Thomas M. Disch was born in Iowa and raised there and in Minneapolis. On Wings of Song is his first extended treatment of the Midwest, and it is infused with the visceral, unmasked fury of a refugee. Disch is an angry writer, and large portions of his work are directed without mercy at his chosen enemies: the Catholic church, conservatives, middle America. Disch does not have any interest in humanizing the individuals of these targets; his natural inclination is towards unmitigated horror, and he is always willing to portray it in the form of average Americans.
On Wings of Song, written in the late 1970s, predicts a mid-21st century America that has split in half, into a Midwest that functions as a set of police states of wholesome values, and decadent cities like New York, which is presented as an extension of the pre-90’s city. I will concentrate on the Midwest.
Disch portrays the Midwest states as split themselves, going into fortress mode with vocal, fanatical contingents of fundamentalist jingoistic “undergoders.” (Think the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and other such highly mobilized groups, extended into significant community organizations.) Minnesota becomes a hotbed of sin, allowing pornography by a small margin, while Iowa, by six percent, has made possession felonious. The undergoders fight against even the mildest Supreme Court decisions that protect freedom of speech. There is no resolution here, but Disch implies that the undergoders are growing, conservative policies are dominating, with the constant threat of new state-level initiatives, and no serious opposition exists, partly because the opposition keeps leaving for New York and other more hospitable places.
This is where our hero, Daniel Weinreb, grows up, and, after a stint in jail for possession of porn, he gets the hell out, only returning to Iowa at the end of the book, where he is shot and killed (maybe–it’s complicated) by his old undergoder high school teacher. That, at her trial, she defends herself with the Pledge of Allegiance is as good a summation as any.
The depiction of the heartland could come across as cartoonish and excessive, but Disch delivers the message with such a sober directness that it reads as a memoir: “Look, I have scoured for the depths of these people and found nothing, as you will see.” The novel repeatedly reinforces that these people are exactly who they appear to be, no better. Their baldly horrific characters eliminate any trace of humor or satire as well. In light of his concerted emphasis on the simplicity of these people, it makes sense that Disch, in his later fiction, moved towards the horror idiom, where broad portrayals do not require justification and are de rigeur. (John Crowley wrote an article on his later work a few years back, but I have yet to track it down.)
Yet it is here that it is most striking, because of the justification. The most fleshed-out conservative is a powerful upper-class government official, who pragmatically explains the use of the various draconian policies of Iowa to Daniel. It is not the logic of a Karl Rove, wrecking the nation to trick assorted constituencies (who in the White House is wholeheartedly aligned with Christianity, rather than with power for its own sake?), but of a man who truly believes that the good old repressive Christian state makes the best polity. This is the most “credit” Disch gives this sort of character; afterwards, he seems to have lost patience.
There is much else in the novel, including a heavily symbolic degradation in which Daniel has his skin dyed black, hair frizzed, made a gay sex slave, and forced to wear a chastity belt. (Disch also used the theme of whites being dyed black in the suspense novel he co-authored with John Sladek, Black Alice, and it merits further examination.) But now, unsurprisingly, it’s the political scenario that resonates. Reading On Wings of Song today, it seems much more of a warning than it did when I first read it, an allied message from enemy territory. I suspect Disch partly meant it as such. The message is, as all such things are, debatable, but the survivor’s stare with which it is delivered is not.
Update: Maud Newton presents the email of an estranged middle American who can no longer read her site due to filtering software at work. His attitude reminds me of Disch, but with frustration replacing anger.
It’s also a sign of how bad things have gotten that squeaky-clean Homestar Runner, with its strict avoidance of vulgarity beyond the word “crap,” was somehow blocked anyway. The thought of children growing up without Homestar Runner is really depressing.