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All-American Amnesia

In Depraved Indifference, the scam goes all the way to the top

Depraved Indifference by Gary Indiana. Semiotext(e), 334 pages.

To quote Caroline Calloway, at the risk of being ridiculous: “‘Grift’—the noun—is the act by which you separate someone innocent from their valuables by means of charisma or fraud or overpromising with premeditated, malicious intent.” So she wrote recently in an end-of-year recap for Art in America. A little further down my Twitter feed from that link: “The Family That Grifts Together,” a Nation article about the Trumps. Further afield, crypto-fascist blogger Michelle Malkin has accused the Republican Party of a “grift” involving supporting a “U.N./Soros/Catholic/Lutheran/Jewish refugee resettlement racket.” As a reality, approbation, or merely a term of abuse, grift won’t let us go. Proliferating wildly in the last couple of years, there’s a sense that it’s reaching dilution. Everybody wants to grift. It’s in the air; something is broken.

The Kimes family was an American lesson in the art of the grift. At first nuclear, and later just mother and son, Sante and Kenneth, they tore across North America from the 1970s until the late 1990s, conning, defrauding, and killing—except for a brief period when Sante went to jail for enslaving undocumented migrants. It all ended in 1998, with their arrest for the murder of a wealthy Manhattanite whose East Side apartment they intended to fraudulently deed to themselves. Almost immediately, the media glommed on to the pair, whose relationship oddly echoed John Cusack’s and Anjelica Huston’s in 1990’s The Grifters. The family’s obvious cruelty, Sante’s theatrical TV appearances and colorful history (she allegedly had twenty-one aliases between 1979 and 1981 alone), and the apparently sexual relationship between she and Kenneth made them easy ratings boosters.

The fact that we don’t consider grift central to our identity is just baleful amnesia.

Around the same time, Gary Indiana was working on Three Month Fever: The Andrew Cunanan Story, a thorough reconstruction of the life of the man who became famous for eventually shooting Gianni Versace. Indiana’s prior novel, Resentment: A Comedy, had its roots in the trial of the Menéndez Brothers, who shotgunned their parents in their Beverly Hills home, supposedly for money, in 1989. In 2001, he completed this informal “American Crime” trilogy with Depraved Indifference, closely based on the Kimes’s lives.

The year 2019 (and 2018, and 2017, and likely 2020 to come) was supposedly the year of the grifter. Newly reissued by Semiotext(e), Depraved Indifference reemerges ready for the trend. Given the timing, encomiums of “prescience” don’t feel inaccurate. But Indiana would probably counter that most years in America have been years of the grifter. In his essay “No Such Thing as Paranoia” on the history of conspiracy theories and the actually conspiratorial mode of American power, collected in 2008’s Utopia’s Debris, Indiana looked back toward the Bush family and didn’t stop until he hit the Robber Barons. Citing a train crash staged in the nineteenth century to manipulate stock prices, the history of the fourteenth amendment’s usage to protect corporations, as well as more familiar sights of modern conspiracism like the Kennedy assassination and Bohemian Grove, he mounts his argument: scams, at least in the upper echelons of our society, are foundational to the United States. The fact that we don’t consider grift central to our identity is just baleful amnesia. While lamenting the American tendency to forget the import of such aspects of our society is a hobby horse for writers on the left, part of what makes Depraved Indifference enthralling is how it turns this symptom into a condition, enlivening it with a certain literality. This is a nasty, satirical, and often hysterical book, chronicling the fate of tremulous selfhood in the face of heedless, all-American hustle.

The works in the American Crime trilogy are united by their focus on people who, finding ingenious ways of failing to accommodate themselves to their place in our world, become murderers. Not quite true crime (Indiana changes names and takes not-insignificant liberties in the first and third works), the books share a focus in working through—and lingering in—the gross feelings underlying the events they depict. In this way, the crime trilogy castigates, but remains undogmatic. The America they depict resembles the Salt Lake City of Carnival of Souls, recognizably here and yet hemmed in by hell.

“I love America, but you have to admit it’s a country full of morons, we really owe it to ourselves to make some money off them.” So says Indiana’s Evangeline Slote (a.k.a. Eva, a.k.a. Evelyn, a.k.a. Elinor Carson, a.k.a. Princess Shah, et al.) early on in Depraved Indifference. Based on Sante Kimes, she is the most compulsive, dispiteous grifter in fiction I can think of. Identity theft, regular theft, fraud, arson, enslavement, murder—it’s difficult to enumerate all the crimes Evangeline, her husband Warren, and their son Devin commit over the course of the novel. Donning Evangeline’s disorienting theatricality in its prose style, Depraved Indifference has a bustling, frenetic impulse. Take Indiana’s description of her mind-scattering way of working a crowded party of marks: “she animated something primal in the sensory sleet of chaotic rooms.”

The novel jumps through long time periods, countless associates, and haphazardly related grifts, often tied together by nothing other than Evangeline’s impulsive, sadistic, con-artistry—and it is artistry. Favoring a buxom Liz Taylor (who she somewhat resembles) vamp when she’s out, Evangeline thrives on disorder, what she calls “zest for living”; it helps elicit personal information and keep up the facade. But outside of this ruse, she’s all business. Her accomplices find her to be focused to the point of sangfroid, even as she makes them “dizzy with the reach and prowess of her multidirectional energies.” Favoring Vegas and its rundown hotels, there is something ascetic in her comfort with “characterless, artificial settings” designed solely for the flow of money. Her flagrant hustle endears her to divorcé Warren Slote, a Southwestern real estate mogul who relishes “the vernacular of swift-moving deals, the patois of roving capital.”

