CAVANAUGH, a new novel by Joshua Kornreich, reviewed by Pedro Ponce

Is it too soon to revisit the Brett Kavanaugh story? I wondered this as I became immersed in the world of Cavanaugh, the latest from novelist Joshua Kornreich. Last year’s American Crime Story: Impeachment (2021) proves that waiting pays off when adapting stories from the headlines. More than two decades later, Ryan Murphy’s retelling of Monica Lewinsky’s affair with then-President Bill Clinton makes Lewinsky (who served as one of the show’s producers), Linda Tripp, and Paula Jones seem less like punchlines and more like harbingers of our current cultural moment.

By contrast, a mere three years separate Kornreich’s novel from Kavanaugh’s controversial 2018 appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, which advanced despite multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against him, including testimony by university professor Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school.

In the author’s defense, it’s been a long three years. But is this really enough time and perspective to see something more substantial than the late-show sketch version, a suggestive (re)vision distilled of caricatures and catchphrases?

In the case of Kornreich’s Cavanaugh, the answer is decidedly, disturbingly Yes. Kavanaugh is kept to a brief cameo early on, throwing the ceremonial first pitch at a minor league baseball game. “[W]hen it came to the subject of Brett Kavanaugh,” muses the narrator, “there were those who believed that he was a sociopathic sexual predator and those who believed he was an unjustly vilified umpire of the law, and that when it came to those two opposing viewpoints, there was a high degree of correlation between the viewpoint held and where the holder of such a viewpoint fell within the spectrum of the political mainstream.” Ultimately, Kavanaugh’s appointment is only tangential to the real story Kornreich is telling—or perhaps more accurately, the story the author is digging out from under our daily, polarizing news cycle.

Instead of centering Kavanaugh, Kornreich centers Cavanaugh, one of the gathered crowd, “a middling middle-aged middle-man who never had an agenda in life other than to provide for his wife and child.” His young daughter, who doesn’t know of the controversy surrounding the game’s guest pitcher, wants a bobblehead doll of the associate justice commemorating Brett Kavanaugh Night at the ballpark. Cavanaugh—who “was not Kavanaugh” —reluctantly gives in. Later, he gets a phone call from his neighbor—suggestively named O’Reilly—who attended the game with his own daughter, and who mocks Cavanaugh’s parental and ideological scruples:

“It bothers you, the doll,” said O’Reilly. His voice was whispery, yet penetrating. There was a sense of relish behind it. “Admit it, man. It bothers you that people paid good money for this doll, that they bought it for all their little kiddies to take home with them. It freaks you out that those little kiddies are all now tucked in their little beds, sleeping with a doll that resembles Brett Kavanaugh. Am I right or am I right?”

O’Reilly’s trolling escalates when he claims not to care if Kavanaugh actually perpetrated sexual assault. “‘Hey, man, haven’t you ever done something like that to a girl, or, I mean, a woman before?’”

The question haunts Cavanaugh for the rest of the novel as he confronts his own culpability and childhood trauma. Cavanaugh falls off the wagon, slacks off at work, and all but abandons his family.

But the change in the story involves more than just the titular character. As Cavanaugh unravels, so does the fabric of (narrative) reality itself. It’s hard to say more without spoiling the uncanny surprises that Kornreich has in store. Cavanaugh recalls the work of Nathanael West, who was similarly obsessed with the rot beneath the veneer of the American Dream. Like the cheated seduced by an illusory vision of California in West’s The Day of the Locust, Kornreich’s characters have little outside of the scripts they perform in order to survive the desert of the real. Cavanaugh brings to mind the work contemporaries like Carmen Maria Machado and Nafissa Thompson-Spires, for whom metafiction is serious play. Far from a clever exposure of the mechanisms behind the narrative curtain, Kornreich has a more significant target in mind: the culture obscured by the stories it tells about itself, where the illusion lingers far after the fiction is exposed.

Cavanaugh, by Joshua Kornreich. Montclair, New Jersey: Sagging Meniscus Press, October 2021. 236 pages. $20.95, paper.

Pedro Ponce is the author of the story collection The Devil and the Dairy Princess, which was published by Indiana University Press. He teaches writing and literary theory at St. Lawrence University.

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