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Short Century: A Novel

Short Century: A Novel

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Short Century: A Novel

290 pages
4 hours
Feb 24, 2014


When a mysterious blogger reveals renowned pro-war journalist Arthur Hunt's long-ago incestuous affair with his smart but impressionable younger sister, Emily, Arthur writes a memoir in defense of his life, coming to terms with his shattered sense of self, his skewed political ideals, and the crumbling American empire he has been struggling to uphold. An angry but eloquent narrator in the tradition of Philip Roth and Thomas Bernhard, Arthur recounts his relationship with Emily, weaving in his claustrophobic WASP childhood, his '60s student radical days at Yale, and his vociferous support for America's war in Iraq and its continuing drone campaign.

Capturing the tumult of recent American history, Short Century is filled with supporting characters as memorable as Arthur— including Miranda, his mercurial college girlfriend; Jersey Rothstein, the charismatic free-love guru for whom Miranda leaves Arthur; their son Jason, who signs up to serve in Iraq, where he is killed; their daughter Sydney, who follows Arthur into pro-war punditry; and their daughter Daisy, who chooses to wear a burqa. With a broad historical scope but an intimate personal focus, this is a novel about America, family, and how the desire for freedom is often entangled with darker impulses.
Feb 24, 2014

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Short Century - David Burr Gerrard





a novel by David Burr Gerrard

a barnacle book | rare bird books

This is a Genuine Barnacle Book

A Barnacle Book | Rare Bird Books

453 South Spring Street, Suite 531

Los Angeles, CA 90013

Copyright © 2014 by David Burr Gerrard

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever, including but not limited to print, audio, and electronic. For more information, address:

A Barnacle Book | Rare Bird Books Subsidiary Rights Department, 453 South Spring Street, Suite 531, Los Angeles, CA 90013.

Set in Goudy Old Style

Distributed in the U.S. by Publishers Group West

Publisher’s Cataloging-in-Publication data

Gerrard, David Burr.

Short century : a novel / by David Burr Gerrard.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-1-940207-45-2

1. Journalists—Fiction. 2. Iraq War, 2003-2011—Journalists—Fiction. 3. Afghan War, 2001—Journalists—Fiction. 4. Incest—Fiction. 5. United States—History—20th century—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3607 .E775 S56 2013


For my parents, for my brother, and for Grace

No, graves are not deep but insignificant, a mere few feet from the surface and not far from fearing and desiring. More or less the same fear, more or less the same desire for thousands of generations. Child, father, father, child doing the same. Fear the same. Desire the same. Upon the crust, beneath the crust, again and again and again. Well, Henderson, what are the generations for, please explain to me?

—Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King

The most poignant aspect of our fumbling attempts to study history is our compulsion to divide each epoch into a century. Surely it is no accident that a century happens to correspond to the outer limits of a human life span. But in reality very few of us survive for a century. Most of us have to settle for a short century.

—Jersey Rothstein, The Dominion of Pleasure

Editor’s Note:

On May 13, 2012, a bomb was detonated at the funeral of Miranda Rothstein, killing, among others, the renowned journalist Arthur Hunt. The following document—apparently written in a fit of manic activity over the thirty-six hours prior to the funeral—was subsequently recovered from Hunt’s laptop in his room at the Chappine Hotel.

Had its salacious subject matter not already become public knowledge, I would have fought to keep the manuscript a secret. From the evidence of the text, Arthur quite clearly intended to share what he wrote either with no one or only with his sister. But secrets are not what they used to be, so I cannot protect my old friend by silencing him. I do wish that, in taking account of his life, Arthur had focused less on his vile mistake and more on his lifelong fight against injustice. He might have mentioned the time when, as he and I emerged from a bar at two in the morning, he spotted a mugger who had just stolen a woman’s iPod. Without hesitation Arthur stepped in front of the mugger and took a swing at his nose. That he missed, and that the mugger then broke Arthur’s nose and got away, does not detract from the instinctive bravery of the act, a bravery on display throughout Arthur’s long career as a journalist. I do hope that, if you haven’t already, you will seek out his other works, especially his three excellent books about the country that unfortunately I must refer to, and have amended Arthur’s manuscript to refer to, as REDACTED.¹

1 Speaking of REDACTED—or, rather, not speaking of it: Citing an interpretation of the Qu’ran extremely specious even by Islamist standards, the country’s government issued a decree threatening violent reprisal against any Western publisher or publication that prints the name of the country. It is true that these threats have never been acted on, but nonetheless I must choose the safety of my staff over the integrity of Arthur’s text.

