You may be most familiar with Seth Colter Walls‘s cultural writings, for places like Pitchfork, The Guardian, and The New Yorker. He’s also the author of a new novel, Gaza, Wyoming (print/ebook), set in an alternate timeline where a Mitt Romney victory in the 2012 elections led to an dramatic foreign policy maneuver. About the novel, Keith Gessen has said, “[w]ith more than a shade of early Pynchon, Walls spins out an alternative vision of contemporary history that sheds some unflattering light upon our present.” We’re pleased to present an excerpt from Gaza, Wyoming below.
CAMP ECHO CIVILIAN PARKING LOT,
TUESDAY, AUGUST 4, 2015
In the months since the rapid construction of Wyoming’s Palestinian internment camps, Persia VanSlyke had often wondered what the non-citizen zones looked like. Given the Romney administration’s near-total media blackout during the last year, citizens had relied on imagination when discussing the camps and the fresh ring of domestic prisons that now surrounded the Palestinians. This was all newly built not just in the nation’s interior west, but also in the minds of America’s voting population. On this level, Persia, the top investigator for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was a Regular American. For hir, such commonality was an experience rare enough to consider savoring.
Tonight, though, Persia would be shed of even this limited civic belonging. Ze would get, at minimum, a few dozen views of an encampment inside Gaza, Wyoming. Some citizens, ze knew, pictured internment zones akin to the faux-Arab outdoor hovel-and-marketplace sets (actually housed in California) that had been popular with a variety of post-9/11 scripted-TV producers. Other individuals envisioned the high-security-prison landscapes featured in different cable dramas having nothing to do with the Middle East. The rest of the public did not know what to imagine, though even those without guesses privately wondered whether their children—or they themselves—might want to take advantage of the student-loan debt relief that was being made available to citizens who indentured themselves as support staff inside the internment zone. Turning yourself in to one of these new debtors’ prisons wasn’t such a bad exchange. You lost the right to vote while you toiled in Gaza, Wyoming. But at least each maxed-out free-market failure could count on food and shelter while working off outstanding balances (for the record, at approximately 2.5 times the rate of a Federal education loan’s minimum-repayment schedule).
Persia parked a rented Prius in the exterior lot of Camp Echo, the New Gaza facility that held hir officially approved interview subject. Ze was not inclined to judge hir fellow citizens too harshly for any collective failure to keep up with the past year’s breaking news. After all, the Romney administration’s final-status Israeli-Palestinian talks had blazed along—efficiently or heedlessly, depending on your chosen news source—following 2014’s armed conflict between Israel and Hamas. And the New Gaza camps had materialized upon the horizon of Wyoming’s unoccupied expanses almost in tandem with the international negotiations. Even after the average American news junkie had come to accept that there would be an actual, if shrunken, Palestinian state in the West Bank, it took a few days to realize that it could not possibly hold the entire Palestinian diaspora of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan—let alone all Gazans. It took a few days more to realize that these luckless individuals would have to go somewhere.
Persia leaned against the Prius for a stretch, enjoying the dusky range of colors stirred by the setting sun as ze waited for the government-contractor escort who would drive hir into the camp’s high-security zone. Too soon, an up-armored New Gaza Humvee rolled in, complete with hulking driver.
“You wanna hit the head before we go into Teachers’ Row?” he yelled from his chariot, looking hir up and down with a gaze crassly granular in both speed and texture. “We’ve got boys’ and girls’. Whatever your pleasure.”
“I’m good,” Persia said, vaulting hirself into the passenger seat.
After extensive haggling with Homeland in D.C. and the local bureaucracy in Wyoming, Persia had at last received credentials to enter Camp Echo. Ze was to interview one of the applicants who’d successfully plead for a debt-relief sentence and was now teaching English to Palestinian schoolchildren in the internment camps. A certain Grandin Samuels. Hir boss’s nephew. This was an off-the-books operation for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Persia knew. Not because it was too dark or sensitive to keep track of officially—but because it had nothing to do with getting Democrats elected to the Senate. Checking in on this 25-year-old was just a favor to the kid’s mother.
