John Grisham, the creator of straight-shooting legal thrillers, is carrying on the thrilling work of Ayn Rand, and he has outdone the master of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” by taking the standard sentimental Christmas redemption story and turning it on its head in “Skipping Christmas.”
A fourth as long but eminently more readable, within its 177 slim, narrow-margined pages is a feel-good story about the residents of an upper-class neighborhood infused with themes of sexuality, racism and scathing criticisms of Christianity and Soviet collectivism.
It’s Thanksgiving, and Nora and Luther Krank — and doesn’t that witty last name signal the authorial intention at work? — have sent off their only child, their daughter, Blair, to help Peruvian Indians for a year as part of a Peace Corp mission. After floundering amid the incoming tide of Christmas commercialism at the grocery store, Luther conceives the idea of avoiding the holidays by going on a 10-day cruise, beginning on Christmas Day.
Astute readers may wonder why they didn’t simply avoid the holidays by leaving 10 days before Christmas. But Grisham here is playing on our expectations. He knows, as does the reader, that the Christmas redemption story demands that the Kranks undergo a revival of the Christmas spirit on Christmas Eve. Having them take off 10 days before would make that impossible. That would be logical. That would make sense. But human beings are not logical, Grisham is saying. We’re animals, creatures of flesh and desire, and values such anything as friendship, love and altruism are false. Nora and Luther Krank are avatars of humanity: lustful, indulgent, greedy and selfish. Ayn Rand would have considered them heroes.
So, fortified by reviewing the bills from last Christmas, Luther hatches his scheme. Grisham cleverly establishes the Kranks’ social class by showing that Luther, who is a partner at an accounting firm, earns about $68,000 a year, and gives only a paltry $600 to charities (“Too much!” I hear the Randians cry. But wait, Luther will learn.). He arranges the cruise and works on convincing his wife to accept the idea. Again, Grisham drives home the absurdity of all popular fiction by stressing again that they’re leaving after the holidays in order to avoid the madness of the holidays.
The only sticking point are the charitable contributions. Nora won’t go if it means not giving their usual contributions to charity. Luther, not yet the equal of the Wrightsian hero of “The Fountainhead,” tries to argue that in addition to saving $3,000 by taking the cruise and not spending money on Christmas, they should still save $600 more, asks
“You’re going to let a lousy six hundred bucks stand between us and a Caribbean cruise?” Luther asked with great sarcasm.
“No, you are,” she said coolly.
(Did you catch the “with great sarcasm?” Grisham captures the stylistic tics of the bad popular fiction writer who must continually reassure the reader of the true meaning of each sentence.)
Luther gives in. They will give money to the poor, but the Kranks will go cold turkey on Christmas. No cards, no gifts, no carols, no tree, no lights, no Frosty on the roof.
The middle-third of the book consists of a series of encounters with neighbors and co-workers, a parade of symbolically charged figures representing Capitalism enslaved into serving the Christian God. With each encounter, through the phrase, “So, I hear you’re not (insert name of Christmas-related activity) this year,” the Kranks are pressured into renouncing their Randian beliefs.
The mental torture must be immense. When asked, “So, Nora, no Christmas Eve bash this year?” Nora thinks, “you crude little snot.” With an ability to peer behind such simple facades, Grisham sees something more sinister behind such innocent comments.
Meanwhile, Luther is importuned by Boy Scouts selling overpriced Christmas trees, the police selling calendars, and firefighters selling fruitcakes, all to serve various causes. To each, Luther “forgets” his promise to his wife and rejects their overtures. Instead, he promises each that he’ll give them money later. We can bet that Luther will also “forget” these promises.
But the climatic struggle is with the neighborhood busybody, Vic Frohmeyer. In the description “A neighbor in need could call the Frohmeyers for anything,” Grisham signals the approach of the classic Randian villain. As organizer of the annual drive to decorate the neighborhood for a contest, he stops Luther and asks him if he’s going to put Frosty on the roof. Frosty is a plastic statue of the genial snowman, described with Grisham drollery: “a goofy smile around a corncob pipe and a black top hat and thick rolls around the middle, all made to glow a brilliant white by a two-hundred-watt bulb screwed into a cavity somewhere near Frosty’s colon.” The neighborhood has won prizes in past Christmases for their work, but Grisham sees through this praise of Soviet collectivism. Even if it means losing the contest, Luther is firm in rejecting Frostism:
“So you’re really skipping out?”
“You got it, Vic. I’d appreciate your cooperation.”
“Just doesn’t seem right for some reason.”
“That’s not for you to decide, is it?”
Game, set and match. Objectivism triumphs. You could hear Rand chuckling in her grave.
Yes, to defeat the scourge of Christmas, everything must go: even the baby Jesus. In one powerfully erotic scene, Nora — who under her clothes was wearing a tiny red bikini that Luther gave her — runs into the minister after leaving a tanning session at the mall. As she sits to talk with him:
Luther’s little red bikini shifted again and something gave way, a strap perhaps, just above her hip and something was sliding down there.
