Here’s a wild and extravagant fictional account of a parallel-Barack Obama, a Barack Obama who never was but exists—as the imaginary biracial Dexter Arjuna—in the fevered imagination of a writer who, like Robert Coover or Thomas Pynchon or Don Delillo, takes contemporary events and re-invents them as satire and myth (and, yes, a teachable moment). Adam Lewis Schroeder was one of my favourites back in the Paleolithic when I edited Best Canadian Stories (his stories appeared in the 1999 and 2004 editions). He had traveled and lived in the Far East, especially Indonesia, and his inspired stories were rich with mystery and cultural observation and the clash of tradition and modernity.
Adam grew up in Vernon, British Columbia, and now lives in Penticton with his wife and kids. He is the author of the fiction collection Kingdom of Monkeys (2001) and the novels Empress of Asia (2006) and In the Fabled East (2010.) Douglas & McIntyre will publish All-Day Breakfast, an apocalyptic road novel, in Spring 2012. He teaches Creative Writing at University of British Columbia Okanagan.
The Fairy Tale of Dexter Arjuna, President-Elect
Adam Lewis Schroeder
Since the election on November 4 the fact of Dexter Arjuna’s biracial identity has been extolled even more often than the 2:1 majority with which he dominated the Electoral College, as though those mundane descriptions heard early in the campaign—“the candidate, whose mother was Indonesian” or “the Democratic nominee, who is half-Asian”—could suddenly not do him justice. The very moment the election was called—11:07 EST, as many will recall—CNN, Fox News, the BBC World Service, Al Jazeera and the regular networks simultaneously took the phrase “the first biracial president-elect” into their mouths like dogs with a particularly meaty bone, as if simply being half-white and half-Indonesian were far too narrow a description for the epicentre of such support from the American electorate. Because a president-elect who is biracial might be any combination of half-black, half-Latino, half-white, half-Jewish, half-Asian, half-RFK, half-Gandhi or half-MLK. His heritage is the heritage of the beholder—hybrid vigour indeed. What’s more (and could the networks have been unaware of this?) biracial seemingly straddles interracial and bisexual so that as Dexter Arjuna delivered his acceptance speech beneath Seattle’s Space Needle he was not just throwing the gauntlet down at the feet of foreign oil, terrorists, corporate bullies, bipartisan whips and extremists of any stripe save those committed to freedom, he appeared as all people to all people while simultaneously having carnal knowledge of all people. “Yes, we can,” he declared, and a billion viewers world-wide were simultaneously sated and seduced (with the meagre exception of some 40 million American Republicans.) Such was the power of President-elect Arjuna’s voice; his profile; his dreaming-yet-wrought-in-iron, 1000-yard stare; the untapped power at the corners of his mouth; and his cosmic new label—Biracial! (Eternal! a hysterical crowd might mouth in the same breath. Unyielding!) Yet to side-step the plain fact that he is Indonesian on his mother’s side is to never comprehend the events which truly brought Dexter Arjuna to power.
Lieutenant Stan Flannery must have been breathlessly anticipating his furlough as the USS Dearborn, Michigan docked at Surabaya, on the island of Java, in March 1961; Vietnam was then but a glimmer in JFK’s eye, Indonesia’s Confrontation with Malaysia was two years away and its infamously bloody “Communist coup attempt” (my quotes) two more, so that, despite the archipelago’s rampant poverty, illiteracy and lack of adequate drinking water all was relatively right with the world. On a sunny Thursday afternoon, touring the countryside on a rented motorcycle, Flannery ran down and nearly killed Imelda Arjuna, daughter of the elected kepala desa of Buwang hamlet: a patchwork of neat cement houses, chicken-clogged paths and rice fields shimmering beneath a dormant volcano. Imelda was as pretty as perhaps any 20-year-old then living. A painful sinus infection—attributed to too much snorkelling, late in his furlough, off Madura Island—kept Flannery from active duty and freed him to visit Buwang almost daily, and on the morning of May 9 he and Miss Arjuna were married. Their signatures can still be seen in the village register alongside that of Commander Richard Boggs, Flannery’s commanding officer and witness to the nuptials. (If Boggs’ support of the relationship seems unorthodox, his entire career could be surmised by that adjective up to and including his disappearance on Tonga in 1985, the peculiar, even occult, circumstances of which the Navy has yet to adequately explain.) In a photograph of the ceremony, two grinning sailors in dress-whites tower over the bridal party of grim, straight-backed Indonesians in batik sarongs, as though the Americans were blithely hosting some geo-political kiddies’ revue. What force could possibly unite such disparate nations? The force, namely, of the willowy girl clutching Flannery’s wrist, her dark face brilliant as sunrise as she smiles up at her new husband who smiles in turn at his bearded CO. The girl’s arm is still a mass of bandages.
