Where are you? On your evening off, your quiet morning, in the brief moments between longer moments of work and sleep and material responsibilities? If you are a member of the mostly secularized modern world, you’re likely looking for salves against alienation. Personal passions, pleasures, numbness, or revelry. If you’re a bit more well-balanced you might be forging forward in the context of career or family, but even still there’s an ache, an often unquantifiable unmet need, something in our nature that says, is this it?
There’s no mistaking what brings individuals to join a cult. In Kyle McCord’s debut novel, he wastes no time investigating the prerequisite headspace for membership. The reasons are implicit. It’s a given that we’re all adrift, doing our best, solitary and invisible like a raindrop in a river. In his central protagonist, Tom Duncan, there is an unmistakable every-man quality that resonates almost ironically with the speculator experiences he’s undergone: i.e. being the sole survivor of a mass cult suicide which took the lives of 137 individuals. And yet even haunted by the ghost of his wife, by the memories of razor-sharp bean hooks, and his own throat ripped like a wet paper bag (leaving literal scars to go along with the metaphorical one), Tom is remarkably placid, capable of small talk, referential humor, and practical logic. Tom is the anchor to which we are tied, solid and reliable, and often unable to even feel the weight of horror that is inextricable from his own existence.
Back to those quiet nights and empty expanses of unstructured time, what are you literally doing? I’d venture to guess that much of America is, to use an anachronistic phrase, tuned in. Popular streaming content is the closest thing to mainstream viewing (ignoring some particular Disney properties) and has fully entrenched itself into the zeitgeist. Here, McCord finds a formal constraint that brings the novel’s themes into full focus.
As we follow Tom Duncan’s journey toward Iowa City for the titular reunion of the Good Weather Cult survivors—those who were expelled or left before the mass suicide that forever purged the membership logs—we’re given a parallel story told in a familiar and disorienting style. Several chapters are rendered as excerpts of scenes from a documentary entitled: The Good Weather. The familiar structure of Netflix docu-series is mined for its rich qualities of narrative trickery.
Motivations become hazy as eye-witness testimony is mined for rich, stomach-churning details, and found footage and documentation are repurposed for the narrative purposes of the docu-series. All seemingly at the behest of the overly self-serious and generally hacky director, Don Burlington, whose name brings to mind discount clothing retail, and whose personal journalistic ethics are at least somewhat lacking. McCord subtly underlines the strange contradictions of our entertainment culture and our seemingly fractious reality. What is, for most consumers, a form of ambient entertainment—10+ hours of streaming content, easily watched while simultaneously scrolling through the feed—is at the same time a reality-shattering testament. Due to Burlington’s unceasing need to wring more drama for his docu-series, he crafts a narrative that suggests Tom Duncan’s culpability in the mass suicide that spurred the story itself.
Duncan, being the only survivor, becomes the only individual who can be held responsible. Much like the pseudo-journalistic documentaries that have dominated for the past decade, Burlington’s series is not interested in investigation, complication, or even something resembling truth, it’s another exercise in narrative and must remain simple enough to follow while only half paying attention, and provide the consumer with a villainous individual at the center.
The cost of bad entertainment is high. Not just for the psyches of the viewers, but for the subjects as well. Tom Duncan, still spiritually and emotionally wrecked from mass suicide of which is now public enemy number one—at least culturally. Duncan’s post-cult life is marked by hostility and ill will from the general population, so much so that it strains his only still functional personal relationship to the point of collapse. To put it one way, it couldn’t get much worse.
There’s No I in Cult
In Iowa City, the last bastion of the former cult has gathered under curious circumstances. That is, our protagonist is unsure whether the purpose of this reunion is to pay homage to the dead, find a way to cash in on the tragedy, or perhaps finish the work the cult began. As the novel unfolds over the course of a few days in its rural midwestern locale, McCord takes his time arcing a narrative toward potential forgiveness or destructive finality.
The cult survivors agree that at some point their organization was a force for good, though where the corruption began is much harder to pin down. It becomes quickly obvious that the past cannot be forgotten or ignored, by any of us. While we may have comforts and content deliverable daily, if we are to stay hermetically sealed in perpetuity, the possibilities for closure are null.
The novel never once balls a fist and shakes it at the sky, cursing technology or entertainment or the average content consumer, and instead seems to state with calm assurance on each page that our best qualities are also our worst. That to live in the crux of human fickle human need and to strive for something more is both necessary and deadly. That what makes us can also destroy us. Community is essential, even if it might kill you, because to go in alone is suicide.
Reunion of the Good Weather Suicide Cult, by Kyle McCord. Austin, Texas: Atmosphere Press, July 2021. 250 pages. $17.99, paper.
Vincent James Perrone is the author of the full-length book of poetry, Starving Romantic (11:11 Press, 2018), the microchap, Travelogue For The Dispossessed (Ghost City Press, 2021), and a contributor to Collective Voices in the Expanding Field (11:11 Press, 2020). Recent work published and forthcoming from Storm Cellar, The Indianapolis Review, Levee Magazine, and Emerge Literary Journal. He lives in Detroit.