My sister was the one who ensured I would never sleep soundly. When I was a child I couldn’t sleep for fear of what would happen to her; as an adult I can’t sleep for fear of what has happened to her. Those who make it their primary purpose in life to attack me—and their ranks have swelled in the past twenty-four hours—would probably say that I sleep badly because I have lived badly. But popular language gets sleep backwards. The indifferent and the evil find it easy to sleep at night, while the sleep of the just is fitful at best. An infant’s loving father, a dissident intellectual in a totalitarian state: these are not men likely to claim a comfortable eight hours. To be moral is to be an insomniac.

Comparing myself to a dissident or even to a father might come across as grandstanding. What I’m trying to say is that I would have slept much more and much more soundly had I not always loved my sister.

At any rate it is not a normal thing for me to be awoken, since I am usually already awake. This made it even more disconcerting to be awoken at three-thirty this morning by a human-shaped shadow standing over my bed. The human shape, I quickly realized, did in fact belong to a human, a human in a black shroud. It may have occurred to me for a drowsy instant that this was the Angel of Death, but with such steady work the Angel of Death can probably afford to dress with more panache. No more than two or three seconds passed before I realized it was Daisy Rothstein, known to gossip websites as Crazy Daisy and The White Girl in the Burqa—but for a few more seconds I could pretend that this sheet billowing in the air conditioning covered anyone I wanted it to cover. I could pretend that it was my sister, here to let me haggle for forgiveness. Maybe Emily would allow us to be siblings again now that our once-enviable genetic inheritances had been reduced to wrinkly, saggy pittances, and would soon be wiped out entirely.

Sleeping naked, I see, Daisy said. Just like Noah. Or Adam.

Humiliated, I reached for a blanket and covered myself.

I don’t think Adam got so flabby, she said, so you must be Noah. I wonder whether his dick curved to the left like yours.

How did you get in here?

She opened her black-gloved hand and displayed the spare set of keys I had given to her sister, Sydney.

Sydney left these on her desk before you sent her off to die.

I reached for the stress ball that Sydney had given me, on which she had written with a felt-tip marker: PRETEND IT’S BIG BROTHER. But the ball slipped through my fingers and fell behind the nightstand.

"What do you want, Daisy?"

I wanted to thank you for murdering my siblings. No more rivalry for me.

The outrage of the charge hardly registered; what registered was the plural. Have you heard something about Sydney?

She hesitated for a long time. I doubted I would survive the news of Sydney’s death.

I haven’t heard anything, no, she said behind those horrible layers of black. But she’s going to die before she can make it home. I know this because the burqa gives me magic powers. Oh, wait. I know this because you’ve sent her to a place where they shoot Americans on sight.

That’s an exaggeration.

Oh, then I’m sure she’ll be fine. I’m sure she won’t join Jason on your list of murdered Rothsteins.

I should have thrown her out right then. Instead, I tried to do something that no one can ever do: explain myself.

"If I had my way, neither of your siblings would ever have left New York. I begged Jason not to enlist."

He was too much of a coward to let down his hero. He was a scared little boy trying to impress you, so he died in a useless war.

Rather than object to this obscenity, I reminded myself that she spoke out of grief, and when you speak out of grief you can speak the most pernicious nonsense and no one can criticize you for it. I calmly listed a few of the abundant forgotten successes of the Iraq War, successes that Jason had contributed to. Naturally, none of this persuaded Daisy.

This was a difficult situation to handle while not wearing a shirt. I had thrown the previous day’s button-down in the hamper, so my lumpy old man’s torso had to remain exposed and jiggling while I made it across the room. In doing so I knocked over the pile of books that I keep closest to my bed: Kanan Makiya’s Republic of Fear, my own We Might as Well Be the Murderers: The Cost of American Inaction in REDACTED, Camus’ The Rebel, Homage to Catalonia, Jersey Rothstein’s The Dominion of Pleasure, Middlemarch, and a rather thick edition, for which I had written the introduction, of the unsent letters of Arthur Koestler. The last three fell onto Daisy’s black-slippered foot, but if her face registered any pain, I of course had no way of knowing.