And rove it does. One of the Slotes’ most notable grifts is an elaborate long con in which Evangeline yanks Warren on a nationwide, jingoistic speaking tour, which includes finagling their way into the White House for a photo op with Pat Nixon. The tour has been timed for the country’s bicentennial to convince a philanthropist to buy up patriotic posters depicting all the state flags and donate them. The rest of Evangeline and Warren’s relationship is less anodyne: they stage fires and robberies, and personally rob witless marks. Mobility across a wide continent is the only thing that keeps them ahead of the law. But after spending years of this life isolated from everyone but Evangeline, Warren begins to crack up. His memory a blurry mix of reality, fantasy, and fabrications she has fed him over the years, Warren becomes little more than a fleshy prop for her schemes, a drunk, ruddy fainéant.

Amnesia—its necessity, proliferation, and effects—runs throughout Depraved Indifference. To sustain the weight of Evangeline’s lifestyle requires a reflexive allergy to the past, a natural ability to forget: like any good grifter, her past is murky because she makes it so (okay, she confesses to being from Oklahoma). Evangeline impulsively reshapes whatever narrative fits her view of reality—“lying, as an effort of will” doesn’t enter into it. Like an individualized angel of history, a clear memory, for the few characters who have one, recounts only a series of personal train wrecks. To those around Evangeline, the past becomes something “infinitely malleable.” Her counterfeit histories are foisted onto others to the point of dissociation; her son Devin calls it “memory poisoning,” though maybe trauma is a better term, his past toggling between “an oily fingerprint pressed deep in the soft film of time” and “a bloody Technicolor loop.”

As a child, Devin experiences a period of affecting normalcy while Evangeline is in “Club Fed” for enslaving undocumented immigrants; he has a stable address, friends, and “the ordinary stupid life of any family besides his.” But upon her return, the wanton insanity of their life together stunts any possibility for normal socialization. Central to this is their incestuous relationship, which begins when Devin is just a child (the only time in the novel that the act is actually depicted). Sex, when it is broached, tends to be unsexy: it’s transactional, traumatic, and/or abortive. Devin and Evangeline’s relationship suggests a general, menacing understanding of intimacy. Her “bottomless indifference to the existence of other people,” puts no relation beyond exploitability. In the Slotes’ tarry mental landscape, there is little difference between being close to someone and annihilating them. Like some gnashing animalcule in a petri dish, Evangeline tears Devin’s psyche to shreds until “half of him” is her, raising him to be polite, completely dumb to the contours of human attachment, and fitfully bound to her.

When Warren dies, Devin and Evangeline become a proper mommy and Clyde. Thanks to some quick thinking and a stellar performance, Evangeline ensures that Warren lives on in the “world of digital existence,” giving her some liquidity. She and Devin get back on the grift, pulling credit card information improperly disposed, selling fake prophylactic tonics, and taking out mortgages in former associates’ names—a series of cons that increasingly end in murder. Soon, they finagle their way into an apartment in the home of Baby Claymore, a wealthy Upper East Sider whose final days constitute much of the novel’s latter half.

In the Slotes’ tarry mental landscape, there is little difference between being close to someone and annihilating them.

There’s an anxious liveliness to Baby’s carefully kept home, which the Slotes only add to. Details and characters agglutinate almost helplessly, as if a wary eye were keeping a tab on everything lest it be pilfered or forgotten. In describing Baby’s cloistered world, Indiana’s coloratura prose and japing of the ridiculously wealthy form a kind of tchotchke realism. Take this vessel in a suite in Baby’s apartment: “A Spode pearlware vase stuffed with purple Mexican orchids and thirty teardrop bulbs in a tôle peinte rococo chandelier give the room an over-ornamented gaiety, as if it were a holiday.” This sort of record-keeping builds a hysterical cosmos, intimating a world whose essence is equivalent to a vast lot of saleable items. From the Slotes’ perspective, it is. They plan to kill Baby, steal her identity, and deed the apartment building to themselves, a grifter’s denouement they dub FINAL DYNASTY.

“Identity theft” is one of the funnier terms in our legal-technical jargon, a double entendre that doesn’t realize it. Even before the internet made it literal, Americans lived as witless avatars in the various governmental, medical, and financial registries that form our para-existences. Our material lives, personal worth, and mobility are tied to these records. Theoretically, our sense of self isn’t. But these two registers are confused in Depraved Indifference; one’s identity is equally misplaceable in either. That’s the price you pay for living in a country where you can be whoever you want to be. As Baby’s housekeeper puts it, the United States is “a place without ghosts.” Even the physical landscape gives way to oblivion, making “sudden transitions, from nothing to larger nothing.” Erasures, reformations, and new identities come with the territory.

By treating our overlapping paper and inner lives as so many equivalent things to be manipulated, the Slotes give the lie to the ramshackle collection of contingent niceties which serve to shuffle around money and power. While mirroring the flows of capital that make the wealthy wealthy, the Slotes’ grift also disrupts the social expectations that make such legally sanctioned movements possible. In some of their victims—and readers!—it produces paralyzing vertigo. Eagerness to exploit this condition makes her a caricature of a psychopath, but Evangeline’s also got drive, ambition, and no small amount of creativity. Isn’t she just an American dream?

The acidic tendencies Depraved Indifference describes have only intensified since its appearance. Nearly twenty years on, it reads like a catalogue of the dessicative dispositions that continue to wreck and hamstring us. I doubt it’s exhaustive.