One thing that bugged me about my recent attempt at reading FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen, which I did not finish because I did not care for it at this time, was the free range racist in West Virginia.
There’s this scene where one of the the main characters, an older white male, is in a steakhouse in rural West Virginia with a beautiful Bangladeshi woman, his assistant and probably about to be his mistress if I had read any farther along, who is very dark-skinned. When the old man goes to the bathroom, he is approached by what I refer to as a “free range bad guy” who is a racist and makes a lewd and racist remark, suggesting the possibility of a violent reaction.
I’ve seen this in lots of stories from writing workshops, too. This character appears, with perfect timing, who does the most horrible thing imaginable before stumbling back behind the curtains at the side of the stage, without a name, without a face, without any role in the fiction except to be this chaotic evil bastard who does a bad thing.
It’s always a male, too. It’s always a male figure that shows up to mug, rape, spit, punch, hit-and-run, and voice the wickedness of the world. Generally, this character is what would be referred to as a “lower class” character, the sort who would not be out of place in a round up of the “Usual Suspects” for any particular region of the country, whether an urban male with a dark hoody in the city, or a poor white trash racist in the country. If we’re really lucky, we get an evil authority figure, like a cop or an employee of a business that surprise us with their free range evil.
When I meet this character, I am often struck by how the writer does not seem to have any emotional investment in that character, and no desire to really make them something that stands out as a character. They’re stock. They’re no better than the herd of redshirts who died on alien planets, or the countless African-Americans arrested on television screens early in the show or used to fill out the bustling station scene.
Evil is free range, roaming about, waiting for the perfect moment to strike, apparently. Every shadow, and every trip to the restroom in the club, or every step out behind the restaurant is an opportunity for evil to smell our aura and decide if we are ripe for the devil’s touch.
In fiction, it drives me nuts to see it happen. When it’s done well, like in Don DeLillo’s fictions the roving bad characters are given a chance to be more than a stock hoodie or hick, to introduce himself and have a small character arc of his own between what he perceives himself to be and what he truly is. When it is done poorly, like in FREEDOM, it is a stereotype wrapped in a moment that is fleeting and unfulfilled.
Bad things happen, but there is something very trite and twee about such perfectly-timed evil, such convenient-to-the-plot random acts of evil, such stereotypical-stock character evil.
Imagine, in FREEDOM, if the character who made that racist quip about liking dark-skinned women stepped out of the restroom, and sat down to dinner with his wife and kids, who were all dark-skinned. It’s still a racist quip, that his wife would probably not appreciate, but it becomes a reversal of tone where the guy who at first seemed kind of scary turns and and smiles, giving the main character a big thumbs-up about his date.
There are racists in the world, just as there are muggers and bad guys. They are the devil, a swirling chaos vortex of evil looking for a chance to bite away at society. Promoting “good things” like community action and charities, is an attempt to push back the devil, and make the things that drive people into the devil’s care lesser and lesser a little bit every day.
But, how do we write about them?
I will say this about Jonathan Franzen’s moment in FREEDOM: I did not feel like he ever really had a chance to sit down and talk with people from West Virginia. When I was seventeen, I traveled through there with a Drum and Bugle Corps (I played the Contrabass Bugle for the Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps) and we spent a few days there, doing laundry and practicing. In the laundromat, the people were some of the friendliest, most helpful folks I’d ever encountered in a laundromat. I, in my youthful inexperience with laundry, confused front-loading washers with a dryer, because obviously it was a dryer for it had a door like a dryer. I went outside to play my horn in the parking lot, thinking nothing of this. Once it was revealed to me the true nature of laundry machinery, I had to rush to get my clothes out of the second washer and sorted into dryers before the bus decided it was time to move on to the next town with all 100 or so people involved with the touring musical group. The women there did not have to help me, because they were laundromat employees in a poor neighborhood, surrounded by an ethnically-diverse bunch of kids from Colorado/Utah/Texas/Etc but they did help. And, without their friendly and affable help, I’d have been wearing a lot of wet clothes for a while, on that tour, maybe catching some horrible illness as a result that would leave me smelling musty and gross for the rest of my life. I was being teased by my teenage peers for my laundry fail. I was going to be teased about it for a while, no matter what, but if I had damp, stinking laundry, I would be teased much longer, indeed.
It is this that I think about when I think about free range evil.
There is also free range good.
It is perfectly timed. It is out there, waiting in the wings, for a chance to step out into the spotlight. I don’t remember the names of those two very nice, helpful women, who went above and beyond the call of duty to teach the silly kid how to get his clothes dry and hacked a couple extra dryers to do it without costing me all those coins I lost in the front-loading washer. These sorts of things make almost no appearance in fiction, that I can recall. It would be just as cloying and strange, in fiction, as free range evil, but t is out there, waiting for a chance to be helpful, and save the day.
In fiction, we have to deal with these things, floating out there, and waiting for a chance to step out of the chaos and change the course of lives. My advice is to avoid stereotypes, always make sure the free-range evil character is given an arc of their own where expectation about who they are or what they are twists and turns a little bit. Also, remember that there is probably more free range good in this world than bad. Maybe there should be more of it in fiction.