American Schemers and Dreamers: Zany Tales from a Nation in Decline in Drew Buxton’s “So Much Heart”

Americans are never happier than when they’re getting in on a scam. Or so said comedian Tim Dillon in a set I saw at The Stand in April (and as a former subprime mortgage hocker, he should know). If he’s right—and as much as I’ve rambled about con art as America’s foremost artistic discipline on this website, clearly, I believe he is, then Drew Buxton’s characters that populate his short story collection, So Much Heart, recently published by With an X Books, are some of the happiest people in the country.

Buxton’s precisely rendered swindlers are not the sort that perfectly nails high-end, years-long financial deceptions, stringing along those one-percenters for the most gain. These aren’t Trump tax frauds, Hunter Biden crackhead international relations, Kushner post-White House Saudi windfalls, FTX polycule investor rip-offs, NFT snake-oil salesman deals, Enron funny numbers, subprime mortgage gambles, Bernie Madoff Ponzi schemes, or ongoing congressional insider trading. That type of gaming the system and juking the numbers is solely reserved for the already wealthy, as is the likely consequence of being bailed out, provided a sweetheart deal, or, at worst, getting a slap on the wrist afterward. But that doesn’t make Buxton’s characters any less wholly typical Americans in their tireless search for a lucrative angle. In Matt Taibbi’s post-2008 crash deep-dive, Griftopia, he articulates exactly where this country excels:

“…we’re no good anymore at building bridges or highways or coming up with brilliant innovations in energy or medicine. We’re shit now at finishing massive public works projects or launching brilliant fairy-tale public policy ventures like the moon landing.

What are we good at? Robbing what’s left. When it comes to that, we Americans have no peer.”

Buxton’s eight short stories in So Much Heart derive from the America left after the pillaging. And his characters, coming from much lower on the economic ladder, where comfort is marked by switching from Glacier Light to Budweiser, must find their own illicit modes of survival by sifting through the ruins. This leads to poorly thought-out and rashly cooked-up fake businesses that are much less successful and significantly trashier than the ones from the upper classes that already stripped the joint: selling sperm from the infamously homicidal orca and Blackfish star Tilikum, cockfighting with a champion rooster named Jack the Ripper in an abandoned casino, reinventing rage rooms under the guise of self-help “smash therapy,” or, an old national pastime, searching for Bigfoot while hoping for a reader giveaway windfall from UFO Magazine. These zany impromptu plans are as thrilling and amusing to read as they likely are to enact, which is why I devoured So Much Heart in just two days.

It’s not just the adults that are continually working on a grift either. The children in So Much Heart may be bigger connivers than their parents. For a good reason. The adults throughout So Much Heart are largely zonked out (and occasionally pissing their pants) on drugs, booze, debilitating mental illness, or a combination of all three. Many are off work due to some mishap, whether an unfortunate grease fire at Whataburger or falling out of a deer blind while blind drunk. That doesn’t mean, however, that they aren’t stuffed full of feverishly held dubious wisdom to pass on to their children such as the father in “Monticello”:

“Dad had always said public education was a total failure like every other socialist idea, and he’d homeschooled Dessie until he just couldn’t anymore. They’d do an hour of math in the morning then history and government until lunch. They didn’t use books or anything. Dad just went off memory. Dessie knew from him that most history taught in public schools was bullshit.”

Right on, pops! While the adults are stuck railing about how Thomas Jefferson built Monticello with his bare hands, the children are tasked with making the big bucks either through selling the two Sackler classics, oxys and Valium, to their withdrawal-jittering teachers or throwing down on a high-stakes Pogs game.

In fact, it’s telling that one of the only protagonists in the book that doesn’t have a swindle going is institutionalized. The book opens with “Lexapro,” set in the Austin OCD Center as the narrator worries about his SUDS (Subjective Units of Distress) rating while helping a fellow patient Scott with his Tinder profile. Struck with a case of “moral scrupulosity OCD,” the narrator is taught to deal with his intrusive ethical thoughts by becoming more apathetic and “morally gray.” This includes learning to not care if he mowed anyone over on a bumpy drive:

“They had me do a driving exposure in the staff van. I drove around Hyde Park, and every time I hit a bump, I wasn’t allowed to look in my mirrors to make sure I hadn’t hit anybody. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. Afterwards, I had to sit on the couch and stew in the uncertainty. They made sure I didn’t turn on the news.”

It makes sense that in Buxton’s universe, any feeling beyond apathy would be treated as an aberration. As the surprise mayor of the burned-out town, Laughlin, Nevada, formerly supposed to be named Casino, screams to a crowd after his faux-disappearance: “…what’s wrong with this town?…I mean, why does nobody care about anything or anybody?”

That’s a good question—and one that could be applied to almost every town and every story within So Much Heart in which any horror, no matter how gruesome, is treated with a similar blasé reaction. Take, for instance, SeaWorld ice cream server Bo’s matter-of-fact description of watching Tilikum terrorize an unlucky trainer in “Tilikum Gets Loose”:

“He didn’t swim over to pick Gary up like he should’ve, and my stomach tightened. Gary headed back to the shore to reset. Tilly’s fin dipped under the surface, and a second later he had Gary by the foot. He dragged him along the edge of the tank, showing him to the crowd. He was condemning them. It was like he was saying, ‘Isn’t this what you wanted? Are you happy now?’