This is the context for the deep religious conflict that underpins the book. It must underpin it, because except for one brief sentence elsewhere, the notion that Christmas was meant for the celebration of Jesus’ birth does not appear elsewhere. So this small exchange bears an enormous weight. Fortunately, Grisham’s talent is up to the task:
“You won’t miss the midnight service, will you?” he asked with a smile.
“No promises, Doug.”
But Nora is not happy, and here “cursing Luther and his bikini” — as an aside, the sexual confusion here and elsewhere in the book should provide enough material for a ground-breaking M.F.A. thesis — Grisham begins laying the groundwork for the second half of the book, in which Luther and Nora attempt to fulfill the Objectivism paradise foretold by Rand.
Grisham’s devotion to Rand extends even to the antipathy he shows toward his women. Almost every female character in “Skipping Christmas” are first-class bitches and harlots. There’s a co-worker Yank Slader’s wife, who’s “a brawler”; Nora’s working lunch with two “friends” becomes a battleground once her plans are known (“Merry was quick with a judgment, and years ago Nora had learned to bite back.”); through his neighbor’s window, Luther sees the hapless husband on the ladder, decorating the tree and being berated by both his wife and his mother-in-law; and the secretaries who cheerfully endure the ritual sexual harassment at the office Christmas party — “by five, some of the most starched and staid accountants at Wiley & Beck would be groping or attempting to grope some of the homeliest secretaries” — “because they saw and heard things they could tuck away and use as blackmail for the rest of the year.”
And despite being the wife of a proto-Randian hero, Nora is still and woman and thus doomed to succumb to societal pressures. When their daughter calls the night before Christmas from Miami to say she’ll be there for Christmas with her fiancé, Nora gives in. She will reaffirm middle-class values and rebuild the facade that they spent the book trying to tear down. They will have Christmas with all the trappings, and she turns on Luther like an avenging angel. She had endured his stoicism and his belief systems long enough. She has been critical of Luther throughout the book, but this tirade outdoes them all, and climaxing with an echo of the sexual confusion that permeates the whole book:
“This was your stupid idea. Well today, you’re an idiot. We’re having the party, Mr. Beach Bum, and we’re putting up a tree, with lights and decorations, and you’re going to get your little brown butt up on the roof and do Frosty.”
Cowed by his wife’s anger, Luther rushes about and gathers the fixings for the party, but not before noticing one thing:
“Don’t Peruvians have dark skin?” he asked.
Nora froze for a second. They stared at each other, then both looked away.
“I guess it doesn’t matter now,” she said.
“She’s not really getting married, is she?” Luther said, in disbelief.
But they must put their racism aside. They must get the party together, and what follows is a series of comic scenes reminiscent of the Chevy Chase “National Lampoon” movies: Luther buys a tree from the Scouts, who, being of high moral character, shafts him on the price and sells him a crappy tree whose needles fall off by the time he gets it home. He arranges to borrow a decorated tree from a neighbor and gets the police called on him (the neighbors’ co-ordinated surveillance of Luther call vividly to mind Rand’s fears of the Big Brotherism found in Soviet society). Luther tries to “do Frosty” and slides off the roof, and is saved from destruction only by a stray rope around his ankle. Then, when he confesses the real reason to his neighbors, they agree to help, solely because they love Blair, “who was like a daughter to them all.”
And that’s not all from the joy-master Grisham. The Kranks’ fears about a dark-skinned Peruvian marrying into the family and polluting the blood line prove false. It turns out that he is a) a doctor; b) capable of speaking English; c) educated in London; and d) well, to quote the book:
Nora and Luther both glanced at her first, then quickly looked beyond to see how dark Enrique was. He wasn’t dark at all! At least two shades lighter than Luther himself!
We realize that Grisham had set up the whole tanning-bed sequence with a double purpose, and he sets off the charge that results in an explosion of hearty laughter from the reader.
At the end, after giving away the trip to a neighbor he doesn’t like whose wife has breast cancer and will die, Luther counts his blessings. Despite being boring and selfish and a racist and having no friends whatsoever, Luther gets pulled out of a jam, not because of who he is, but because he’s related to someone people love. Luther has come to realize that he can be a true Randian hero, knowing that he won’t have to suffer the consequences because of his powerful position within the company, and because his neighbors are in the thrall of his daughter. He has no regrets for what he’s done nor regrets for his beliefs. Although temporarily defeated, Luther reflects optimistically on the future.
Skipping Christmas. What a ridiculous idea.
Maybe next year.
Thus setting the stage for “Skipping Christmas 2,” in which Grisham will expound further on the merits of Objectivism. But with its brevity, its wit, and its deep undercurrents, “Skipping Christmas” is a brilliant tour de force that will continue to inspire debate and deep furrowed thinking.