In Lee Child’s A Wanted Man, action hero Jack Reacher says that the Russians used to train agents to speak accent-free English, but that they could be detected because of their odd choice of words. Several aspects of this seem fishy, not least the idea that Reacher, as a military policeman, would have been trained to ferret out Russian agents, but the figure of the ersatz American, hydroponically grown on some axis-of-evil spy farm, has fascinated us for a long time.*
Of course, the classic shibboleth used to expose these alien plants is to ask them Joe DiMaggio’s (or Stan Musial’s, or whatever) batting average, a test that always worried me. It makes me think of Primo Levi, who on his long trip home after the war fell in with a fellow camp survivor from Salonika. When they encountered a group of Italians, it turned out that the Greek guy not only spoke Italian but, unlike the nerdy Levi, could talk about the things Italians talk about: “la Juve, le ragazze, le moto” [the Juventus soccer team, girls, motorcycles]. If they had applied an Italian version of the batting-average test, it’s Primo who would have been s.o.l.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Child’s book is its attempt to convince us that Jack Reacher is a real American, and that the country he lives in is a real America. Child, who is British, has the advantage over his KGB equivalents of a lifetime’s immersion in globalized American culture, plus being married to an American and having lived for years in America, or at least New York, which is almost the same thing. So he manages to avoid talking about lorries and petrol and motorways, though he does have some slips: cars form a queue at a roadblock, an FBI agent arranges to meet a sheriff in one hour’s time, and, most amusingly, Reacher notes that Americans drive on the right. Most of us feel that that pretty much goes without saying.
Child bends over backward to ensure that Reacher will pass the usual tests for Americanicity, supplying him with a knowledge of baseball and US history that is absurdly detailed but decidedly off. A he-man like Reacher would probably be more into football or basketball—baseball has become more of a sport for nerds and women—but anyway, here’s a typical instance. Reacher rattles off various obscure factoids about Kansas City, then notes that they have a decent baseball team, naming some stars from the 1985 champions. Now any baseball fan can tell you that the Royals are the most pathetic team in existence, the only team not to have reached the playoffs since the Reagan years. The geography works the same way, autistic-savant level detail coupled with overall wrongness.
But Reacher’s lifestyle is especially interesting because Child has constructed an epitome, almost a parody, of the American Dream of independent living. Like Grasshopper, Reacher walks the earth and fights bad guys, but unlike Mr. Kung Fu, he’s not on the run, exactly; he just prefers to be homeless, with no job, no car, no driver’s license (he hitch-hikes, I shit you not), not even a backpack or man-purse (we are not told how he avoids dehydration on those long stretches where nobody picks up a 6-5, 250-pound guy with no pack). Traveling with no pack means that he is the opposite of some granola-eating hippie couch-surfer—he doesn’t like doing laundry, so he buys new clothes every 3 days and throws them in the trash when they get dirty. His diet in the course of A Wanted Man consists of five cheeseburgers, four McDonald’s apple pies, and uncounted cups of coffee. It is unclear how he maintains his razor-sharp commando prowess on this diet, but I can’t help thinking that he may soon wish he had health insurance. Or not…he has a freshly broken nose at the start of the book and never shows any inclination to seek medical treatment for it, either because real men don’t need doctors or nurses, or because health care is a luxury for Americans, not a basic service the way it is for the rest of the developed world. I can imagine how Reacher must strike British readers as a romantically American figure, striding along the vast empty spaces of exotic places like Iowa, but to judge by his popularity here, he also calls to many American Walter Mittys trapped in a net of obligations and entanglements.
It’s not that I think everybody should buy a home and have kids—one of my dearest and most admired friends has gone for years with no fixed abode, unless you count a van—what bothers me is the disposability, throwing away your clothes, never cooking decent food, never making real friends. I suppose that all pulp heroes are ultimately rather depressing, and the idea that people daydream about hitting the road and fighting villains is probably less so than the idea that women want to be bound and gagged in a CEO’s basement. But that’s a pretty low bar.
*And not just us. In F. Duerrenmatt’s The Physicists, one character is revealed as a spy and says,, “Mein tadelloses Deutsch ist mi rim Lager meines Geheimdienstes beigebracht worden” [My flawless German was taught me in the camp of my country’s secret service]. The fact that he was going by the name Isaac Newton apparently didn’t arouse any suspicions.