He took him under for twenty seconds or so then let go. Everyone stood out of their seats to watch, and people from the back rows ran down the steps to stand by the glass. Just before Gary would get to the nearest wall, Tilly’d grab him again and take him back under. He did this over and over, holding Gary down a little longer each time until he drowned. He could be so cruel sometimes.”

Cruel seems like a bit of an understatement (though he is a killer whale). But, why would anyone have an emotional response to bloodshed and trainer-munching when the American landscape, as rendered by Buxton, is riddled with corpses waiting to be discovered? “We’d finally stumbled on a corpse. It had only been a matter of time,” Bo says later in the story. “We knew from documentaries on the ID channel that bodies were everywhere.” “Tilikum Gets Loose” is not the only story with a corpse at its center, ranging from Dad dead with a needle in his arm on the sofa in “Monticello” to D.B. Cooper crumpled near his parachute in “So Much Heart.” These decaying corpses are treated with as much nonchalance as the trainer snack—just another incident to be dealt with, buried both physically and mentally before moving on to a snack of Oreos and milk, or at the very most, used as bragging rights. “I bet no other kid in the fourth grade had ever seen a dead body before. I’d tell everyone when we got back from Christmas break,” says young Collin after discovering Cooper in the woods on the Washington-Oregon border.

This explains why the Americans within So Much Heart are entirely fixated on true crime, so much so that they’re ready to take an impromptu coke-fueled cross-country road trip in the middle of the night with a Papa John’s delivery man in order to solve Hae Min Lee’s murder, made famous by the podcast Serial, once and for all. True crime offers one of the only legal goals in the entire collection. This comes courtesy of Lucy from the public access show Lucy on Laughlin in “You’re Gonna Know My Name.” Despite her early onset arthritis, Lucy fantasizes about becoming (what else?) a cameraperson for Cops: “…when she finally got her money, it was off to Vegas. She hadn’t told anyone this, but one day she would be a cameraman for Cops. She was building up her tape roll to send to Fox.” Is this the best achievement imaginable in contemporary America? Probably. Is that a bleak indictment of the current state of the country? Surely. But is it hilarious? Absolutely.

And that’s what makes Buxton’s short stories so enthralling, coating the bitter pill of American decline in hysterical black comedy. Buxton particularly excels at raucously chaotic scenes, interjecting clarity into the pandemonium with straightforward language. Writing slapstick is not easy yet Buxton is at his best in moments of mayhem, whether anti-SeaWorld bombings or rooster-napping at a cockfight. It’s not a shock that Buxton is a professed fan of pro wrestling; the influence of that apex of American trash culture and exaggerated physical comedy is readily apparent here. Beyond the broad frenzies, even smaller lines and thoughts from characters made me laugh publically while reading in a park. Take reporter Lucy’s choice edits on some interview footage: “She cut out the parts where the lady tried to burn her with her cigarette and the other lady threatened to throw her drink at her.” The best example, however, may be the final two sentences of “Ride With Me” that close out So Much Heart, which is such a transcendentally revolting admission that I dare not ruin it for readers.

At his most uproarious, Buxton’s writing reminds me of John Waters’s novel Liarmouth, another literary escapade about a scammer, Marsha Sprinkle, who steals suitcases at airports. However, Buxton’s short stories have much stronger narratives than John’s collection of random ridiculous scenes strung together. Buxton reaches the same heights of absurdity but doesn’t forget the screwball point. For instance, my favorite storyline is “Tilikum Gets Loose,” in which the (maybe) ghost of Tilikum shrieks from the deep for revenge while three idiots try to figure out how to scuba dive in order to rescue his prized semen from the trunk of a post-police chase sunken car wreck.

As seen from the latter part of the “Tilikum Gets Loose” plot, Buxton’s characters all have very little self-awareness or self-reflection. But they don’t let that slow them down any. In this, Buxton’s notably cinematic writing is reminiscent of some of the more madcap Coen brothers films, as well as the outlandish drunkenly-hatched plans from The Gang in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Like both the Coen Brothers and It’s Always Sunny, Buxton’s America in So Much Heart isn’t far off from reality: a land where the grim and hilarious intermix, where most everyone lives with the faded promise of the American dream out of reach and yet somehow still refuse to give it up. “This town makes no sense in a depressed economy. What we should really do is just scrap the whole thing and go on our separate ways,” says newspaperman Ed in “You’re Gonna Know My Name.” The same could be said for the entire country. This is a nation of self-involved schemers and dreamers tied together with the endless hope that somehow this next scam will be the one. A union of people squirreling away DVDs of The Secret, blaring Mariah Carey’s “Hero” on repeat, and getting all sentimental about mildewy casino carpets. In So Much Heart, just like in real-life America, the fantasy of the American dream is still just around the corner. It’s just that instead of the mid-20th century American dream of a house, a car, and a family, it’s a suitcase full of money and the dead body of a famous hijacker along with it.

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