The description for Freddy Cruz’s novel When America Fell Silent contains this passage:
Retired Navy SEAL Hayder Randall would do anything to defend his country. But when his ex-girlfriend and current First Daughter Elizabeth watches her Presidential parents fall to a brutal assassination, he's shocked when she stages a coup and takes over the United States. With the nation split down the middle and his vengeful ex out for blood, he feels it's his duty to lead the resistance. As chaos and martial law reign, Randall watches in horror as Elizabeth repeals the First Amendment and begins a campaign of public executions.
When I posted that on Twitter our own Cory Garcia said, “This the strongest Divorced Guy energy ever measured. Just totally off the charts.” And he wasn’t wrong. When America Fell Silent is long on bad dude prose and short on interesting.
Hayder may be the hero, but he doesn’t appear until nearly a fifth of the way through the book. Instead, the majority is spent highlighting what a terrible person former First Daughter/new dictator Elizabeth Ogden is. Her father was a Trumpian figure who opens the story by personally using a flamethrower to burn the American tax code after he successfully abolishes the IRS (the book is rarely this fun afterward.) Elizabeth recoils in horror wondering who will build the roads until a barely-functional cartoon character of a leftist terrorist paraglides into the inauguration and grenades her family to death, leaving her face scarred.
Elizabeth is a ridiculously plastic villain. Cruz describes her as vain, neurotic, emotional, vindictive, jealous, and most of all a statist. Though she loves her father, she bristles over his coarse language and political incorrectness. His death enables her to stage the anti-free speech coup Hayder assures us she has been planning since they were dating in college and she would challenge him on his off-color jokes.
This is the crux of the book’s weakness. Cruz dedicates a lot of time to portraying Elizabeth’s new America and its embrace of political silence, but it’s a toothless nonsense that is driven by his one-dimensional villain’s daddy issues. There are constant examples of the ludicrous infringements on free speech that make up America in 2042, but none that seem to jive with any sort of reality as lived in recent memory so it’s hard to take it as anything but a libertarian wank-fic.
Victims are hauled away for having books by Antonin Scalia, or having dissed Elizabeth’s dad, or other similar things. There are no true political prisoners, no round up of internet Nazis, no shutdown of Twitter or 4chan, and not a single bit of discussion on what the hell was even being said before it was silenced. Cruz treats speech itself as if it is the target of a brutal authoritarian, but only vaguely hints at what speech specifically so it comes across as juvenile and stupid. That's not how censorship campaigns have ever worked historically. The Third Reich didn't start burning books because they hated speech. They started burning books because medical science was beginning to understand the gender spectrum and fascists hate that stuff. Elizabeth has some blanket hate-on for all speech period.
You could almost call it non-partisan in its desperate attempt to characterize the book's suppression as absurd if it didn’t have so many strange right-wing touches. It’s like the author wanted to champion free speech so much that he dared not make any cogent examples lest actual nuance dirtied the point. The presidential assassin who used to dress as Lenin as a kid is one of them. The fact that Elizabeth is a feminist and a former Bernie Sanders supporter is another. Her beloved dad was a crypto-currency investor and radio personality, and the final showdown involves a tech-bro using Guy Fawkes imagery because a whole lot of people did not actually read V for Vendetta and pick up the political meaning of anarchism. Plus, there's all this anti-Russia stuff at the beginning, but not the recent oligarchs-interfering-with-our-elections stuff. It's all pure 20th century red scare writing that feels incredibly tone deaf and dated. No one following the news in 2019 could ever be expected to believe the Russian government is anti-capitalist.
You can get a feel that Cruz is playing for an audience that wants a book about how terrible “snowflakes” are and the one man who can stop them, but every time he approaches really looking at what speech is and how that could be twisted, he shies away. Basically, the whole book is equivalent to when people heard Trump say “grab them by the pussy” and insisted those upset were mad at “pussy” when they were truly mad at “grab.”
Our hero, Hayder is dull, uninspired, and thoroughly predictable. It’s hard to even understand why he’s in the book at all let alone the main character. As far as I can tell, his sole crime is to have stopped dating Elizabeth some years before, and yet he’s constantly built up as this famous super soldier who is an existential threat to her regime. He doesn’t ever really do anything but spout tired patriotic clichés, vague complaints about PC culture, and constantly remind the audience that he is impervious to pain. He barely affects the plot until the very end, and you could lift him entirely out of the book without significantly affecting it. It’s like Cruz knew another cookie-cutter J.A. Johnstone white male protagonist would receive scorn, but since Hayder doesn’t ever express any personality, let alone one related to his mixed black-Iraqi ethnicity, he’s basically just a John Cena character as played by The Rock.
Oh, and he has a dog named Mr. [John] Galt who is killed by the anti-free speech squads, so there is that.
I opened this book expecting it to be a real misogyny showcase. It’s not really, but mostly because Cruz does nothing with female characters outside of making Elizabeth a hysterical witch. Of the three women in the book with big enough parts to make me remember them, two are dead by the end of it (one fridged), and the third puts up with sexual harassment from the good guys. Hayder gets a The Girl in his initial trio of revolutionaries. In their first meeting he goes from unconscious to Beast Mode and sweeps her legs out from her in an attack. She responds by immediately getting very horny. That’s the level of characterization Cruz typically gives.
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There are some interesting ideas scattered around the book. For instance, Elizabeth is slavishly devoted to law enforcement, and they join her coup largely because they feel like they’re constantly being called racist by a people who should be more grateful. It’s one of the few times the book invokes real horror. Cruz touches on the continued armament of police forces with military weaponry, as well as the hypocrisy of those decrying Colin Kaepernick’s expression of free speech by pledging allegiance to cops. Couple that with an FBI agent who turned from mole to freedom fighter in a Galveston gang, and the bones of a way more interesting story are buried underneath this novel.
Unfortunately, that Divorced Guy energy is unstoppable. When America Fell Silent is one of the best examples of why books like The Long Walk, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Hunger Games take place after the dictatorship is already established. Cruz slogs through page after page setting up his improbable America so that we properly hate Elizabeth, and in the end it’s as boring as listening to a guy tell you what a bitch his ex-wife was. There’s no subtle look at the factors that could institute a second American Civil War. It's just a pedestrian understanding of demographics and civics, and an evil empire less compelling than a 1980s Saturday morning toy tie-in cartoon no matter how gruesome the Execution Extravaganzas in the book are.
Freddy Cruz tried to write a love letter to free speech, but there’s just not much evidence he actually understands the subject under discussion beyond saying any sort of infringement leads to an authoritarian nightmare. It’s like a somewhat-lyrical Reddit thread. I enjoyed seeing a dystopia set in Houston, but Gary Watson did it far, far better in After Twilight. You should read that instead.
When America Fell Silent is available now.