For the past two years or so, I have been hard at work on a novel that is finally nearing completion. It is a funny book about genocide.
Stay with me.
“There’s nothing funny about genocide,” you say. That’s what I thought.
* * *
I’d been thinking about writing a book on genocide for some time, but the project really kicked off about a year-and-a-half ago, around the time my wife told me she was pregnant with our second child. Naturally, I thought about the Holocaust. It wasn’t a morbid thought, or at least it didn’t seem so to me. The thought was this: “At least our first son will have someone to go to the concentration camps with.”
Stay with me.
I was raised on a steady diet of Holocaust films, books, newsreels, and stories. By “never again,” it was clear that my teachers meant “again.” They meant, “Bet on it.” They meant, “Hide some cigarettes in your underpants, you can trade them for bread.” They meant, “Hang on, it’s going to be a bumpy landing.”
I am, it should be said, assimilated. That won’t help, I know. I know that the Jews in Germany were similarly assimilated, that Germany was the height of culture, and nobody thought it could happen. So despite enjoying my flat-screen TV and cheeseburgers, I know it won’t make a difference when the American Holocaust begins (or the Second American Holocaust, if you count the Native American Holocaust, which nobody does). I know that Hitler went back two generations to decide if someone was a Jew, and I know that writers, journalists, and members of “the media” were among those who took their last showers first. And so, despite having no real evidence of an impending Holocaust here in America beyond Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, the rise of the Birchers (and Birthers) in conservative circles, far-left rage at bankers, mid-left rage at capitalists, everyone’s rage at “the media,” poor economic conditions, rising unemployment, anger-fueled populism, and a growing resentment of “others,” I am still convinced that my son—and now my sons—will die, at some point, in something resembling a genocide (assuming that afterward the UN votes to deem it such, which they won’t).
And so, as the doomed life within my wife began to grow, I started reading about other genocides. I’m a fun guy. I read about the Armenian Genocide, and about the Herrero Massacre, and about the Holodomor, and about King Leopold in the Congo, and about the Tutsis killing Hutus, and about the Hutus killing Tutsis. Somewhere in the middle of Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur, or maybe it was Century of Genocide: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts, or This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, or Machete Season,—somewhere in the middle of one of those, it all started to seem…funny. Maybe I was just forcing myself to find it funny. Maybe that was the only response I could bear. Not that the killing or the gassing or the mutilation was funny. Not the mass graves or the piles of bones or the body parts torn off and kept as souvenirs. But the regularity with which the killing and the gassing and the mutilation and the mass graves and the piles of bones and the body parts torn off and kept as souvenirs kept—keeps—happening. That we cry “never again,” and it happens again.
I’m available for weddings and bar mitzvahs.
* * *
Brian is a fat dumpy turd who is going to get his ass kicked one day. Not by me, because I’m almost 40, and he’s not yet eight. But he’s a bully, and he’s been bullying my son, who is not yet five. I look at Brian—almost half my height and damn near double my weight, his barely-fitting XL “Transformers” t-shirt covered with bits of cake and ice cream, his fat little legs already starting to splay out in the manner of the morbidly obese, the cursed beams of his insufficient structure already too weak to cope with the oversized load they are being asked to support, his hollow, heavy-lidded eyes blinking out at the world in the sort of dumb, mouth-breathing incomprehension you see in mall kids and SS men and Glenn Beck—and I think about the genocide books I’ve been reading. They all wonder why. They all seem to think there’s a reason, and that if they can identify that reason, these horrible crimes will never happen again. The reason, they say, is poverty. The reason is racism, the West, the East, religion, atheism, capitalism, communism. But it isn’t.
The reason is Brian.
There is no reason for Brian. I’d like there to be. But there isn’t. Brian just is. Brian happens. Is Brian going to lead Hutus to slaughter Tutsis? I don’t know. Perhaps he’s not that ambitious. But if Brian were a Hutu, Brian would hack a Tutsi, no question about it. Brian would hack a lot of Tutsis. Brian would be the Hutu in that news footage, dancing around the mangled corpse of a young Tutsi with his bloody machete raised triumphantly overhead. Only fatter. And eating a Twinkie.
“That fat little asshole,” my wife said.
“Who?” I asked.
She had just come upstairs from tucking our son into bed, which was when he told her what had happened. Brian had been teasing him on the bus, poking him and trying to steal his GI Joe doll.
“That fat little asshole,” she said again.
“Okay,” I said, putting down The History of Torture and Execution from Early Civilization Through Medieval Times to the Present. “Just calm down.”
My wife is Middle Eastern; if you don’t stop the rock-throwing right away, pretty soon you’re shutting down East Jerusalem. I reminded her that our son has a vivid imagination, and that while something probably did happen, we don’t know for certain exactly what it was, and after all, this is Woodstock, it’s not like he was attacked by the Crips, and eventually, by the way, he is going to have to learn to fight his own battles.
“Okay,” she said. “You’re right.”
My son began to cry. I went downstairs, sat on the edge of his bed, and asked him what was wrong.
“I was having a bad dream.”
“What about, buddy?”
That fat little asshole, I thought.
“What about him, buddy?”
“We’re on the bus,” he said, “and he’s picking on me and stealing my toys and then the bus stops and it’s my turn to get off but he won’t let me and the bus leaves and I can never get home.”
That fat little asshole.
I wanted to tell him that he didn’t need to worry, that there was a man who lived a long time ago named Charles Darwin, and that Darwin figured out that we all evolved from monkeys and apes, and that some of us are more evolved, and some of us are less evolved, and some of us—the Brians of the world—have actually devolved somehow into something less than apes. But I heard my shrink in my head, telling me that all your children need to know is that you love them, and will always love them, and that’s all that matters. And so I told my son that I love him, and that I would always love him, and that was all that mattered. I may have mentioned something about the fact that if Brian ever touched him again, I would cut him up into tiny bits, stick them on skewers, put him on the grill until he was all cooked up, and then feed him to the dogs. And that I really, really love him.
My son laughed.
“Will you mash him up into peanut butter and put him on a sandwich?”
I laughed and said I would.
“Will you drop him off a building and drop a piano on his head.”
He’s been watching a lot of Bugs Bunny lately.
“Okay, buddy, it’s time to get some sleep.”
“Okay. I love you, Dad.”
“I love you, buddy.”
I went upstairs.
“That fat little asshole,” I said to my wife.
I picked up my History of Torture and Execution, and forced myself again to find the humor in it. Because it seems for some things—like the seemingly-genetic, obviously-incurable bestiality of man toward his fellow man—laughter isn’t the best medicine.
It’s the only goddamn medicine.