She tapped The Dominion of Pleasure. It’s nice to see that you’re rereading my father’s book while you’re killing his children.

Sydney is going to come back, I said, making a prediction in which I had no confidence. Out of concern for her safety, I had talked Sydney into becoming a journalist rather than following her brother into the army, but by going to REDACTED she had made her life more dangerous than any American soldier’s. The day before she left—just a couple months ago—I took her out to dinner at a French restaurant near Columbia to make my case for what must have been the ninth time as to why she shouldn’t go. The REDACTED police, if they found her, would likely call her a spy and arrest her. Less likely but not out of the question: they would murder her. In the best-case scenario, in which she did her job unmolested, she would still have to wear a burqa, and she of all people should know that when you put a black cloth on your body you put a black cloth on your soul. If she wouldn’t agree to stay home, I told her, the very least she could do would be to call me every day—REDACTED has excellent cell phone reception due to what might charitably be called a complicated relationship with China—so that I could stay in close touch with her editors and with U.S. officials to make sure she was staying as safe as possible. In response, she grabbed my cell phone with fingers sticky from the mussels she loved to pluck from their shells and programmed my phone to play Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence whenever she called, a rather cruel way of telling me she would not be calling at all.

These women need someone to tell their stories, Sydney said, and I’m going to be the one to do it.

Daisy mocked these very women by dressing the way she did.

Why do you wear that thing? I asked, knowing I would be answered with derision.

It’s warm, for one thing. I get chilly easily.

Don’t you think that question deserves an answer? Don’t you think you’re insulting the millions of women who are forced to wear what you’re choosing to wear?

I hope so. Those bitches get on my nerves. What do you think you’ll wear to Daisy’s funeral? The same suit you wore to Jason’s?

Sydney is doing some really heroic reporting, I said, almost tripping over Volume II of The Gulag Archipelago. Reporting that I’m certain she will turn into some of the best journalism of our era. And she’s going to come home safe.

She won’t, but if she did, she’d come home to find her mother dead.

Daisy, would you stop with this?

My mother had a stroke this morning. She’s in the hospital now, but the doctors don’t expect her to recover.

Because I was not wearing a burqa, Daisy could see quite clearly that this news turned my skin even paler than usual. Miranda—Daisy’s, Sydney’s, and Jason’s mother—had been my girlfriend a million years ago, in college in the late sixties.

I’ve been trying to get in touch with Sydney to tell her, Daisy said, but she won’t respond to my texts and emails. Since you’re her gross boyfriend or something, maybe she’ll listen to you and come home before our mother dies.

I’m not her boyfriend, I said. For the record, I want to be very clear that this was true: we never slept together or came anywhere near romantic involvement.

Then why did I find keys to your apartment at her place?

I just wanted someone to have a spare set.

There’s nobody else in your life you could give your keys to?

I thought about an editor I sometimes went drinking with, a man who found it difficult to talk about anything other than the collapse of journalism and the inevitability of his firing.


Then I hope you’re fucking Sydney. Because otherwise, that’s pathetic.

"The Dominion of Pleasure advocates isolation, I said. So I guess I’m your father’s last disciple."

Maybe it’s not too late for you and my father to get married, Daisy said. I even know what I’ll wear to the wedding. She did a little fashion runway turn and then she left my apartment.

Sydney’s phone went straight to voicemail, as I expected, so with no chance of sleep I sat on my sofa and tried to read over the galley of my new book, which is about the neuroscience behind altruistic military action, but I couldn’t concentrate. I opened my laptop and tapped an email to Miranda that she wouldn’t be able to read, so I deleted it. I could have gone back to the galley, or I could have gotten dressed and gone to the hospital. There are many things that I could have done that would have at least stood a chance of serving some purpose. Instead, I logged on to the Internet.

