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“I like beer. I don’t know if you do. Do you like beer, Senator?”
If the political circus that was Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearing taught us anything, it’s that Kavanaugh likes beer. The titular, monomynous Cavanaugh of Joshua Kornreich’s new novel also likes beer. And yet, as Kornreich tells us early on, “Cavanaugh was not Kavanaugh,” and “Kavanaugh was not Cavanaugh.” This, then, begs the question, who is Cavanaugh?
Kornreich’s Cavanaugh draws this question out over the length of its darkly comical, booze-soaked duration, spinning the reader around in circles as we follow Cavanaugh on an anti-heroic adventure that is touching, repulsive, distressing, and hilarious all at once. Part political satire, part absurdist fiction, part existential meditation, Kornreich skilfully mixes questions of personal identity, family, sexual assault, alcoholism, and trauma into a melting pot of moral ambiguity.
Kornreich creates his whirling dervish of a narrative through his tight, repetitive, and refreshingly original prose, whilst bemusing the reader with the sheer absurdity of some of the inner workings of Cavanaugh’s world. There is a dash of Dostoyevsky’s The Double in the form of Cavanaugh’s “friend” O’Reilly, a touch of Kafka in Cavanaugh’s opaque yet open-ended encounters with those he encounters on his adventures, and a hint of American Psycho in both Cavanaugh and the reader’s inability to quite figure out what is and isn’t real.
Cavanaugh begins serenely enough, with Cavanaugh and O’Reilly attending a minor league baseball game with their two young daughters. With a quintessentially American scene in progress, peanuts and crackerjacks to boot, Cavanaugh is surprised to learn that his aural namesake Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh is throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. The adoring crowd, including O’Reilly, seems not to share in Cavanaugh’s opinion that Kavanaugh is “more or less… a sociopathic sexual predator”. This opinion stokes a moral quandary when his daughter pleads with him to buy her one of the Brett Kavanaugh bobblehead dolls on sale at the game. Against his better judgement, Cavanaugh buys his daughter the bobblehead, and in doing so triggers the unravelling of his previously uneventful life.
Kornreich confronts us with a man who slowly but surely sees his internal and external world fall apart around him. At the novel’s opening we are told of “a voice – a living, breathing voice,” that resides inside Cavanaugh’s head. It is this voice that first proffers the thought “I could use a drink”, and eventually drives Cavanaugh, who has been sober since the birth of his daughter, to begin the destructive alcoholic-binge that fuels his odyssey of personal crisis. As Cavanaugh blunders through a succession of increasingly surreal and grim drunken encounters, some entertaining, others mortifying, this voice and his own become indistinguishable, causing both Cavanaugh and the reader to question the nature of Cavanaugh’s reality. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the voice in Cavanaugh’s head sounds like none other than Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
The referencesto the real-life judge, rather than the Kavanaugh bobblehead that accompanies Cavanaugh on his “travels”, are expectedly frequent, creating the contextual milieu for Cavanaugh’s downward spiral. In particular, Kornreich draws on the events of Kavanaugh’s 2018 Senate confirmation hearing, which was marked by sexual assault allegations brought forward by several women against Kavanaugh. The most serious of these allegations was made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who was called on to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Dr. Blasey Ford claimed that whilst in high school she attended a small gathering at which Brett Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge, who were both “visibly drunk”, forced her into an upstairs bedroom where Kavanaugh pushed her onto the bed, groped her, tried to take off her clothes, and covered her mouth to stop her from calling for help.
The hearing that followed was a political farce, with the controlling Senate Republicans refusing to delay Kavanaugh’s nomination in order to hold a full FBI investigation into Dr. Blasey Ford’s claims, whist simultaneously using their allotted time for questioning to lionise Kavanaugh and his public service. Meanwhile, the Senate Democrats were reduced to scrutinising the minutiae of Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook, quizzing the judge on the meanings of high school slang phrases, such as “boofed” and the “Ralph Club”.
Many of Cavanaugh’s escapades reflect this real-life absurdity. As mentioned, like Kavanaugh, Cavanaugh has a penchant for beer, frequently guzzling three or four pitchers of it at a time. Kavanaugh’s “Ralph Club” turned out to be a reference to his apparently “weak stomach”, another trait shared by Cavanaugh, who frequently produces copious amounts of vomit after consuming said pitchers, often alongside vast quantities of buffalo wings. “Boofing”, so Kavanaugh claims, referred to flatulence, another of Cavanaugh’s pastimes. And Cavanaugh even has the knack of “posing a question when being posed with one yourself”, a strategy employed numerous times by Kavanaugh during his hearing, most notably responding to Senator Amy Klobuchar’s question regarding whether he’d ever blacked out after drinking, with a pointed “have you?”.
