Last month, Semiotext(e) reissued Gary Indiana’s Depraved Indifference, originally published in 2001. Here is A.S. Hamrah’s introduction to the novel.
We live in a time of exceptional, unprecedented grift, so much so that our era is turning the history of the United States into one long con, culminating in a lousy sordid ratfuck everyone can watch on television and follow on their smartphones. It’s not only the president, the latest in a long line of Republican quid pro-quo’ers in the Oval Office, and it’s not merely his bizarre, hand-picked, scandal-ridden cabinet, which he has filled with a shuffling parade of “the best people” who come and go in the night, their hand on the shoulder of the one in front of them, a zoetrope of shamelessness.
We already knew that any person Donald Trump would call “the best people” was going to be high on the scale of blatant corruption. Thus we got the smiling Las Vegas cowboy sign come to life who Trump hired to run the Department of the Interior, the confused rich woman who is married to the heir to the Amway fortune and whose brother runs a black-ops mercenary army which Trump appointed Secretary of Education, and the mummified remains, visibly crumbling, of a man who calls himself “the King of Bankruptcy” who Trump put in charge of the Commerce Department.
Some of the president’s associates have already been jailed, it’s true, but currently a nation battered by this cavalcade of cheesy rich yahoos and relics watches aghast as another Trump lawyer, this time the one who looks like an alcoholic version of Nosferatu’s accountant, hires no-neck goons to work with the notoriously addled Secretary of Energy on an oil pipeline in Ukraine, a project that includes election-rigging by trading weapons for the persecution of political opponents back home. It’s Iran-Contra, that Republican greatest hit, all over again, but dumber, meaner, more obvious, louder. Americans are always surprised by this eternal return of Republican malfeasance, which gets worse every time it comes back, like a super-flu growing resistant to antibiotics. But why should they be?
We knew it was going to be like this. What we didn’t know was that there was going to be a place in American life where trickle-down economics worked, where the Laffer Curve made sense, and where Americans would be able to get theirs the easy way, right up to their day in court and their time behind bars, now a rite of passage more than a punishment.
Since the economic collapse of 2008, we have seen a jagged uptick in the number of grifters plying their trade in the USA. The ascension of Trump has given them permission to step out of the shadow, top hats and canes in hand. Now they expose themselves, peacock-like, in the gardens of the West, at magic hour, deliquescing in public in the humidity of climate change, which all the best con men say doesn’t exist. Who could have predicted this? Gary Indiana, that’s who.
A sampling of semi-ordinary Americans who have got caught grifting in just the last year reveals characters who could come directly from the mind of the author of Depraved Indifference. Many more, rest assured, still work undetected among your neighbors and social media follows.
There was, for instance, Anna Sorokina, aka Anna Delvey, who pretended to be a German heiress so she could scam hotel rooms and foreign travel while pretending her real home was in the beau monde. There was the fraudster-entrepreneur Billy McFarland, who had the mien of a greasy animatronic chipmunk played by a younger Ben Affleck, and his accomplice, the perpetually beefing rapper-in-decline Ja Rule, who exploited influencers and conned international festival-hoppers into thinking they’d be partying on a long-dead drug dealer’s private island. Instead, at the Fyre Festival, what they got was two slices of American cheese placed atop two slices of wheat bread below a wilted side salad in a styrofoam container.
Grifters like these don’t all come from New York. The TV actors from California who paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their stupid, YouTube-obsessed kids into good colleges by posing them as water polo players and other kinds of private-school athletes were West Coast all the way. The two women apparently scurrying around Cambridge, Massachusetts, luring law professors into hotel rooms to involve them in fake pregnancy scams, could probably only thrive in the college towns of New England. What unites them is their habitual, all-American allegiance to the con, long or short.
It’s easy to see how any of these stories we read in the news could end in murder—or in suicide, call it what you will. The mysterious demise of Jeffrey Epstein alone in his jail cell in New York is a case in point. He was sitting behind bars, away from his treasure trove of blackmail material, a secret hoard in which a very many people must have a very great interest. Somehow the security cameras were off and his guard was taking a break; somehow the story ends there. Will we ever learn how Epstein made his billions while seemingly having only one client, an old man who happened to be the philanthropist owner of the cheapo lingerie chain Victoria’s Secret?
Gary Indiana would never allow such a non-ending. The trilogy of crime novels he wrote between 1997 and 2001—Resentment, Three-Month Fever, and Depraved Indifference—start with true crime stories ripped from today’s headlines, like all the other true crime stories. Through a complex process unknown to those, however, his stories make their way through swirling, brilliant prose and a kind of shy-away-from-nothing satire defined by unexpected insight and reference, to arrive at tragic endings that are ugly even by the standards of the American libido for the ugly that gave us Donald Trump. Indiana has been called postmodern, but he’s only postmodern in the sense that Theodore Dreiser didn’t have to deal with the vast mediascape that has overtaken our reality. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the protagonist of Depraved Indifference, Evangeline, is said to resemble Elizabeth Taylor, the star of A Place in the Sun, the movie adaptation of Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.
If her physical presence comes from Elizabeth Taylor, or from the swindler Sante Kimes, on whom she is based and who was said to have resembled Liz too, maybe her name comes from Longfellow. His epic poem, Evangeline, addressed to “ye who believe in the beauty and strength of woman’s devotion,” takes place in the “home of the happy,” an Eden-like North America ready to be corrupted and ruined.
Longfellow installs his Evangeline in a “mournful tradition” of displacement and tragedy, one that American eighth-graders learned to mock probably less than ten years after the poem was written. Sante Kimes’s devotion was different than the kind Longfellow’s Evangeline knew, and Indiana treats it accordingly.