The last several weeks had seen the emergence of a new blog dedicated to attacking me. The author, if that’s not too dignified a term, chose the mildly threatening name Peter Reaper.

I didn’t think Reaper wanted to kill me. Reaper was most likely a reference to Reaper drones, America’s use of which to hunt down terrorists I have strenuously supported, earning me the enmity of those on the left who already hated me because of the Iraq War, the ones who can’t think of anything better to do than to argue that tyrants and medieval murderers should be left in peace. Reaper had been posting the usual lazy calumnies, albeit with an unusually heavy concentration of bile: Arthur Hunt’s stated concern for human rights merely masks his love for the unfettered use of American power; Arthur Hunt’s stated support for Muslim women masks his love for male aggression; Arthur Hunt’s stated desire for an ice cream masks his inclination to throw his cone on the ground. I made this last one up, of course, but the logical form is always identical: anything I say I love, I hate. It’s useful to remember that, of the many thinkers who lived on reversals alone, most of them died of syphilis.

Here was Reaper’s new Twitter post:

Former 1960s student radical Arthur Hunt, now a professional warmonger, just loves saving women. But what has he done to women in the past?

I felt a quick shiver that Reaper had discovered something, but really this was just the basest kind of innuendo, free of any detail that might damn or orient. Very unlikely that Reaper spoke to my sister.

More bothersome than this message was one just below it, this one set to the children’s ditty about kissing in a tree:

Sydney and Arthur/making people free/B-O-M-B-I-N-G

Pretty much the essence of juvenile, and pretty much the essence of tasteless.

Staring at these posts, refreshing the browser as though I were sitting at some horrible insult-dispensing slot machine, I almost dropped my phone when the display dissolved into an incoming call from a restricted number. Of course I hoped to hear Sydney, but it instead was a CIA source.

The first thing I said: Any news about Sydney Rothstein?

We’re not tracking her.

Why not?

I don’t get this. She’s not your daughter. Are you fucking her?

These assumptions were starting to grate. I just want her to be safe.

Cheer up. I’ve got some joystick joy. This is good.

Big Brother?

Okay, not that good. Little Brother.

Little Brother, though chronologically the elder, was the clearly junior partner of the two siblings who had tyrannized REDACTED for nearly half a century. For years there had been conflicting reports about how much influence Little Brother retained in the government; most of the worst offenses linked to him occurred in the seventies and eighties. According to some reports, Big Brother placed him under house arrest following a failed coup, so it was possible that a drone strike would actually aid Big Brother. Still, the priapic and paranoid Little Brother had for years maintained, and in all likelihood still maintained, several houses that amounted to harems, stocked with presumably disease-free preadolescent girls reserved for him alone. Some reports said that the girls were murdered on their twelfth birthdays; other reports said that keeping track of their birthdays would have required more attention than Little Brother and his staff felt inclined to pay and the girls were simply murdered whenever the boss decided he was finished. (There were also some reports that the harems were merely hysterical rumor, but there are always apologists trying to squeeze ambiguity into the most solid cases.)

True, the CIA didn’t care about the harems, and was concerned only about Little Brother’s possible connections to a group that might possibly be connected to Al Qaeda—at present, America cares only about threats to American flesh, not about threats to the flesh and freedom of all humankind. And it was Big Brother who was still oppressing his people. But for years I have called, in articles and on television, for American intervention to overthrow these two terrible men. Greeting Little Brother’s death with anything less than all-out pleasure would constitute a dereliction of moral duty.

"That is good," I said.

It gets better. You’re going to watch.


The CIA kept its drone strike program a technical secret, despite its constant discussion in the media, but some people who decide these things thought that an article detailing a strike that took out a genocidal and pedophilic monster would benefit the agency’s image. My source had hinted at all of this, and at the possibility that I would be the one to do the reporting, but I hadn’t believed it would actually happen.

I can’t wait.

Hard to imagine a better scoop—it was a life’s scoop. Within a few seconds I had a blue button-down over my undershirt. I was just about to undo an unsatisfactory knot when my phone started playing a song that took me several rings to identify as Enjoy the Silence.

Sydney? Are you all right? Where are you?

I’m very confused, she said.

Of course you are. Listen, there’s something I have to tell you about your mother.

