The Auspicious Arrival of ‘Underground Airlines’

Kenny Brechner - June 30, 2016

When Summer mentioned here that “there are actually two great novels coming out this summer which are both built around the Underground Railroad…. Read them both, I say,” I decided to take her advice and was very glad I did from many vantage points.
Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines, which I read first, is an alternate history, set today, which posits that the Civil War never happened. Lincoln’s assassination, which occurred on the eve of his first inauguration, led to a compromise, enshrining slavery as a legal institution in the existing slave states. Four slave states, the Hard Four, of which, brilliantly, only three are named, remain in contemporary America.
The story is presented by a remarkable first person narrator, an ex-slave bounty hunter whose equally rooted cynicism and honesty pulse through the book, tethered to his almost visceral intellectual acuity. Winters’ present-day America is terrifyingly credible and wonderfully inventive and the novel manages to work completely as both a thriller and as social commentary. Indeed it should be a required read in every high school in this America, as well as in all alternate Americas.
Colson Whitehead’s historical novel, The Underground Railroad, is equally exceptional. More of a traditional novel, with the slight tweak of adding an actual, physical underground railroad, (an effective plot construct but a dubious scientific concept) this is a rich and powerful reading experience by any standard.
Though Underground Airlines was so very much in my personal wheelhouse I could absolutely see why Underground Railroad is sure to be a giant book with a very broad audience. Indeed the two books in question have so many intriguing elements of overlap, and such a rich array of differences, that an idea occurred to me. I thought it would be interesting to ask each author five identical questions. The bad news: though all involved agreed that this was a brainy idea, in the end, only Ben was able to participate. The good news: Ben’s answers are almost as great as his book. Here’s the interview.
Kenny: The Underground Railroad is a very flexible, even physical historical metaphor which is at work upon both the characters of your book and upon its readers. How would you describe the entrance point, journey and terminus point of your imagined audience(s)?
Ben: Underground Airlines is a very high-concept novel – it’s a thriller and it’s speculative fiction and all of that, but the entrance point to is definitely the protagonist, Victor: his voice and his experience. My hope is that Victor’s intelligence and worldview and internal contradictions draw in the reader, as much or more than the alternate-reality detailing. As much as in any John Le Carré novel (or Lee Child novel, for that matter) we are attracted to this flawed hardworking tough guy, and we are are rooting for him to succeed in his mission.
But Victor’s journey (and the reader’s) is through a dystopian nightmare version of contemporary America, in which the Civil War was never fought, and slavery still exists. He works undercover as an enforcer of the Fugitive Slave Act, and his mission is the recapturing of a runaway slave. So obviously this is not a typical thriller, and Victor’s obstacles have less to do with the twists of plot than they do with the ugly realities of his world, many of which mirror the ugly realities of our own.
The book ends, as a thriller must, when all missions are concluded and mysteries are revealed. But I think the terminal point of the reader’s journey is when Victor has succeeded in shaking off the willful blindness with which he has marked the days of his life. At the end of the story he feels a linkage between his own experience and the experiences of other people, a powerful and hopeful feeling that ideally will spill over, at least a little, into the reader.
Kenny: The omnipresence and interactivity of the past has not escaped widespread attention. Books of quotations are strewn with pithy observations like Faulkner’s “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” and so forth. Nonetheless some aspects of the past are more present than others. Is there a reason the Underground Railroad is particularly present now?
Ben: I don’t know, to be honest. I think America has always been interested in the history of slavery, although in a very particular way: we tend to approach it as this ancient evil, this terrible thing that happened a super-long time ago. It’s like pre-history, you know? Plymouth Rock, Paul Revere, slave cabins. We forget how young this country is, and how long slavery lasted, and how many of the lasting institutions and how much of the wealth of this country were built during its long heyday. For me, as I was thinking about this novel (and reading stuff like Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon and The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece on reparations in the Atlantic), my idea was to kind of collapse time, bring slavery into the present day, as a way of showing how the contemporary evil of racism and the old evil of slavery are part of the same evil, which has never been expunged from the national soul.
Kenny: Abolitionists are an ambivalent presence in the story. Is that something which you came to the story with or did it evolve in its writing?
Ben: Well, it’s a weird thing when you write a book. You have some idea of who the characters are, and they you start writing and they get away from you. So I had a picture of this Underground Airlines in my head when I began, and they were much more valiant and competent than they ended up, just as the U.S. Marshal, Mr. Bridge, was much more of a central-casting racist bad guy when I started writing. He, like the abolitionists, ended up more morally complicated, in his own way.
So yes, the abolitionists squabble and betray each other and are blinded by pride and zealotry. They are flawed men, just like the real abolitionists were (see, for example, John Brown and his little army in James McBride’s delightful The Good Lord Bird), and just like real people fighting for good causes in all places and times. There are no angels. There are only human begins. But certainly we should prefer a flawed person trying to do good over a good person doing nothing— right?
Kenny: The peculiar connection between bounty hunters and their quarry acts as a corollary to the gradient between resistance and accommodation that will naturally be present among those subjected to slavery. How did you hope to manipulate that gradient and that particular connection in telling your story?
Ben: Underground Airlines is above all the story of this one man, this bounty hunter, on a difficult moral and emotional journey. To be super reductive, and more analytical of my own work than is probably wise, this journey takes him from a place of total cynical resignation (I am what I am; the world is what it is) toward an understanding that not only can things change, but that every individual has a responsibility to work for that change.
That journey occurs mostly through of a series of relationships, and primary among them is with the young escaped slave that Victor has been sent to find. Without giving too much away, that runaway’s story, and actually his very existence, challenge Victor’s understanding of the larger world. This guy is his moral opposite, he has a righteous, arguably foolish, commitment to change, and he acts as a kind of magnet, pulling Victor’s heart in a positive direction. That’s how it works in life, by the way, in my opinion; I think it’s the power of other people and other people’s stories that makes us change.
Kenny: The belief in real change is very hard to come by in your book. If we take the narrator’s observation in Notes from the Underground, “and what can we say of war, they fought before, they’re fighting now, and they’ll fight again” as a benchmark for stasis, what does it take to move off that point in terms of slavery and its legacy as you express it in your novel?
Ben: I think what I came to understand writing Underground Airlines is that you absolutely cannot move forward without reckoning with the past. We are rightly proud of the great ideas and institutions we have as Americans, all of these wonders inherited the nation’s early history:  the Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment and the independent judiciary and the separation of church and state. We got all that, and we’re lucky to have it, but we also got slavery, and we got the Fugitive Slave Act, and then, after emancipation, we got a century of legal discrimination and segregation.
These things, too, are part of our inheritance, they didn’t just disappear by magic with the Civil Rights Act or on President Obama’s inauguration day. Their legacy is felt in the injustices experienced by African Americans today: inequalities in incarceration rates and sentencing; lower average incomes, lower levels of household wealth; job discrimination; disparities in life expectancy; the incidences of unwarranted police violence that have become so grimly familiar. The past is with us, every day, whether we acknowledge it or not, so we’ve got to acknowledge it. For me as a white man, that means acknowledging that being personally anti-racist isn’t enough, because the problems exist on the systems level. In political terms, I think fully acknowledging the past would mean paying reparations, or at the very least having a serious and vigorous national conversation about reparations.
Kenny: Thanks so much, Ben!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *