SUSAN STAMBERG, host:
There was very little that was funny about the intrepid, passionate, muckraking American novelist Upton Sinclair, but a new novel about Sinclair is hilarious and bizarre, brilliant wacko. The book is called, U.S.! It opens with a still-dead Upton Sinclair sitting in the backseat of an old four-door Plymouth Valiant. Two young men have just exhumed his body. Author Chris Bachelder reads from the opening scenes.
Mr. CHRIS BACHELDER (Author): (Reading) I stared at the slumped ?gure beside me, which was brie?y illuminated as we passed under streetlights or caught the headlights of oncoming cars. He was wearing his funeral suit, the one, I think, that he wore later on the cover of Rolling Stone. It was already, at this time, too large for him. It may have fit at one point, but death was making him smaller, frailer. His gaunt face was creased and collapsed; lines ran from his eyes and the corners of his mouth like the spoked ?ight paths on an airline hub map. His skin was mottled with spots and scars, and coated with a thin ?lm. Dirt or dust. Time, maybe. Or death.
STAMBERG: As it turns out in this novel, U.S.!, this is not the first exhumation of the late Mr. Sinclair. It seems that since the writer died in 1968, the American Left has kept bringing him back to life to help their causes. Chris Bachelder says he had reasons for his plot.
Mr. BACHELDER: My sense of Upton as a sort of irrepressible figure in his life and sort of indefatigable figure, he just kept coming back and he lived to 90 and he wrote something like 87 books, and so it's my sense of him as a character, but also the sense of the sort of revolutionary spirit that can't quite be stamped out or assassinated. It just keeps coming back even if it comes back in sort of weaker and weaker ways, it just keeps coming back.
STAMBERG: Yeah, well, these boys in the car, though, have a very specific reason for bringing him back. One of them says the world isn't fair.
Mr. BACHELDER: Right. I see that as sort of an important sentence, an important sentiment in the book. This sort of kind of third-grade morality, very simple, a simplistic morality that we need Upton. We need him back because of his passion for social justice.
STAMBERG: Chris Bachelder, forgive me please now for asking you this question because it's a question that people are always asking authors, but it just seems so appropriate in your case: why did you write this book?
Mr. BACHELDER: I wanted to resurrect not only Upton, but I wanted to resurrect if not the political novel, then at least a sort of discussion about the political novel in trying to resurrect not only Sinclair, but discussions of justice, but discussions also of how an artist can engage with the world, which is certainly a question that is important to me and a question that I'm confused about. I think I started the book with a feeling ambivalent about Sinclair, but also about political writing in general, and I like that starting, ambivalence and confusion seemed like a good place to start a novel.
STAMBERG: Well, if we know Upton Sinclair at all, we know him best for The Jungle. This is a novel that he wrote in 1906. It was about the meatpacking industry and the Chicago stockyards. Can you read just a little passage from The Jungle?
Mr. BACHELDER: I'll perpetuate everybody's memory from high school about The Jungle here with a particularly disgusting passage. There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage. They would come all the way back from Europe, old sausage that had been rejected and that was moldy and white. It would be dosed with Borax and glycerin and dumped into the hoppers and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out onto the floor in the dirt and sawdust where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hands over these piles of meat and sweep off hands full of the dried dung of rats."
STAMBERG: Oh, good heavens. And what was the impact of that book apart from the fact that everybody who read it never ate another sausage probably?
Mr. BACHELDER: That's an interesting story because Sinclair dedicated the book to the working men of America and he was more interested in the wage slavery of the Chicago packing town stockyards and so he said famously later, I aimed for the public's heart and I accidentally hit it in the stomach. It lead to meat reform.
STAMBERG: Yeah, and what was the impact on him? He became extremely famous, didn't he?
Mr. BACHELDER: Almost literally overnight. The book sold millions of copies and here and worldwide it was translated into something like 17 languages. It led to a discussion that's sort of impossible to imagine today, a hundred years later, between Sinclair and the President. He telegrammed Roosevelt, he ended up in the White House. Here was a 27 or 28-year-old author, previously unknown, completely, having conversations with President Roosevelt.
STAMBERG: In your book, U.S.!, Upton Sinclair keeps getting murdered. In fact, how did he die? Or were there attempts on his life?
Mr. BACHELDER: No, he died at the age of 90, I think just of old age. He ran for governor of California in 1934, not as a gimmick or a stunt, he received 875,000 votes and really sort of shook up the political world in California and he says in his autobiography that he heard had he won the election, somebody was planning to shoot him, but there were no attempts on his life that I know of.
STAMBERG: But you keep killing him off. In your novel, he gets stabbed, he gets shot at. So how come?
Mr. BACHELDER: There's something going on here that he's actually becoming less politically and culturally important. He keeps writing his books. By the conservative right he is considered, you know, as big a threat as ever. They seem ready and willing to stamp out anything that might start or that he might start, and also there's a sort of, the assassins in the book are sort of cultural heroes and they're after fame. They don't know much about socialism, they don't know much about Sinclair, many of them, but they're seeking sort of their 15 minutes.
STAMBERG: Well, you're saying conservative rights can bear him, but it feels to me as if you're doing a send-up of the left as well.
Mr. BACHELDER: Yeah. You know, I guess I am. I don't want to be seen as sort of an apolitical sort of equal opportunity, you know, satirist here because I think the book has its heart in the left, but the send-up I think would be of a sort of weakened liberalism or a weakened left in this country from a hundred years ago, which wasn't really that long ago.
STAMBERG: Yeah, so what do you think, if he came back from the dead today, maybe this is your next book, would the 21st century in the country kill him off yet again, Upton Sinclair?
Mr. BACHELDER: I have to say I haven't seen anything recently that makes me very hopeful that he would be celebrated.
STAMBERG: And why? Because he was too much of a muchness, too much of a moralist in a world where even that sort of morality has become so politicized?
Mr. BACHELDER: Yeah, I mean, we can separate him as a public figure and as an author. I think what's interesting as an author is that in the hundred years since The Jungle came out, we've just, I think we have really different ideas of what makes a good novel. I recently wrote about this in an essay and the working title is, How Did a Good Novel Become Bad? Because you seen in 1906 it's celebrated not just by the proletariat, the working class, but by artists and statesmen and politicians. And so, it was a good novel. It was considered a good novel, but what has happened in a hundred years is interesting. I think our criteria have shifted from what makes good literature.
STAMBERG: We don't want novelists shaking their fingers at us anymore, huh?
Mr. BACHELDER: Absolutely. And this is, he's sort of maybe the most recognized of a group of writers in the early 20th century who very politically engaged, they came out of journalism often, they were interested in the documentary novel and reportage, and yeah, that hasn't held up well, that kind of writing. He said late in his career that shows sort of a touching self-awareness, he said writers I know collect their material with microscopes and I've always collected my with telescopes. And I think, you know, a hundred years later we much more value the microscopic in our novels, the sort of beautifully rendered day-to-day life than the telescopic, the big picture.
STAMBERG: Yeah. Thank you very much.
Mr. BACHELDER: Thank you, Susan.
STAMBERG: Mr. Bachelder is author of U.S.!, a novel. He's on the faculty of Colorado College in Colorado Springs. To read an excerpt of his book, come to NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.