The ultimate embodiment of that biracial unity, Dexter Flannery Arjuna, was born March 3, 1962, while his father and the USS Dearborn, Michigan were off Peru en route to California. Imelda had asked that the infant be so-named because she’d learned that as a boy Stan had owned a cat called Dexter. But not entirely confident of the lieutenant’s return, evidently, the kepala desa then registered the infant with its maternal surname. (The fact that Flannery never sought to change it testifies to the sanctity of Imelda’s memory.) At Naval Station San Diego a waiting cable informed Flannery that though he had a healthy new-born son, his wife had died in labour; such news was wisely kept from sailors while at sea. Boggs granted the lieutenant an indefinite compassionate leave (eventually a full discharge) and the new father flew straight home—not to his parents in Washington State, of course, but to Java.
Flannery accepted a clerking position at the US consulate in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital and most populous city at a then-airy 1.2 million. Every odd month like clockwork, even while Soeharto brusquely assumed power, Flannery would brave the 17-hour rail trip back to Surabaya to leave Dexter with his pak and ibu in Buwang. When the boy turned six he returned to Jakarta full-time to attend the city’s American School. Dexter did not blossom amongst the well-scrubbed children of diplomats and oil company administrators, however, and a fourth-grade report card describes him as “awkward, defensive.” His half-Indonesian identity, so common in that community, can hardly explain the near-constant fistfights the youngster enjoyed; five of the front teeth so admired today are held in place by a bridge. On November 2, 1976—the day the ex-patriots’ absentee ballots were counted in the election won by James E. Carter of Georgia—Dexter was suspended from school for drunkenness. That afternoon, thick with the relentless buzzing of cicadas and clattering of goats’ hooves across pavement, the boy threw a cinder-block through the windshield of Headmaster van Olst and urinated, yes, urinated, on Mrs. Van Olst, who walked with two canes as a result of childhood polio. Ladies and gentleman, the 44th President of the United States!
The van Olsts did not press charges, and Stan arranged to take his son on an extended and immediate vacation. He bought a used Eagle Talon stocked with country-and-western 8-tracks and subleased their second-floor apartment on Jalan Kebon Sirih. (The property’s present British owner turned it into a café called April, May, Arjuna the same day the former resident secured the Democratic nomination; his “Biracial” waffle cookie is only half-dipped in chocolate.) What exactly was the soundtrack to that early morning of November 9, as the sharp-featured ex-Navy man and his scabby-knuckled, fuzzy-moustached, acne-cheeked son wove out of the capital between diesel trucks, bullock carts and overloaded bemos, questing for the potholed roads and listing PELNI ferries of the vast archipelago? Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway”?
In Jogjakarta, Stan took his son to the legendary wayang kulit shadow-puppet theatre at Sasono Hinggil, but after the lights went down discovered Dexter at the rear entrance smoking marijuana with the performers. The boy threw a punch at his father. Amongst other source materials for this article, the University of Washington’s fledgling Arjuna Archives contain a dusty envelope stuffed with Stan Flannery’s letters to Caroline Gemser, a consular colleague in Jakarta. His mindset at the time:
I thought that maybe all his bullshit at home was because he wanted to get back to the land of his grandparents or something. Ride a water buffalo through a rice paddy. But we ended up only stopping in Buwang for a night. Even though his Javanese isn’t much good anymore he managed to start an argument with everyone we ran into, even his grandparents, who didn’t seem halfways surprised by it. At this point I’m pretending he’s not my son at all, that way I take all of this bullshit less personally, and instead I tell myself that I’ve been hired by a college somewhere for a sociological experiment. Are people repulsed by the kid I’m travelling with because he hates them all, or is it the other way around? Lab rats! Every half-hour I expect him to run away but I guess even he doesn’t know where he’d run to. The one complete sentence he’s said to me is that he’s sick of everything.
