I've really come to hate the Fourth of July, as the range of permissible expressions of love for country have gradually narrowed to a tiny collection of empty, self-indulgent rituals which are generally geared more toward proving to those around you how patriotic you are, rather than actually doing things for the nation's betterment. I'm talking about speechifying, president-supporting, terrorism-fearing, and the inexhaustibly classic flag-waving. As opposed to, you know, trying to prevent actual Americans' asses from being shot off. It's as though, instead of planting a tree on arbor day, we printed a picture of one over and over on endless sheaves of nonrecyclable paper and dropped them out of a helicopter over a national forest.
But the thing is, I am a patriot, and a fairly intense one at that. I love the diverse and bizarre American landscape, the comically broad range of possible ways we have of living; I love our national drive and ambition (though God knows it goes off the rails from time to time), our sense of humor, our wacky-ass cuisine.
Is there a way to express patriotism in fiction without sounding like John McCain? All the best books that tackle America, The Subject end up being rather critical of it, or certain aspects of it, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that criticizing America (or certain aspects of it) is, in fact, the noblest, most refined kind of patriotism. Or let me revise that--what counts is seeing America for what it is. Enormous, deluded, beautiful, hideous, brilliant, retarded--the place is incomprehensible, and addressing it in fiction, in all its beastly, smeary unencapsulatable wholeness, is a task that only its greatest admirers bother undertaking.
Which books are those then? Are we talking about, say, Underworld? Independence Day? The Border Trilogy? Big thick books by award-laden dudes? Maybe. But I think we're also talking about Lorrie Moore's self-deprecating comedies, and Colson Whitehead's wry examinations of American self-definition, and George Saunders' whacked-out parallel worlds, and Jane Smiley's rambling epics. Maybe I'll spend the rest of my rainy Fourth reading some of them--stealth patriots.