Really, Persia should have been a couple hundred miles west, in Idaho, assessing whether an ex-Microsoft billionaire in semi-retirement could help the Democrats take back the Senate next fall, whatever the outcome of Romney’s reelection bid. Typically, ze’d have objected to a task as unrelated to the general thrust of hir mission as this one—but ze did rather covet the chance to look around the New Gaza digs. The potential senatorial candidate in Idaho could wait an extra night.
Persia’s driver checked in at the main security gates and drove on, into the non-citizen zone. The architecture recalled nothing so much as a low-to-the-ground office park. For a second it seemed unduly banal, until Persia recalled how the president had sold this grand construction project to the country as all but prophesied by his experience managing the construction of an Olympic village in Salt Lake City. Of fucking course, ze thought. Rewriting this many of the nation’s rules was not an exercise in poetry. It was project management.
Looking around the administrative Humvee, ze noticed a glossy 8-by-11 brochure in the passenger-door side pocket and picked it up, the better to avoid further conversation with hir driver. It was an in-house publication, the equivalent of a magazine produced by the media arm of an elite day spa. (As in America proper, Persia thought, the correct play here was to look as high-class as possible, no matter the conceptual disjunction.)
The front cover featured what looked like a Palestinian kindergarten class, happily engaged in full-on arts-and-crafts mode. Included within the document’s overall page count was a “letter from the editor”–style opening essay from Warden Hugh Lovegren, the overseer of this particular New Gaza camp. The centerfold of the 40-page, thick-cut issue of Better Living Through Internment turned out to be a pull-out calendar: apparently there was a nightly entertainment schedule here in Camp Echo.
Instead of going through the hassle of importing touring entertainers or lower-tier stand-up comics whose names Persia might have recognized, Warden Lovegren’s camp depended on the interned Palestinian population to entertain itself. There were Arabic rock bands and jazz outfits. Classical ensembles on alternating weekday evenings. Marketplaces on Saturday. Assorted activities for the Whole Interned Family dotted the late afternoons. Worship services, along multidenominational lines, were held throughout the week, as appropriate.
Toward the back of the book a confusing roster of camp-administrator contacts was filed under the heading “Resources for U.S. Citizen Prisoner-Staff and Their Families.” Every department sounded like every other one, which explained why Persia’s boss—an expert bureaucracy-navigator—had encountered such difficulty in even ascertaining which camp was holding his sister’s kid.
Despite the hackle-raising material, Persia was not quite able to hate the place at first blush. Surely the camps had created shovel-ready jobs, ones that the economy still needed quite badly. And hardly anyone could deny that a small, West Bank Palestinian state was better than none at all. The American public and commentariat had been demanding Big Ideas from Romney ever since he stepped into the Oval Office. Well, he had given them one, hadn’t he?
The Democrats had been dashing about in an uncoordinated fashion for all of 2015. And now it looked as though Romney’s 2016 reelection bid would be about keeping the peace—helping Israel see that it had been right to trust this scheme (which had left a fair amount of its West Bank settlements intact). Thus proving that, once again, out-of-the-box American leadership—even better, a collaboration between government, volunteered domestic prison-laborers, private security systems and defense contractors—was the world’s indispensable problem-solving mechanism. As with the nation’s various other hubristic interventionist schemes, the effort had earned a temporary critical reprieve from the public; for now, people were keeping their doubts to themselves and hoping for the best. It was a bad time to be a Democratic candidate, and an even worse time for someone in Persia’s job to be doing anything other than scrounging around for top-tier Senate candidates. And yet here ze was.
Given the driver’s initial attempt at cleverness on the subject of hir looks, Persia had guessed that the close of their time together would require forbearance in the face of some additional fumbling. But as soon as they arrived at Persia’s destination, Captain Humvee just stared silently as ze shut the door. Not so much as a neutral goodbye grunt passed between them in the moments before the vehicle pulled away. Whatever additional commentary the driver held in reserve would be delivered to another audience, Persia thought—and counted hirself glad of this on a personal level, while remaining slightly afraid for the broader world.
As edifices throughout the neighborhood known as Teachers’ Row projected the coiled, corporate quiet that belongs to office-supply companies in the evening hours, Persia was amused to find that the inside of Grandin’s building more closely resembled the layout of an undergraduate dorm. Ze understood almost immediately that ze had subconsciously convinced hirself that the camps—and their administration—were more professionally run than they probably were. There ze went, another American buying into the Republicans’ spin, ze thought.