At Kuta Beach on Bali, Stan bought surfing lessons for Dexter—and what 14-year-old wouldn’t have killed for them?—but instead Dexter wandered up Legian Road, where police caught him shoplifting belts. Father and son rode another ferry east, to Lombok, and Flannery wrote Gemser again.
This beach at Ampenan is very pretty. The fishing boats are all kinds of colours, like at Pulau Ayer but not exactly. Girls stand bags of garbage on the sand then the waves knock them over and float the trash away one lettuce leaf at a time, unless the goats get it first. Dex went and kicked sand on a goat like he was bruiser in a comic book, he probably wanted to see whose head was harder. Then he spent a long time seeing how far the wind would take his spit. There’s a Hindu temple, an old stone job, and I saw him go in there to dip into the donation bowl, but then he came out again with a tall guy in a black suit and they wandered away up the beach. It wasn’t the hermit from the temple, I’d met him and he was a little wizened guy with a cloth on his head. This guy in black looked white, and they went off around the coconut trees until I couldn’t see them anymore. I got that song in my head, “Til things are brighter, I’m the man in black.” Some parents might worry what some big stranger might do to their kid but for me it was the other way around. Then I saw them come back and before the guy went back into the temple I saw he and Dex shake hands. Dex came over and (you might wonder if this story is going somewhere, I think it is) and I asked if he was hungry and he said yes, so we went up the road to a place for goat curry. He wasn’t complaining about anything, didn’t ask me for a cigarette, and after we ordered can you guess what he did? Got up and went in the back of the restaurant because he said he wanted to learn how the food was made! I just sat there with my beer and I could hear them laughing back there, Dex too, then I could hear him teaching them Honeycomb by Jimmie Rodgers, with the back-up vocals and that. Honeycomb, won’t you be my baby. Honest to god. He brought our plates out himself, then they gathered around behind us and he picked up a piece of goat, big goofy grin on his face, and they took our picture with a Polaroid and pinned it over the counter. Then all these teenagers came in from who knows where, and he sat around shooting the shit with them. I drank quite a few beer as I sat there trying to figure it out. He wasn’t just playing at being friendly, either, he was charming as hell with these little songs in Indonesian and these funny tricks he did with his fingers. All the sea air has dried his zits up. Honest to god, C, I think the real Dex got left behind those palm trees somewhere.
Though the boy suffered poor health over the following weeks, Stan’s letters contain passages—“Dex wanted to reach the summit before sunrise” and “the old guy was eyeing him up for a son-in-law”—that would have seemed gloomy jokes prior to that afternoon on Lombok. In January father and son returned to Jakarta, and after a three-minute interview with his headmaster Dexter was re-enrolled at school. On his next report card his English instructor wrote, “The transformation is like nothing short of a fairy tale.” Dexter became “an adept listener, but with a wise, booming voice” when called upon. At the consulate’s clinic he had his teeth repaired. He shaved his paltry moustache. He took long bicycle rides around the city, sometimes alone but more often with friends, and in May 1977 founded Clean Drinking Water Jakarta to lobby governments near and abroad to provide that very thing.
No one who has been alive during the 2008 presidential campaign requires a reiteration of Arjuna’s political résumé, and I will look at it selectively from this point in order to make certain arguments. To underline the grand reversal in his life, for example, I will remind readers that in November 1978 he travelled, in his newly-minted capacity as United Nations Youth Spokesperson, to meet Jimmy Carter at the White House.
In 1980 Dexter, his father and new stepmother Caroline moved 8,368 miles to Seattle. Stan assumed an administrative post at Boeing while Dexter became enmeshed in the lives of his grandparents—those names heard so often on the campaign trail—Ma and Pa Flannery, and their respective associations with church and service clubs. Not content with the role of perennially-exotic-after-dinner-speaker, in June 1981, at age nineteen, he led a three-week walk-out of non-union King County bus drivers, masterminding the strike from a school-bus-turned-taco-hut in the commuter community of West Seattle. I mention this to draw another Indonesian connection; the Bahasa Indonesia word for woman is wanita, and Juanita Reis worked the bus’s grill Tuesday to Saturday. In 1991 she and Dexter married after each had graduated cum laude from Harvard Law, and their children, Katy and Edward, were born in ’97 and ’99 respectively.
