The Terrible Fours
After a wait of more than three decades, we have a new installment of Ishmael Reed’s The Terribles. Long intended to be a trilogy, if my recall of a Reed interview is correct, the first entry was the 1982 The Terrible Twos, a futuristic take on matters such as Christmas commercialism, ethnocentrism, settler colonialism, environmentalism, religion, and Washington politics---all conveyed through the metaphor of ruling-class America as a two-year-old, impulsive, selfish, always seeking immediate self-gratification. The title also refers to the era and fallout concerning Operation Two Birds, an aborted covert plot to decimate New York and Miami to rid the cities of surplus people, or surps, then blame the attacks on Nigeria, which was believed to have nuclear weapons, as the pretense for nuking Nigeria. In the 1989 The Terrible Threes, Reed, with a still-sharp critical scalpel, presents an intricate tale of the continuing politics of dysfunction. He remains focused on the White House, the institution of Christmas, corporate board rooms, and other cultural aspects of a nation staggering through The Terribles, a period that began with the original act, The Terrible One, the assassination of President Kennedy.
In case you missed any action, you don’t need to binge read, though it would be fun. The author provides “previously seen on” as well as some revisionist footage at the outset of The Terrible Fours prefatory to re-immersion into the world of the Hatch administration where politicians, celebrities, evangelicals, aliens, spirits, fossil fuel magnates, and militant environmentalists vie for power. No less than the fate of the nation, planet, and maybe exoplanets is at stake. The environmentalists feel that the only solution to the crisis is a monarchy because democracy, driven by corrupt money, has failed. Their proposal? “A green philosopher King like the one recommended by Plato. Someone who will keep the fossil fuels in the ground.”
We also follow the trail of Ice Cream, a white rapper also known as the Emperor of Hip Hop. After his appearance at an awards show, he decides that he will attend the after party in blackface to create controversy and boost sales. His girlfriend, Gladiola, mistakes him for a Black intruder and flees in a panic to inform police before Ice Cream can catch her to explain. The cops shoot him, but he manages to escape and turns Black permanently in a sort of George-Schuyler-Black-No-More-move. The disappearance of the white Ice Cream is reported as a homicide. The Black Ice Cream is a criminal on the run.
Back at the ranch, so to speak, Reverend Clement Jones, Chief of Staff of the Hatch administration (Hatch is a figure head), remains the most powerful man in America and lead purveyor of the gospel of the Rapture, which followers believe is beginning when Bob Krantz, also a key holdover from The Terrible Threes, vanishes into thin air during a cabinet meeting---although it’s not really Krantz. He died in a car crash, and his body was taken over by an alien from Dido who was sent to Earth to start a nuclear war that would end Earth and its threat---given its destructive history and the quest of current billionaires to destroy and colonize---to the rest of the Milky Way. “Krantz,” however, failed in his mission because he became enamored with Earth. Therefore, he was recalled in the middle of the cabinet meeting, the event that evangelicals think is the beginning of the Rapture.
The once-ineffectual investigator, Nance Saturday, catches a mystery that he can solve when his spider genes began to strongly manifest. (He was born as the result of a science experiment by his uncle and named after Anansi.) Nance counts among his friends the Cardinal of New York, a Black man with an extensive jazz collection who becomes Pope Miltiades II, taking his name from the African pope of the fourth century.
As the action unfolds in so many complex ways, Reed, as is characteristic of him, weaves in historical information about religion and politics. He provides, as all along in The Terribles, particulars about Saint Nicholas and his associate Black Peter. He also ruminates about the Catholic Church, the Devil, and proto-Puritans Cotton Mather and his father, Increase Mather, who was a long-time president of Harvard. The Devil has lost much of his power by the end of the novel and is on a plane to Europe and wondering if he should write a crime series for Netflix.
Reed presents all these machinations in his typical plain style. His narrator accuses, “The expert elite addressed members of their fellow elite in a prose that the 9-5ers couldn’t have a beer with.” You can have beers over and over again with this tale. The timely messages are for us all. Reed ends with a trailer: Questions that will be answered in The Terrible Fives. So the trilogy has finally come to fruition and we are looking at a quadrilogy. I hope.