Even as a card-carrying Democrat, Persia wanted to believe that the country’s leaders had this project figured out, like, all thoroughly and shit. Seeing other up-armored Humvees on patrol, ze had felt a quick wave of relief shooting through the old lizard-brain. The joint had seemed secure, hardly the incubator of psychological and physical abuse that one’s darkest fears might have predicted. But then ze went through security at the building’s front desk. A metal detector. A wanding by a half-sleepy, overweight male guard—who took no notice of the “N” displayed in the gender field on hir driver’s license. It was no more serious than what you might endure at a county courthouse. Lots of room for abuse in a system so lax, ze thought to hirself.
“Enjoy your stay at Camp Echo,” the guard said without a trace of irony. He pointed out the overnight guest room, directly across from his station, where Persia would be bunking after hir interview. And then, utterly unaccompanied, ze was on hir way.
Waiting for the elevator, ze took in the anonymous, fluorescent cleanliness of this Universal Dorm. The state of upkeep was only disturbed—or was it perfected?—by a stray torn condom wrapper, peeking out from underneath the cover of a radiator. Persia kicked the wrapper fully under the heating element.
Stepping out onto the fifth floor, though, ze was no longer charmed. The hallway had the sickly sweet-sour odor of empty beer cans stored well past their recycle-by date. And when ze knocked on Grandin Samuels’s door, ze was not greeted by a healthy-looking example of young American masculinity—i.e., the kind of kid the Romney administration had plastered across ubiquitous online banner ads. That man-child was a bland, blond chap of solid spirits, secure in the knowledge that here in Gaza, Wyoming, he was working off his federal-student-loan balance at a faster clip than was possible out in the hardscrabble Great Recession economy.
Grandin Samuels, by contrast, looked spent in a way that suggested he hadn’t enjoyed any of the spending. The scruff on his face and neck didn’t appear devil-may-care, just beaten down. His out-of-date bootcut jeans did not present as stylishly ratty; the wear at the crotch was simply embarrassing. Neither slim nor pudgy, he was the definition of insubstantial. At least he still had a fairly nice head of brown hair (though he could have used a haircut). Not that he seemed particularly upset by this state of affairs, nor in being confronted by a shiny, successful citizen from outside the camp. Grandin didn’t even seem alert enough to execute the near-obligatory cisgender double take at Persia’s appearance.
“’Sup,” Grandin said. “You’re from my uncle’s shop, yeah?”
Persia nodded. “It’s good to meet you.”
“Ah, you can save it. You haven’t heard any good things about me. Let alone ‘so many,’ as the saying goes.”
So ze’d crashed the full-time pity party this kid was throwing himself. Persia decided not to indulge him any more than might be necessary. Instead, the investigator shrugged hir shoulders. “I do know that Beverly is concerned for your welfare—whatever his past involvement in your life, or lack of same. And of course your mother is concerned, too. Won’t stop calling Beverly, trying to get information on your status.”
“As you can see,” Grandin said, ushering Persia into the center of a rather small one-bedroom apartment that contained a shrunken kitchen as well as a “living room” (really just a pair of beige beanbag chairs heaped under the garish light of twin floor lamps). Serving as a putative border between the two not-very-distinct zones was a flimsy folding table. On the adjacent wall hung a framed poster of President Romney. Did the official government portrait claim that space in the apartment full-time? Or had Grandin hung it special for Persia’s visit? A nice little shin-kick at the waning fortunes of the Democrats in the year 2015? Ze decided to let the question pass.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Grandin asked.
“You get to have booze?”
He snorted, without any of the rebel’s attractiveness that Persia suspected he saw in himself. “We can’t have the internet, phones—or a ballot. But yeah, they sure as hell give us access to downers. Just gotta pass the Breathalyzer on the way into school, is all. I won’t pretend like it’s a fully stocked bar: we’ve got Almaza.”
“Beirut’s finest bodega beer. No clue what the economy of scale is in terms of its provision here. Probably criminal at some base level. Maybe we looted the plant at the same time we scooped up Lebanon’s refugee camps. But whatever: it’s sure as shit better than Bud. So one just drinks up.”