With Washington a reliable blue state, Arjuna’s rise through the echelons of local power and into the senate was not unheard-of for a person of colour, but his racial background made walking across the national stage a path of far greater resistance. In his famously candid Newsweek interview during the Pennsylvania primaries, GOP head Jim Dewar warned, “If [the Democrats] have any notion of winning a [Republican] swing vote, if there is any such animal, they ought to at least put a white man on the ticket. After the mortgage crisis and all the rest—I admit there’ve been problems—the swing vote doesn’t ask for much, but it does expect a white man. Meantime, our core support, God love ‘em, if you tell them a candidate’s half-Indonesian you might as well put horns on him and a swastika and enrol him in the Black Panthers—they don’t quite know what ‘half-Indonesian’ means, but it’s bad. I pray God they put Arjuna on the ticket, I do. Dexter Arjuna versus John McCain, you imagine? It’s laughable.”
Yet the Democratic National Convention in Denver did select him as its presidential candidate, despite a primary season awash in aspirants far better-qualified on paper, and most especially despite Senator Hillary Clinton’s eight years’ experience at the executive level, well-moneyed campaign and highest personal-approval numbers for a candidate since demographically-representative polling began in 1936. “Don’t know why exactly we ended up with Arjuna,” one DNC delegate admitted. “Something about him.” Far more noteworthy is the memory of Arjuna striding, gleaming-toothed and victorious, across the stage at Invesco Field while over the booming PA Jimmie Rodgers yelped that most-baffling of official campaign anthems, Took a hank of hair and a piece of bone and made a walking, talking honeycomb…
During September’s vice-presidential debate the GOP’s Paul Broun declared with the delivery of a revivalist preacher that Joe Ireland’s running mate was “a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist, with every capability of becoming another Hitler. Another Adolph Hitler. Take a long look into those eyes.” Ireland would not rise to such absurd bait, but a half-hour later voiced his opinion that under George W. Bush the Republicans had “sold their souls to the special interests.” Which statement drew Arjuna’s ire? “Though our rhetoric often stretches credibility,” he declared in a statement, “language describing the selling of one’s soul is not appropriate to the campaign.” Why this sudden spiritual concern? Anderson Cooper attempted to pin Arjuna down on the matter. “I have an idea what your question is leading to,” responded the candidate, hand to lapel. “And since the events of 9/11 it’s a question I have answered many times. I am not a Muslim, though as a child I spent time in a predominantly Muslin country. I’ve addressed this—I’m not even sure how often—5000 times? If we could bring Ma and Pa Flannery out here—these are the people who raised me, Ma and Pa Flannery—I think this would be laid to rest. I mean—I think it’s safe to declare this now, but I am an animist. Which means I believe that there is not one god above us but a bit of God in everything, and in the natural world especially.” (For a split-second CNN cut to campaign manager Chris Holcomb with his head in his hands at the edge of the soundstage.) “A question of spiritual distribution,” Arjuna continued affably, “for you economists out there.” (Hand-scrawled signs have followed Arjuna ever since, from the witty—My sign told me the guy wasn’t supposed to say that—to the predictably hateful—Devil take you if he hasn’t already.)
Despite strong showings in the first two debates, the CNN Poll of Polls for October 17 indicated that the much-vaunted swing vote had not warmed to Arjuna—an even 60% of decided voters declared they would choose McCain come Election Day. The Democratic camp trumpeted that they would forge ahead, of course; if nothing else they were still proud to be advancing the first non-white candidate in history.
Despite declaring for Arjuna one month earlier, on October 17 The New York Times ran its famous “Unelectable” editorial: “It is surely not impossible in 2008 for a non-white candidate to achieve the highest office, provided that said candidate can appeal to the widest possible segment of the electorate by empathising with them on every issue but race, and in this year of all election years there is such a surfeit of issues that race may realistically take a back seat. Yet at this point in the campaign Arjuna has achieved true empathy only with those rare Americans who cannot be aware that he has, because they live in trees and have no access to media of any kind. A non-white candidate might achieve the highest office, yes, but Dexter Arjuna is now perceived as so intensely non-white that if he were to slip a bone through his nose no one would notice the change.” Note how far he stands from the all-inclusive “biracial” identity of election night; he is no longer given credit for even being “half-Indonesian,” which at least afforded him some identity. He is simply “non-white.” He had been carried from Ampenan to Denver, from success to more-ambitious success, on the strength of a little charm, a little ability and incalculable amounts of goodwill, but as of “Unelectable” that goodwill was dead. To take Arjuna beyond the nomination, to the presidency, it would require new life.
