“You couldn’t make this stuff up, yet it all seemed so natural and matter of fact” — so says Free Dakota, William Irwin’s new novel, in a comment about some of its own plotline. The first part of the comment is, of course, as fictional as the novel itself: Irwin made all “this stuff” up. But the second part is real and true: Irwin’s unusual work of fiction does somehow seem natural and matter of fact.
The book demonstrates, for one thing, that you can start to make a fantasy seem real if you surround it with realistic detail. Free Dakota is as loaded with Americana as a Tom Wolfe book, or it would be, if it were as long as a Tom Wolfe book. Actually, Free Dakota is becomingly brief. Irwin selects exactly the right details to make a fictional small town feel like a real small town, to make a fictional diner in North Dakota seem like a real diner. He does the same with his characters. But descriptive details are never enough. Irwin adds to the details a story that appears to be real because the plot develops naturally from his characters’ psychology.
If there’s a protagonist of this novel, it’s Don, a middle-aged novelist with an enormous writer’s block and even more enormous ennui. Don finds a purpose in life in the attempt of a libertarian group to get like-minded people to move to North Dakota and then vote to secede from the Union. Vying with Don for the role of protagonist (the “apron” as the novel calls it, for various good reasons) is Lorna, a high-class madam who unexpectedly (but reasonably, as Irwin makes it appear) follows Don to North Dakota and becomes a libertarian activist. A third interesting person is Mackey, a dropout from a Catholic seminary who in place of formal religion has adopted classic libertarian ideas, and a desire to live up to them.
Irwin selects exactly the right details to make a fictional small town feel like a real small town.
The plot takes us all the way through the secession campaign, and I won’t spoil the fun by telling you how it turns out. Along the way, there are many arguments for and about libertarian ideas, arguments that most libertarians have encountered before, but probably not in so clever and attractive a guise. And this may be the place to record what Irwin told me about the genesis of his story:
I've always wanted to write a novel, but I wanted to have something to say. I love Plato's dialogues for their ability to raise questions and expose how little we know. I'm an accidental libertarian. I just didn't care much about politics or political philosophy until I was well into my 30s. I just wanted to be left alone, and it was becoming more and more clear to me that the government wasn't leaving me alone. I read [Robert] Nozick and others. Only much later did I read the novels of Ayn Rand, and Atlas Shrugged made a big impression on me. For all its faults, it's a great novel. I think you need to read it as being in the same genre as Brave New World and 1984. It's not meant to be completely realistic, but it conveys important ideas. So, along with Plato's dialogues, Atlas Shrugged is the main source of inspiration for Free Dakota. Readers will find plenty of allusions to Atlas Shrugged in Free Dakota.
That’s true, and charming. More remarkable is the novel’s wealth of libertarian ideas, and how easily Irwin gets us into and out of the arguments about them. Free Dakota is a “novel of ideas” that has freed itself from the melancholy history of its genre. The ordinary “novel of ideas” is all ideas and no novel — witness Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back (1951, 1966), a complete guide to free-enterprise capitalism, written by a good economic journalist. Time Will Run Back is one of the most intelligent books in the world, and one of the nicest. It’s even nice enough to offer a basic plot — a story about the conversion of a dictatorship into a libertarian society. But the plot doesn’t really matter, and neither do the characters. It’s only the arguments that count, and long before you reach the end, you’re ready for something else, such as a real novel.
Irwin’s book, however, is a real novel. You can read it without knowing anything about libertarian ideas and still get involved with the story and characters. And this is strange, considering the way in which Irwin, a professor of philosophy, says that his book developed: “I started with the exchange of ideas and added layers of detail concerning characters and settings in subsequent drafts. I had a basic idea for the plot but not a detailed outline, so I let it develop naturally.”
Free Dakota is a “novel of ideas” that has freed itself from the melancholy history of its genre.
I can think of no other literary work that was written in this manner — starting with the intellectual debates, and adding the details later — that still succeeded in recommending itself as a novel, as opposed to a series of essays. The vitality of Irwin’s story can result from only one source — a sustained interest in the varieties of human life and character. That’s why the plot could “develop naturally” and not mechanically.
There’s another unusual thing about Irwin’s narration, and I believe it has something to do with the “naturalness” of the book. In a normal novel, one learns a great deal about the youth, education, career choices, dietary preferences, and other features of the major characters. One often learns these things soon after the characters come on stage. Irwin’s novel, by contrast, functions on a rigorously need-to-know basis. Most characters are hardly introduced at all; they just show up. Later, one finds out more about them, but seldom anything that isn’t absolutely necessary to the movement of events.
This method never advertises itself; it’s simply a thing one begins to notice. It wouldn’t work in a story that tried to accomplish anything like a sociological survey, or depth psychology — but, come to think of it, it manages to preserve more of the alluring mysteriousness of the human mind than many a chapter of Henry James. And what one sees on the page is more realistic, more natural, in one definition of those terms, than the normal novelistic treatment. In real life, new people aren’t introduced to us with full accounts of themselves, extensively cross-indexed. They just show up, and if we’re interested in continuing the relationship, we learn enough about them to do that. The basis of Irwin’s tale might pompously be called the epistemology of normal life. Whatever you call it, it gives the book a good deal of its realism and credibility.
Something that Irwin told me suggests that for him, creating characters was a good deal like the experience of meeting people in normal life. We meet Person X, recognize similarities and differences between him and ourselves; then, perhaps, we establish further relationships, with the people he knows:
I started with the protagonist, Don Jenkins. Like me, he's an accidental libertarian, but there aren't too many similarities between us beyond that. . . . Most of the other characters developed in reaction to Don Jenkins. I would ask myself who Don would meet in a given situation and I would go with the images and ideas that occurred to me.
It’s a part of normal life to connect ourselves not just with real people but also with the people we meet in books. So it’s very natural for Irwin to add, “The diner owner, John Mackey, is inspired by Hugh Akston from Atlas Shrugged.” Readers who already know Hugh Akston will be interested, and I think amused, to see their old friend from a new perspective. But that’s the way the world really is; people change in interesting ways when we see them in new company.
In real life, new people aren’t introduced to us with full accounts of themselves, extensively cross-indexed. They just show up.
Almost as natural is another comment from the author about the images and ideas in his story: “Some of these changed in subsequent drafts, of course.” Free Dakota is natural in its method but well meditated in its execution. It’s a work of libertarian thought and action that libertarians will warmly welcome.