Donald Antrim has been called a genius, and in 2013 (along with one of my most favorite writers), he was given the 625,000-dollar grant the MacArthur Foundation bequeaths to all geniuses. As far as I know (Antrim has yet to respond to my passionate, nearly polite pleas that he take one of those twenty question online IQ tests and forward me the results WITHOUT DOCTORING THEM), he deserves the unfathomable wealth, prestige and groupies such an award bestows. But I hear his fanciful imagination is one of his genius-y strengths, and I wonder, for certainly that isn’t the strength on display in “Elect Mr. Robinson For a Better World.” Said slice of propaganda is little more than an exquisitely written, chilling and accurate glimpse into the muggy, gator-blood pumping heart of present day Florida.
The titular narrator’s community is populated by residents that have taken to digging moats around their houses and filling them with broken glass, sharpened bamboo or water moccasins. Their park is packed with landmines, and taxpayers have voted to close the local school and occupy the building with a factory that turns coral into jewelry. Despite these everyday challenges, Mr. Robinson doesn’t craft the typical political tract. He never beats you over the head with policies or empty rhetoric, instead counting on the reader’s wisdom to deem him fit for office by the time they’ve completed his grim and propulsive tale.
Mr. Robinson is a former teacher who lost his job when the school was closed. He shares the dream of most displaced teachers: to start a school in his basement next to his scale-model medieval torture chamber and have students assist him in crafting political advertisements for his eventual mayoral run. This is a man overflowing with political talents. When the previous mayor made the perhaps hasty decision to launch Stinger missiles into the botanical garden, Mr. Robinson, drawing from his considerable knowledge of the history of torture, suggests he be drawn and quartered, and he has the know-how and follow-through to lead his fellow citizens in dismembering the man with fishing line and automobiles. While this knowledge is obviously a necessary component for holding political office, perhaps some might worry as to the lack of a softer side. Robinson nails that too: he feels the pieces of the former mayor deserve a distinguished burial and so keeps them in his freezer until he can devise the perfect send-off. (Which, of course, involves Egyptian rituals.) But maybe the voter is sympathetic to the arts. When the citizenry decides to use library books to detonate the hidden bombs in their park, Robinson takes the initiative to go in after the intact tomes. Plus, a new-age guru reveals that his inner animal is a buffalo, and although that means he nearly drowns during a spirit commune with his wife’s inner animal, a coelacanth (ancient weird fish), one cannot argue against the buffalo being well-suited to the rigors of modern politics.
As they say in Florida, two gators with one python, Antrim has convinced me Mr. Robinson would be, for a Florida town, an appropriate mayor; and also Florida is a scary place crammed with shuttered schools, swamps, suburban moats and psychotically over-zealous security guards.