Grandin brought over two opened bottles from the mini-fridge and handed one to Persia before plopping his ass down on a beanbag chair. The chairs, truly, were beat to shit; in no way did they retain even the faint outline of proper furniture. At this point, they were more suited for yoga-ball or lower-lumbar reform exercises (and abuse). But Persia settled atop hir appointed seat anyway, slightly hunching over hir knees, shoulders stretching hir well-tailored A.P.C. blazer.
“Good thing you wore jeans,” Grandin said before lipping his bottle. By tipping the Almaza almost directly upside down, Persia noticed, Grandin managed to avoid direct eye contact after his tentative—even halfway respectful—feint in the direction of gender inquiry. Persia knew ze was a lot to take in. (Well, tough!) Though ze’d layered hir thick black hair like a bureaucrat preparing for a proper eventual balding—hir pomaded mane was parted far on the right, and took a swooping path across a prominent forehead before fading down to a finely shaved burr along the left side of hir skull—the 5’6″ investigator knew ze did not pass as a cisgender male. (No great loss, that.) New acquaintances, like the Humvee driver, typically needed a second look to check an initial analysis, then expended a third for well-would-ya-lookee-here purposes. Grandin might be a slob, thought Persia—but at least he was outpacing the Humvee driver when it came to handling his curiosity like a proper adult.
Still, the investigator wasn’t in a fully sharing mood. “Yeah, just lucky I guess,” ze said flatly, in a tone calculated to be free of both prototypically feminine lilt as well as omnidirectional masculinist anger. When Grandin’s gaze and bottle returned to earth, Persia saw him shrug, as if to say, “Well, gave it a shot.”
Persia decided ze couldn’t wait to press him on the Romney picture. The president’s grin in his official portrait was dogging hir consciousness. “So you’re a Republican? Or is that just meant to taunt me?”
Grandin smiled for a second, before thinking better of it. “Yeah, maybe it’s not always up there. Nothing personal, though, understand—at least as far as you’re concerned.”
“More like you want me to tell your uncle about it. Maybe sting the family?”
“I wish I could say I were above such indirect methods of communication,” Grandin said, with a legitimately rueful vocal timbre, Persia thought. He took another swig of beer, and Persia took hir first. Grandin had been right; this beer with Arabic and English labeling was better than its comparably cheap domestic analogue.
“But anyway,” he continued, “aren’t you s’posed to be crisscrossing the country, looking for Democrats who can pull the party out of the shit?”
“Well, if you must know, I am on my way to points west tomorrow. This is a pit stop. A favor for your uncle. And also…” Persia trailed off as a wave of sympathy for Grandin swelled to the mind’s shore. Something about his arrested development—and the perma-undergraduate nature of the surroundings—seemed a grim formalization of what armchair sociologists had spent most of Obama’s one term wailing about: the declining labor-market participation of recent college graduates. Twentysomethings who weren’t buying cars or houses, for some reason. Failure to grow up. Now the most elite of these losers—the middle-class kids whose parents couldn’t find them corporate sinecures but did have the wherewithal to email local congressmen petitioning for one of the limited number of spots in debtors’ prison—were here, working off their private-school balances by teaching English to the underage population of New Gaza (the better to assure the U.N. that the Palestinians who had been taken into U.S. custody were being cared for appropriately).
Grandin waved his arms at the rickety desk and pair of bookshelves lining the opposite wall. “You’ve come to slum for a night, and see how the indebted liberal-arts washouts live, then.”
“You must know the whole country talks about these digs nearly nonstop.”
Grandin polished off his first beer. “On top of the cell and internet blackout, we don’t get a lot of newspapers here, either. Just, like, the broad strokes in weekly briefings from camp brass. Lot of us ‘Teach for Un-America’ worker bees attended the first few. But…how to put this politely. Attendance has tapered off?”
“‘Teach for Un-America.’ Clever.”
“Thanks, but not my coinage. ’Nother beer?”
“Not sure I’d advise letting camp security hear you bandy that about. And sure…”
Back at the glorified icebox, Grandin smirked. “Oh, most of the guards are chill. The lower-echelon ones we interface with on the daily aren’t, like, the tricornered-hat patriot crowd? We’re the nonviolent civilian debtor-prisoners, y’know? So the guards are happy to share a laugh, look the other way on reefer distribution. Not that there isn’t said to be a trade in more dangerous product. But most of the respective populations here just try to keep the proverbial head down. You know how it is.”
