The Last Stoic
by Morgan Wade
Hidden Book Press, 2011
$2.99 for Kindle; $22.50 and 254 pages in the hard copy.
It’s become a truism that America is following the road to depravity, dictatorship, and brutality that ancient Rome paved. As the Feds sped down that path in 2001 with their War on Terror, a Canadian writer perused Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon was “a rich and rewarding read,” Morgan Wade tells us in his Author’s Note for The Last Stoic. “But what struck me most, in passages describing how the ancient ‘golden age’ had passed from prosperity and relative peace to decay and continual war, is how closely the trajectory of the contemporary American empire mirrors that of the Roman empire.”
Indeed, after more research, Mr. Wade “wondered how far one could go” with the parallels. The Last Stoic is his novelistic answer. It presents two boys, one named Marcus who’s a subject of the Roman Empire and the other, Mark, living in the American one. Eighteen hundred years may separate these doppelgangers, but their lives and experiences with tyranny mimic one another so closely that by the novel’s end, only one merged character remains.
A fascinating and very moral premise, one with implicit lessons. Yet the author eschews lecturing and propaganda in favor of analogy and plot. He pulls off his magic so deftly you’ll be gasping, nodding, and sometimes smiling but more often crying with shame for America, as I did.
The similarities frequently had me laughing. Here’s an employee of a government contractor justifying in terms wittily modern his fascist company’s exploitation of a country after Rome’s army has conquered it: “’[The native people]’d have to leave [their land] eventually,’ Gus said, ‘this whole area is going to be converted into olive groves. For oil.’”Likewise, Mr. Wade skewers America’s paranoia and surveillance by describing Rome’s after “barbarians” invade it: “The priest announced that the attacks on Rome were the beginning of the end, the first blow of a final battle between good and evil, that the good citizens of this city should now do their part.”
Our twin heroes, Marcus and Mark, are young adults when we meet them, about to embark on their careers. Both emigrate from small towns on their respective empire’s periphery to their capitals. Marcus travels from Britannia to a Rome that Emperor Caracallus “protects” after the barbarians’ incursion with domestic spying; increasing controls on what citizens may say, do and even believe; and torture for dissidents. Those same evils flourish in the 21st century when George Bush exploits 9/11 as Mark drives from Canada to New York City. Yet enough prosperity and glamour remain in each nation for our duo of outsiders to promise themselves they’ll succeed and grab their share, whatever the price.
And so they leave their respective, identical families for their new jobs. Which yields Lesson #1: the more things change, the more they stay the same. At nightfall on the road, Marcus eats “goat meat, flatbread, crumbly cheese, pale beans drenched in garlic and oil, and a gritty porridge” at a caupona and sleeps in the stable because prostitutes have already occupied thecaupona’s rooms; meanwhile, Mark sips Budweiser and also prepares to sleep with – or, more accurately, in – his transportation when he pulls into “a rest-stop along a stretch of the freeway where the Interstate became the New Jersey turnpike.” There he watches a woman repeatedly hop from her car into whatever vehicle parks beside hers for half-hour visits. The essentials don’t change, nor do even the details by much.
This correspondence continues as both boys unwittingly pick up a nemesis in their travels, a stranger their own age who’s looking for fame and fortune. Mr. Wade never quotes the Department of Homeland Security’s infamous “If You See Something, Say Something,” but that is precisely the slogan both his villains adopt – though they go it one better. Each watches Marcus/Mark, hoping to spot something he can report and, when nothing materializes, manufacturing a “crime.” Informing on Marcus/Mark turns the nemeses into heroes while delivering their victims to the ancient and modern police-state.
The tortures Marcus and Mark endure as government’s minions try to force “confessions” from them is grotesquely, numbingly the same. The Romans waterboard Marcus; the Americans dehydrate Mark in his “cage.” And then the two trade agonies.
Which brings us to Mr. Wade’s fascinating and flattering technique. He treats his readers as adults, able to follow his leaps in imagination without his spelling everything out. Rather than continuing to describe identical-in-everything-but-the-technicalities incidents in each character’s life, he instead assumes we now realize that if a legionnaire has pummeled Marcus, an American soldier has likewise abused Mark. He may describe the beating from Marcus’ perspective, then switch to Mark’s as he lists the injuries. Once again, this tacitly (and inadvertently: Mr. Wade tells me he’s not an anarchist or even a libertarian) underscores the sameness of government’s atrocities, regardless of its minions’ identity or location in time and space, while emphasizing the State’s evil.
Also unifying the story is Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Both boys’ grandfathers present them with a copy before they leave home; both forget to pack it. Both receive other copies, which they learn to value even beyond their skimpy rations in prison. One unforgettable scene in a novel full of them is the Americans’ forcing Mark to use his copy as toilet paper – on another prisoner. That and the row of crosses with their victims still hanging that Marcus passes soon after leaving home encapsulate these matching empires for me.
Mr. Wade’s phrasings aren’t always felicitous. Some sentences are awkward, and the narrative was often overtaken by the passive voice. Finally, the f-word, other scurrilous language, and orgies sprinkle the pages. These don’t offend, though, because they aren’t gratuitous: rather, they illustrate the corrupt, weak and nauseatingly vulgar societies that mistake torture for “security.”
I strongly recommend The Last Stoic. Read it, but more importantly, urge it on friends and family whose “patriotism” compels them to cheer the American Empire. In this absorbing tale lurks the looking-glass that could persuade them otherwise.