Trauma in the American story

Chris Rock portrays Loy Cannon, a Kansas City mob boss who trades sons with an Italian crime family in a failed attempt to avoid war in the FX series “Fargo.” (PHOTO: FX)
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

When the Joel and Ethan Coen movie “Fargo” came out in 1996, Minnesotans complained that we don’t really talk that way. But the fact that the (only slightly) exaggerated regional dialect is what most of us remember from “Fargo” displays the wit of the Coen Brothers, both Minnesota natives themselves. Because “Fargo” isn’t about the Minnesota accent, it’s about the struggle between deviance and morality in a cold, often unforgiving culture.

Of course we’d focus on the accents. That’s so us.

Beginning in 2014, Noah Hawley adapted the darkly comic themes of the movie for the FX Network TV show “Fargo.” I reviewed the show for my website as it quickly became one of the best programs on American television. Delayed by COVID-19, Season 4 debuted this fall and will wrap up its storyline tonight.

This season centers on a mob war in 1950 Kansas City. It’s quite unlike the previous storylines, which shared the movie’s focus on a single outlandish crime and resulting events, typically set somewhere in Minnesota. “Fargo,” which we all understand to be located in North Dakota, becomes a metaphor for a distant city where terrible, consequential decisions are made.

This year’s plot is much more complicated. It more closely resembles a mashup of “The Godfather,” “Once Upon a Time in America,” and “The Wizard of Oz,” all shot with an eye for the style of Coen Brothers classics like “Raising Arizona,” “Barton Fink,” and “Miller’s Crossing.” Which is to say, it’s a beautiful mess.

In summary, a Jewish crime syndicate is displaced by an Irish concern around 1920. Italian mobsters displace the Irish in the late 1930s. And in 1950, after WWII and the great migration of Black workers out of the South, the Italian family now faces a rising criminal network led by an ambitious Black man, Loy Cannon, portrayed by Chris Rock.

Will Loy Cannon enjoy the same opportunity to push the old guard off the top of the hill? Or will white supremacy, raging in the 1950s South, prevent him from doing so? For the Italians are becoming white in the eyes of other Americans, even as they endure ethnic slurs that those of us from the Iron Range have heard before.

But race is hardly the only matter at the center of the story. There’s something much deeper at stake. Are we ever really free from the traumas that shaped our upbringing? Or those of the people before us?

Loy’s foe, the somewhat hapless Italian mob boss Josto Fadda, portrayed by Jason Schwartzman, says, “America loves a crime story because America is a crime story.”

Another episode quotes Bertram Russell, “Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim.” In statements like these, “The American Dream,” of working hard for a house, a car, and legitimacy in the eyes of our neighbors becomes more urgent. It’s a survival story.

As overstuffed as the narrative sometimes feels, the theme rings true in our times. This is a story about how people hungrily clamber up the ladder of an American class system to escape crime and suffering. Some people are allowed up the ladder and some are not. In fact, this is the real American story.

There’s some historical context for all this. In the episode “Tempest in a Teacup” of Malcom Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History,” the noted journalist revisits the story of the Boston Tea Party on Dec. 16, 1773.

Often portrayed as a noble protest by American merchants burdened by unfair taxes, the event’s actual origins are more complex. Many of the prominent citizens involved were also smugglers, a common way for wealthy men to augment earnings at the time. The import of “legitimate” tea was a threat to their smuggled tea. Thus, throwing the British tea in the harbor was, in fact, a business decision. Winning the revolutionary war allowed some of these same men to become known as Founding Fathers rather than, well, racketeers.

Gladwell also follows the descendants of mobsters. Contrary to the movie trope of crime families continuing for generations, Gladwell shows that most people from mob families go legitimate within a generation or two. Their criminal ancestor becomes a colorful story. Their ancestor’s money becomes a forgotten advantage passed down the ages. After all, only one generation separated President John F. Kennedy from bootlegging.

Most people descended from Iron Range immigrants know what this is like: the uncle, the great-grandpa, the second-cousin twice-removed whose true story was never supposed to leave the family.

I think also of the small fingertips that prevented one of my grandfathers from tumbling down an underground mine shaft. Or the debilitating injury of my other grandfather when he was blown off a mining haul truck. Or the suffering of a grandmother who died young, before I was born. I did not have to experience the traumas for them to affect me. And so it is for all of us.

The finale to the fourth season of “Fargo” airs tonight at 9 p.m. on FX. However the story ends, our American story won’t be resolved for some time. History weighs on all of us, even if we don’t understand what’s pressing down on our shoulders. That makes it all the more important to lift upward with all our might.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



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