The story is told as the collected journals of Harrison Shepherd, put together after his death by his secretary and friend Violet Brown. Beginning with his childhood, (just before WorldWar2), as his mexican mother leaves his american father and takes him with her back to mexico. Harrison writes his journals because he can't help but write, like other people cannot help breathing, he is destined to become an author one day.
Harrison's childhood is surreally beautiful, the problems of his chain-smoking, gold digging mother are distant. His journals are all in the 3rd person, nothing ever happens directly to Harrison. It's like looking at everything from underwater.
Harrison gets a job mixing plaster for the famous mexican muralist Diego Rivera and his wife Frieda Kahlo. which gradually turns into a job as a cook, and then also a secretary. Then the exiled Lev Trotsky arrives, taken into the houshold of the Riveras, and Harrison can't help but be a part of the revolution, even so he is still always on the outside, an observer, written in the 3rd person.
In the second half of the novel, back in America, Harrison finally begins to use the personal pronoun, I. No longer talking about himself in the 3rd person, he finally owns his own words, and talks directly about himself. Yet somehow he is grown distant, like letters from a child hood friend that you grew apart from. I find it harder to connect with Harrison now, which is ironic. But it leaves space to be covered over with by the political upheaval in America. Harrison's personal life seems to happen far in the background, while in front of us the FBI and the Un-American commitee are hunting down communist sympathisers. I feel bad now for every silly joking utterance of 'bloody commies', because I never meant it, and I never realised how real it once was. I feel like I've never paid attention in history class.
"Whenever I hear thing kind of thing," he said, "a person speaking about constitutional rights, free speech, and so forth, I think, 'how can he be such a sap? Now I can be sure that man is a Red.' A word to the wise, Mr. Shepherd. We just do not hear a real American speaking in that Manner."
Theres a horribly real feeling of suffocation in this second half of the novel, neighbours turning against him, his readers turning against him, no matter how much they loved his first 2 books, now they believe any lies printed in the newspapers. The same happening to hundreds of US citizens, once they're labeled as communists, they're done for, no matter who they really are or what they really said. But it could easily be happening today. Replace the word 'communist' with the word 'terrorist', and this could be America today. It could be britain and any non mainstream political party - the British national party for instance, once the papers label you as a BNP supporter, you're demonised.
Violet Brown reminds us, when we're already well over 100 pages into the novel, that these are the private journals of a dead man who never wanted them published. And that we should stop reading if we want to respect his wishes. I almost stopped reading. It was hard to remember that the book is fiction. In fact that should be hard to remember, it should be, because in truth, in the end, it wasn't fiction. This is the most important thing about it. Harrison Shepherd and Violet Brown may never have existed, but these events too place, these things happened to someone. These things still happen to other people now, under other names and guises. It's not fiction. And that is the scariest thing about it.