By Joe Ponepinto
Reviewed by Alex Poppe
The United States recently marked the first anniversary of President Trump's inauguration. This year has stuck us inside a Trump news cycle: before we recover from his latest outrage, there's another one leaving us bowing our heads in shame as we ponder just how we got here. Trump resides in the White House because of our collective alienation: leading up to the election, we felt alienated from the work process as our real income shrank, alienated from the promises of consumerism as we realized most of us couldn't share in the American Dream, and disillusioned with the political process as we saw big money hijack it. We wanted something different. Then, Trump came along, offering to be our voice, and we let him.
Joe Ponepinto's Mr. Neutron is a timely, satirical anecdote for America's current political fever dreams. It focuses primarily on campaign operative Gray Davenport, "a product of his mother's promiscuity and dyslexia," who is advising mayoral candidate Bob Boren, "a crew cut steer of a man, a thick torso of low grade beef teetering atop piano bench legs," a man with no chance of winning the mayoral election in the smallish American city of Grand River. Like many of today's American cities, Grand River is polluted and economically segregated. Its residents suffer from high taxes, crime, a dismal education system, and politicians who are in the pockets of money men. Then, from out of nowhere comes eight-foot tall Reason Wilder, who trumpets "a following without a platform." Gray suspects Reason is not human, "a dead man charged back to life," and sets out to discover the origins of this "golem of otherness."
Ponepinto ingeniously creates a genre-bender from today's political events. Much like America's current president who speaks in adjectives when he does not have a teleprompter, Reason's one-size-fits-all political answer for everything, "Together, we will do great things for this city," satisfies the electorate without forcing him to outline a plan of what those things are or how he will accomplish them. Just as Manchurian-candidate-whispers swirl around President Trump, there is a man behind Reason too—Reverend Inchoate Hand, a non-stop lip-licking, modern-day Victor Frankenstein who powers Reason by submerging him in a bathtub full of dark, murky greenish liquid and "deep frying [him] in that ancient molecular soup." The electricity Hand infuses Reason with creates a polarity that attracts others to him "as though Reason had become a giant ion." He's the perfect political candidate: "a monster who wouldn't have to say anything coherent. He could strut and stumble and use his subatomic pull to sway the voters." When Gray realizes Hand's endgame, to rule the city from behind the curtain, "sucking millions from the city's coffers and demanding tribute from contractors, business people and other supplicants," Gray decides to save the city.
Gray is not alone in his quest to debunk Reason and joins forces with Breeze Wellington, "an estrogen thermal," whose power of attraction "proves greater than Reason's." Breeze is a seductress, a charmer, and a former porn star who uses men to advance her career. Breeze eventually rebuffs Gray, saying, "I did what I had to do, just like with you. Just like with every man. It's what I do, what I am." When Breeze rebuffs his advances, "his unrequited lust [morphs] into a desire to hurt her."
In the age of #metoo and the Time's Up movements, Gray is the everyman, the underdog, the unsung hero. Therefore, his reaction is perplexing, at least for this reader. I wanted his good-guy-glow to continue instead of dimming into caveman-low-light. Other female characters such as callous and unfaithful Laura, Gray's soon-to-be ex-wife, and the shrill, belittling, fellow political consultant Patsy, receive similar treatment from Ponepinto's pen. Although the Women's March has just turned one year old, and although Emily's List reports that 2017 saw a 2100% increase in women interested in running for office, Gray's world is still one of patriarchy and sexism, which doesn't read as satire. If 2018 really is going to be the year of women's voices, let's hope the midterm elections and 2020 reflect it. Then, we won't have to turn to fiction for consolation or happy endings.