop reading, because I was in a public place and people were giving me funny looks. When I read the next hundred pages, I thought, “This is pretty funny.” But by the time I was into the second half of the novel, it was, “Okay, could we please stop now?”

Written in short one-sentence paragraphs (à la Kurt Vonnegut), Turkish-American satirist Jarett Kobek’s novel has the same effect as a stand-up comedian who fills a two-hour gig by bashing you over the head with the same jokes. But, they’re pretty good jokes – to begin with.

Kobek is shouting his rage at about all that’s wrong with the US: Donald Trump, xenophobia, white nationalism, the war machine, the endless excuses for destroying Middle Eastern countries in the name of democracy.

But if you think you can settle into a comfortable satire about all the things you hate anyway, you’re in for a horrible shock. Only Americans Burn in Hell is as damning of the American left as the right – the liberals as much as the conservatives – because Kobek sees the left as gullible, hypocritical and part of what he repeatedly calls “the celebrity branch of American governance”. He describes Steve Jobs as “a psychopath who enslaved Chinese children and made them build electronic devices, which allowed American liberals to write treatises on human rights”.

Worse, says Kobek, the left often sweat the small stuff while ignoring the big picture. Who really cares how many women are chief executives if the companies they head are exploitative capitalist enterprises? And surely only an idiot would suggest that having women as the main characters in inane superhero movies (Wonder Woman et al) is a powerful political statement. Aren’t fantasy games and movies the current drug of choice to avoid reality?

To prove his contempt for the genre, Kobek builds his plot out of fantasy, with all its “bullshit magic”. Two Amazon-like women come from “Fairy Land” to critique and wreak havoc upon modern America. But we’re not fooled, as Kobek repeatedly forgets his plot device to deliver first-person rants.

Already pelted in his earlier book, I Hate the Internet, one of his favourite targets is the media, especially social media, which has apparently debased public discourse on the left and right, turning it into a pointless shouting and slogan-trading match. The media has become a machine for wrecking liberal democracy. Meanwhile, the literati overvalue their effect: “Still hoping books will save you?” asks Kobek. “Stop pretending. Everyone else has.”

Are there any grounds for hope in this raucous, wide-swinging satire? Not really, but then satirists aren’t required to provide answers, are they? From Juvenal to Swift to now, kicking wildly in all directions is part of the satirist’s trade.

Sure, you’ll laugh. Sure, you’ll gasp at the horror of it all. But, in the end, you’ll feel a little punch drunk as he repeatedly pounds his point home.

ONLY AMERICANS BURN IN HELL, by Jarett Kobek (Profile Books, $32.99)

This article was first published in the September 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.