“Not really.” Persia allowed hirself another 360-degree swivel-head survey of the apartment as Grandin handed hir beer number two. “So, morale is good?” ze said as he settled back down onto his beanbag throne.
Grandin shrugged. “I don’t pay rent. I’ll be out of here in under six years, debt-free—instead of sweating out a 15-year payment schedule in the free-market wilds.” He paused. “I wouldn’t say I’m ‘happy.’ Just fortunate enough not to be suicidal, I guess.”
“And the teaching. You into it? Or is it just a gig?”
Grandin set down his beer. “Like, I came in with a mercenary’s mind? Here just to execute some credit-rating self-help? But that’s the one liberal-arts tenet that hasn’t turned out to be bullshit: caring for other people really does turn out to be something of its own reward. Like, there’s one kid I have. Funny as hell.”
And then he stopped speaking. “You know, you’re pretty easy to talk to.”
It didn’t sound like a compliment, exactly. Persia, who had been curious up until this point, in a general-interest sense, felt hir investigative instincts whirr into a state of alertness. Grandin had executed several attitudinal turns in the past few seconds, pivoting from world-weary to rueful to plausibly excited about this one witty student. And then there was this sudden, total shutdown of affect. As if he’d said too much already. “Anyway, listen to me, I sound like one of the president’s advertisements.” Grandin picked his beer back up off the floor. “Must not have had my daily recommended dose yet.…”
Persia knew it was best not to press him to reveal what he’d already gotten all tight-lipped about. “So, if you could vote next year,” ze began—following his lead in talking about the overall political scene instead of the specifics of his work—“would you reelect the president?”
Grandin smiled. “Look, I was educated in basically the same schools as you were, I expect. Even if I didn’t come out the meritocracy’s other end with an elite job like the one you’ve got.”
“I’m just older than you, is all,” Persia said. “Had a chance to rise in the ranks, before the bottom fell out.”
Grandin put his hands in front of his face in you-can-stop-there formation, as though to underline that he bore Persia’s status no explicit form of resentment. “It’s all to say: I know the liberal knock against this place. A colonial adventure juiced on steroids of corporate privatization and all that. And, you know, is it humiliating not to vote? Sure, in the sense that I grew up thinking of myself as the kind of person who would never have to think twice about my status as someone whose opinion counted for a lot.” He finished his second beer. “But if I’m honest, it’s not like the Democrats—no offense—were really going to do anything about my ridiculous student debt, either. And from what I hear, the trash gets taken out more on the regular here than was the case in Lebanon’s southern suburbs. So I don’t know what to tell you. I’m just a high-school English teacher, y’know?” The resigned 25-year-old let his declaration hang in the air for a second before inviting Persia to finish hir drink and leave him be. “Tell my uncle to say hey to my mom for me, OK?”
Persia had been scheduled to leave for Idaho the following morning. But when ze returned to hir first-floor room, ze could not shake the suspicion that there was something else worth seeing in Camp Echo. If ze was going to kick around an extra day, ze would, of course, need some sort of reason—both for the camp’s administrators and for hir boss. Persia was supposed to connect with Beverly over gchat this evening anyway; perhaps ze could soften the ground a bit in delaying the Idaho trip.
As ze pulled hir laptop from an overnight roller-case, Persia noticed the camp’s in-house propaganda magazine again, stuffed between other vestiges of the day’s travels. After plugging hir computer into the room’s ethernet connection port—one of the perks of not being a prisoner—Persia re-leafed through the centerfold activity calendar. Right before Camp Echo’s IP address showed up on hir laptop’s network-diagnostics pane, the investigator spotted an item that steeled hir already-firm resolve: tomorrow was Under-21 Amateur Talent Night.
Because ze was good at hir job, Persia knew that Grandin’s witty charge—the one whose very invocation had resulted in his severe case of clamming-up—would be among the participants. And Persia would be in the audience. All ze needed now was to invent some public, and rather unspecific, reason to attend. After all, the ethernet connection in the room had not been provided merely for hir own convenience.