I know. I just heard. I’m going to do my best to get back to New York as soon as I can.


I shouldn’t have come here. I shouldn’t have left New York.

Just come home, I said. I probably shouldn’t have added, but couldn’t stop myself from adding: Listen, I’ve got great news. We’re about to take out…

Big Brother?

Not quite. Little Brother. But I’m going to be there to write about it. A boast, okay. And a fairly stupid thing to say over the phone. Still—couldn’t help myself.

That’s amazing, she said. That makes me so happy.

You have to get on a plane, Sydney, I said. We said goodbye and we felt such pride in each other that at that moment I could have died with my life’s mission complete. But death wasn’t kind enough to stop for me right then.


Within a few hours I was standing in the back of a room, watching a movie.

What I was actually watching was a monitor, on which was playing, in a manner of speaking, OPERATION TAHOE—so named because we were essentially killing Fredo. The drone’s-eye view: a cluster of small buildings, outside of which milled a handful of women in burqas. Sheila, whose name is not actually Sheila, gripped the joystick and leaned in as the drone barreled on. Dressed in an impressively serious and therefore weirdly arousing suit, Sheila could have pressed the button atop the joystick and turned these three women into curls of dust. The monitor wasn’t very large but I really did feel like I was watching a movie, standing in the back of the theater, in the days when movies were still strange and scary—it was like that famous and probably apocryphal screening wherein audiences ducked from the oncoming train, except that the train was real and we were onboard rather than in the way.

True we weren’t actually onboard, but the basic principles apply, more or less.

Poor clitless fucks, Sheila said.

The way that Sheila’s red hair settled on her powerful shoulders—along, of course, with everything else about her—made me suspect that she was the woman who tracked and killed Osama bin Laden, the woman on whom several upcoming Hollywood projects were based. She looked too young to be that woman, but it’s wrong to judge a woman based on her looks. The anonymous source for a half-dozen of my most-linked-to articles, she was a woman of the utmost seriousness, and even more importantly, she was a woman. The murderous misogynist Little Brother would only truly be getting what was coming to him if he got it from a woman, and apparently he would. This would have been even better if Sheila were black, or a Muslim, since it was by and large black Muslim women whom we were saving from Little Brother, but such justice as the world offers is never quite perfect.

We left the women behind and passed over what passed for a highway. For a long time the highway repeated and repeated. Dry, cracked land stretched out as though the world were breaking from the effort of covering itself.

Finally, a truck came into view. A black arm hung out the window, holding a handgun, or maybe a rifle. A rebel, a soldier: who could tell except for Sheila? I steeled myself for her to bomb the truck, and from the way she stroked the joystick with her thumb, she appeared to steel herself for the same thing. But I looked again at the gun and it was just a cigar. Okay, we were looking at civilians. Civilians whom, over the next several weeks, we would liberate. Maybe the driver harbored a dream of sending his daughter to school to become a doctor, a dream that could become a reality after an American intervention. And maybe one day, twenty or twenty-five years from now, his daughter would be my oncologist, and she would save me, or at least bring me some last light comfort.

But what was really happening was more impressive than this fantasy. What was really happening was another kind of fantasy. For most intents and purposes I was actually flying over this truck, actually guiding the driver’s fate.

Wait a minute. Sheila now looked serious, and put a finger to her ear. She muttered some technical language I didn’t understand, and then she locked a target on the truck.

It turns out these guys are terrorists, she said.

What tells you that?

She didn’t turn around, but I could feel her pitying smile. What tells us that? We can’t tell you that.

She pushed the button, and within seconds the truck was just so much smoke.

Bug splat! she said, and pumped her arm.

Without moving her eyes from the screen, she reached behind her so that I could give her a high five. When I didn’t do so, she let her arm fall and she sniffed in a way I hadn’t heard before.

Arthur, she said, still without turning her eyes from the screen. "You are cool, right? We let you in here because you’re cool."

The word has never sat right in my mouth in any context, but I said it anyway. I’m cool.

Good. Then she relaxed her shoulders a bit. At no point did she stop looking at the screen.

My anger at her rebuke subsided when I reminded myself that I was not the one putting my

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