Kimes, who died in prison in 2014, existed in a state of pure greed, not grace. She and her son, Kenneth, grifted their way across the country and the Caribbean, murdering three people along the way. They worked the higher echelons of society, employing forgery and other methods to acquire other people’s real estate. A crime addict not averse to petty thievery and arson, Sante also enjoyed shoplifting and stealing jewelry. As a sideline, she enslaved foreign-born domestic workers, for which she did five years’ worth of prison time. Unrepentant after her release, she ramped up her criminal life with Kenneth’s help after her wealthy husband, a motel magnate, died in 1994.
By 1998, the Kimeses, mother and son, had figured out a way to take possession of an elderly Manhattan socialite’s Midtown mansion by using forged documents and hastening her permanent removal to New Jersey through the use of a stun gun. When Sante Kimes and Kenneth were arrested, they were charged with 117 different crimes. Both were sentenced to life in prison, after a trial marked by Sante’s bizarre outbursts, in which she accused her own lawyers of framing her, claimed that the court was persecuting her in a witch hunt, leaked notes to the media, and repeatedly yelled that the judge was murdering the Constitution. Sound familiar?
Indiana’s non-fiction book, The Schwarzenegger Syndrome: Politics and Celebrity in the Age of Contempt, which followed his American crime trilogy in 2005, prepares us for this kind of connection, just as his essays in art and film criticism prepare readers for his novels. Indiana’s great talent as an observer of high and low culture, in an age when money has made both equally vulgar, serves him well as a novelist. We encounter one horrible character in the New York section of Depraved Indifference as she is “expatiating on the crassness of popular tastes, the encouragement of which her livelihood depended upon,” a swipe at the kind of writer from whom Indiana separates himself by acts of literary savagery rendered in erudite and surprising images—forgotten lizard skeletons lie on a bed of pebbles in a terrarium, bath oil beads become “eyeballs plucked from mannekins or gouged from antique dolls,” silence is “a piece of gristle shunted to the margin of a dinner plate.”
Baby Claymore, the elderly landlord whom Evangeline meets as her cons get more desperate, exists at first in Depraved Indifference as her opposite—a cultured woman with a Gauguin and a Weegee hanging in her townhouse, Baby has emerged from her glamorous pop culture past as an “aquabat” in movie musicals (“unless you are Esther Williams, being an aquabat is chump change”) to become a socialite. Baby is supporter of charity, in her mind at least, who wants to start a Foundation, whereas for Evangeline “the idea of donating as much as a nickel to any type of philanthropy affected [her] as garlic affects a vampire.”
Like Evangeline, however, Baby is susceptible to her desire for “influence” and has a need for proximity to the famous. Evangeline has sneaked into receiving lines to meet Gerald and Betty Ford and she worms her way into the White House to stand in the Oval Office with Pat Nixon, who quickly realizes she is a fraud and quietly tells her so.
Baby, long retired but still a rentier, lives to go to MoMA openings and gossip with magazine writers, infamous drug-addicted singers, and mediocre novelists. Indiana captures them at a 4th of July barbecue at Baby’s mansion, soon to be a crime scene. Baby disdains delivery men and dry cleaners, but tells the employees who take care of her house that they are “family,” the same word Evangeline uses for the people she captures and enslaves as her domestic help. For Evangeline, even her own son is often just “another face mouthing at her through glass bricks.” He realizes Evangeline would “calmly chop [him] into stew meat if the food ran out.” Baby expires dreaming of the letters of great writers at the same time that she can’t get a popular song out of her head, but for all her sophistication her relationship to capital is no different from Evangeline’s. It’s just that she’s not a murderer and a thief.
Baby’s devotion to high culture and rent collection are the limo liberal version of Evangeline’s status as a “hyperpatriot,” a disguise for right-wing capitalists. Evangeline’s “staunch Americanism” is a con that allows her to thrive in “a country full of morons,” as she puts it. She sees every person she meets as a potential cut-out who can at some future date unwittingly aid her in her schemes, but her disdain for others whittles her world down to just her son, as it does for Lilly Dillon in Jim Thompson’s novel, The Grifters. Evangeline’s and Lilly’s sons, who are the only people they trust enough to become their lovers, are also their final marks, the people closest to them and the last they can grift. Family, it seems, is the longest con of all.
The tradition of con men and con women in American literature has deep roots. Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man was published exactly ten years after Evangeline. Ignored in 1857, its echoes are clearly present in Depraved Indifference, which also did not receive its due when it was published almost twenty years ago. Melville’s novel, like Indiana’s, deals in specifically American themes of dishonesty and moral corruption, and was prompted by the activities of a real con man in New York the same way Indiana was inspired (if you can call it that) by Sante Kimes. Like Melville’s novel, Depraved Indifference is expansive and takes the time to satirize other writers as it moves toward its denouement. It is equally in the tradition of work on grifting by a major American novelist but, then as now, people prefer to think that work like this does not exist. Both lack the comforts of genre fiction.
Indiana begins Depraved Indifference with a line from Arthur Rimbaud’s poem A Season in Hell. Another French poet, Baudelaire, deserves the last word here. Baudelaire translated Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” in 1855 for serialization in the Paris newspaper Le Pays. Poe, of course, was another American writer interested in cons, maybe the first. Poe presented “Hans Pfaall” as a work of non-fiction in the form of a report on a trip to the moon. In explaining this hoax to his French readers, Baudelaire made sure to point something out: “Americans love so much to be fooled.”