On October 18 it was widely reported that Arjuna’s grandfather in Indonesia had suddenly fallen gravely ill—the AP even specified that he lay “near death from cholera”—and that evening the candidate and his young family flew from LAX. For four full days, October 19-22 inclusive, Arjuna’s speaking engagements were postponed while Chris Holcomb guided Joe Ireland through a procession of echoing Southeastern auditoriums where all but the anti-animist protestors had abandoned them.
But why four days, exactly? Air travel between the west coast and Indonesia takes roughly 24 hours in either direction, leaving two days and nights in Buwang before the candidate flew from Surabaya on the evening of October 22. At the time, though, Al Jazeera reported with little fanfare that U.S. Secret Service personnel had bivouacked in the hamlet for only a single night (for those keeping score on their calendars, advance to October 20 for crossing the International Date Line) and most of the next day. This fact was broadcast simply as good news in regards to Pak Arjuna’s health. But glad tidings notwithstanding, where were the then-longshot-to-become-most-powerful-man-on-earth and his wife and children on the night of October 21? (During the same period John McCain was in Bensalem, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh.) In a chartered jet the Arjunas might have reached anywhere in the archipelago and returned to Surabaya in time; with campaign staff maintaining to this day that the family never left Buwang, where could one start asking questions? Recognising 2008 as a year for longshots, I telephoned Selaparang Airport, just outside the town of Ampenan on Lombok, and found an administrator who both spoke English and, thanks to the Arjuna Effect abroad, was overjoyed to talk. (Reporting on the Balinese night club bombings in 2002, conversely, I’d been stonewalled by Indonesian authorities at every level.)
ALS: Is the strip equipped for landings after dark?
Zahir: In an emergency, yes, it can be. We have a generator at this facility and big lights on carts.
ALS: I’m curious to know if you put the lights out on the evening of October 21.
Zahir: Ah! Oh-ho. Here is the book. I am at home in the evenings, but the book will say. Duapuluh satu Oktober. Yes. 10:20 PM. For a little Cessna. It was arranged by a Mr. Holcomb. I do not know the names of the party, I am sorry.
Imagine the moths in their fluttering millions that those Selaparang floodlights must have tempted from the tropic blackness. “Like moths to a flame” is too on-the-nose, of course, so let us coin a new simile: “Like voters in 2008.”
The CNN Poll of Polls for October 24, released 36 hours after Arjuna’s return to these shores, declared that an even 60% of decided voters would vote for him come election day. Why had 20 million Americans suddenly warmed to the Democratic candidate? “There’s just something about him,” was the most oft-heard quote. Little else was said about the poll results; mainstream media evidently regarded them not as the most baffling public-opinion reversal in history as much as nature simply taking its course.
Our final scene was described to me by a young Democratic Party page who shall of course remain nameless. At 1:18 AM on November 5th she carried a bottle of Hennessy and a bucket of ice into Arjuna’s suite at Seattle’s Hotel 100. The kids had been put to bed—though it’s unlikely they were sleeping, on that night of all nights—and Juanita was apparently in the shower. Chris Holcomb and the biracial president-elect sat in their shirt-sleeves. The page set the tray on a footstool. Arjuna gave her that aw-shucks grin immortalized in his parents’ wedding photo then leaned forward to grasp the tongs himself. She lingered until eventually undertaking the long walk back to the door, and over the clack of ice-cubes heard the following.
Arjuna: You know who he looked like? Johnny Cash.
Holcomb: No shit.
Arjuna: Both times he looked like Johnny Cash.
Holcomb: Indonesian Johnny Cash?
Arjuna: No, no. The suit and everything. Like Folsom Prison.
Holcomb: Blitzer asked in the elevator if Katy had the flu. Pulled this long face.
Arjuna: She’s going to wish it was the flu!
Holcomb: Why should the whole thing make her sick? I don’t get it.
Arjuna: Me neither. I guess the soul and the body are—
The men in black suits then shut the door behind our nameless Democratic Party page.
I present this information solely in the interest of full disclosure, that we may judge his term (or terms, presumably) without bias. I must say that for my own part possession of these facts—or, at the very least, suppositions—detracts in no way from my admiration for Dexter Flannery Arjuna. Soon he will be sworn in as our president, and I love him.
—Adam Lewis Schroeder