Let’s just assume that if you’re curious about a book called Agitprop for Bedtime, you have a half-decent sense of humor and will be okay with a very short textual reimagining of the Kama Sutra titled “Laurel and Hardy Have Sex.” On the other hand, if you’ve ever wondered why you don’t get an erection the moment you hear the opening notes of the national anthem, then many of the pieces in Charles Holdefer’s latest collection of miniature polemics, story problems, and humdingers might cut a little too close to the bone for your comfort. For everyone else, it’s a jolly, twisted, phantasmagorical romp through the American psyche.
As with Holdefer’s Dick Cheney in Shorts, this latest collection has a decidedly political edge, with a wide range of targets that include gun rights, healthcare, for-profit prisons and blind patriotism. In many ways, he’s depicting the cartoonish landscape that programmers at Fox News would have their viewers believe lies just beyond the safety of their gated communities. It’s an America where Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein trudge dutifully from house to house like errant trick-or-treaters taking fire-arms from gun-toting citizens while lonely white men on diving boards leap to meaningless deaths in empty swimming pools. It’s a weirdly bleak vision of a nation divided, but a hilarious one as well.
The proceedings, laugh-out-loud funny as they may be to a particular type of reader, offer more than just slapstick comedy. They’re also surprisingly nonpartisan—or at least as nonpartisan as a book of this nature can be. The funhouse-mirror version of America that Holdefer depicts is one that implicates us all. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a short piece titled “Here Lies a Myriad,” which finds a young couple perusing the menu of a fine-dining establishment whose delicacies, served by heroes, include air strikes, naval destroyers, and infantry while what goes on in the kitchen remains (mercifully?) out of view. Our ignorance, it turns out, is as purposeful as it is central to our continued comfort.
Stylistically, Holdefer is not afraid to take risks and play with form. Plot and character in his short works are often implied and arguably Rorschachian reflections of the reader’s psyche. Personally, I can’t help reading “Kickstart Me Harder, Harder” as a knowing critique of my own (shameful, shameful) past dalliances with crowdfunding and the icky feeling that the practice engenders, while “Love Kit” reads like a work of art-by-instruction gone horribly wrong. Fun, in other words, for the entire family.
At the end of the day – which, as the title suggests, is arguably the best time to read this collection – Agitprop for Bedtime is a real humdinger that dares to ask the eternal question: Is hell other people, or is it just the coffee shop where they all hang out?