Blackouts were a point of contention during Kavanaugh’s Senate hearing, and whilst he repeatedly denied he’d ever blacked out after drinking, Cavanaugh is not so lucky. His frequent and increasingly lengthy periods of lost time are interspersed throughout the book, one of which ends up being recounted to him by a sympathetic police officer investigating a stalking report made by a waitress Cavanaugh follows into a women’s bathroom. Tellingly, the officer, who’s a “big fan” of Kavanaugh, reassures Cavanaugh that he “didn’t touch her” and suggests the waitress is “as much to blame” for the incident after serving Cavanaugh his four pitchers of Guinness. The officer assures Cavanaugh he’ll “take care” of the situation.
While these details paint Cavanaugh in a singularly unsympathetic light, Kornreich’s leading man does at least inspire a degree of empathy that it might not seem he deserves. From the moment the Kavanaugh bobblehead enters Cavanaugh’s life, he is a man truly without control. He is powerless to resist the voice in his head, and once he begins his alcohol-induced romp, his decisions follow the “cockeyed logic” of the alcoholic. Even in the incident with the waitress Cavanaugh, unlike the cop who visits him, is horrified to learn of his actions, aghast at the possibility that he traumatised the waitress:
“’Traumatized?’ The word shook Cavanaugh to his core. Traumatizing women was something other men did to women – men like O’Reilly, perhaps, or Brett Kavanaugh – but not he, not Cavanaugh.
It just wasn’t possible. Or was it?”
Of course, whether or not a stalker feels bad about their actions does not excuse them, nor earn them sympathy, but the focus on trauma and how it is created and lived with does create the moral ambiguity that permeates Cavanaugh. We discover early on that the voice living inside Cavanaugh’s head has been with him since he witnessed his mother being raped by a “shadow”. A shadow implied to be Cavanaugh’s father. A shadow who puts his hand over Mrs. Cavanaugh’s mouth to stop her from calling for help. The sounds and details of this event echo throughout Cavanaugh: “the jingle of a belt against buckle. The clank of boot against wood. The barking from a dog down the road.” Kornreich snares both his main character and the reader in a loop of traumatic memory, permeating each of Cavanaugh’s calamities with this mundanely horrific soundscape.
For all its dark absurdity, it is the recurring nature of trauma that lies at the heart of Cavanaugh. The book moves in circles, constantly recycling both Cavanaugh and the reader back to places already visited, events previously occurred, phrases already muttered, more often than not on the buses that Cavanaugh likes to ride in loops around his city. The voice inside Cavanaugh’s head assures him that “what goes around, comes around” and as Cavanaugh’s journey comes full circle it becomes clear that his actions have inflicted trauma on others as trauma was once inflicted upon him.
And yet if Cavanaugh is not Kavanaugh, and Kavanaugh is not Cavanaugh, who is Cavanaugh? And, perhaps importantly, what are we supposed to make of him? Kornreich deliberately gives no easy answers to such questions. In many ways, Cavanaugh is nobody and everybody. A “middling middle-aged middleman” with no first name, who is just as capable of inflicting trauma on those around him as he is a victim of it. A man who is capable of loving his wife and daughter, and yet unable to remember them as anything but “Cavanaugh’s wife” and “Cavanaugh’s daughter”. A man, like every human, who posses the potential to be simultaneously good and evil, and be on the receiving end of both good and evil.
The question that sticks in my mind after reading Cavanaugh is whether using a Brett Kavanaugh bobblehead as the trigger for a man’s fall from grace is the right device to deliver such a message about the morally ambiguous nature of humanity. I would ask of Cavanaugh why we are shown the consequences of rape for the son of a woman and not the woman herself. However, as Kornreich points out from the outset, one’s opinion on Brett Kavanaugh tends to be a good gauge for where one sits on the political spectrum, and I myself am no exception. Undoubtedly those at the other end of the spectrum to myself would have much greater grievances with Cavanaugh, and the aspersions it casts on the judge, than my own misgivings about how sexual assault is dealt with in a piece of fiction.
And perhaps this is Kornreich’s point. To one side, Brett Kavanaugh is a “sociopathic sexual predator”, whilst to the other he is “one of the great patriots of our time and one of the true protectors of our freedom.” Cavanaugh, meanwhile, is neither of these. He lies not at either end of the polarised, morally cocksure political debate of the day, instead occupying the in-between of day-to-day reality, sometimes murky, grimy and painful, sometimes loving, caring and understanding. And by emphasising this I do not believe Cavanaugh needs to be read as an attempt to sympathise with morally reprehensible actions, equivocate on matters such as sexual assault, nor as an attempt to expunge the misdeeds of those who’ve suffered through the reprehensible. Instead, Cavanaugh offers an opportunity to hold a mirror up to ourselves, albeit an absurd one, and attempt to gain a deeper understanding of what we owe our fellow humans, what we are owed, and the consequences of failing to live up to our shared moral bonds.
By Joshua Kornreich
Sagging Meniscus Press, 236 pages