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The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War (Hardcover)
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One of America’s finest reporters and essayists explores the powerful currents beneath the roiled waters of a nation coming apart.
An unmatched guide to the religious dimensions of American politics, Jeff Sharlet journeys into corners of our national psyche where others fear to tread. The Undertow is both inquiry and meditation, an attempt to understand how, over the last decade, reaction has morphed into delusion, social division into distrust, distrust into paranoia, and hatred into fantasies—sometimes realities—of violence.
Across the country, men “of God” glorify materialism, a gluttony of the soul, while citing Scripture and preparing for civil war—a firestorm they long for as an absolution and exaltation. Lies, greed, and glorification of war boom through microphones at hipster megachurches that once upon a time might have preached peace and understanding. Political rallies are as aflame with need and giddy expectation as religious revivals. At a conference for incels, lonely single men come together to rage against women. On the Far Right, everything is heightened—love into adulation, fear into vengeance, anger into white-hot rage. Here, in the undertow, our forty-fifth president, a vessel of conspiratorial fears and fantasies, continues to rise to sainthood, and the insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt, killed on January 6 at the Capitol, is beatified as a martyr of white womanhood.
Framing this dangerous vision, Sharlet remembers and celebrates the courage of those who sing a different song of community, and of an America long dreamt of and yet to be fully born, dedicated to justice and freedom for all.
Exploring a geography of grief and uncertainty in the midst of plague and rising fascism, The Undertow is a necessary reckoning with our precarious present that brings to light a decade of American failures as well as a vision for American possibility.
About the Author
Jeff Sharlet is the New York Times best-selling author or editor of eight books, including The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, adapted into a Netflix documentary series, and This Brilliant Darkness. His reporting on LGBTIQ+ rights around the world has received the National Magazine Award, the Molly Ivins Prize, and Outright International’s Outspoken Award. His writing and photography have appeared in many publications, including Vanity Fair, for which he is a contributing editor; the New York Times Magazine; GQ; Esquire; Harper’s; and VQR, for which he is an editor at large. He is the Frederick Sessions Beebe ’35 Professor in the Art of Writing at Dartmouth College, where he lives in the woods with many animals.
A riveting, vividly detailed collage of political and moral derangement in America, one that horrifyingly corresponds to liberals’ worst fears.
— Joseph O'Neill - New York Times
I deeply appreciate Sharlet’s mythic-religious approach, and how it enables him to capture what other journalists miss. Data can only tell half the story, and usually the half that’s less interesting. Add to that the book’s welcome ambition, both as journalism and literature. This is no mere compilation of bullet points. This is journalism-as-art, attempting to capture the mood of the nation at this fraught moment, that others in the future may know how it felt to live through the present. Hopefully there will still be readers then.
— Adam Fleming Petty - Washington Post
[The Undertow] is a foreboding drive through the backroads of the country’s rising militancy. From campy Trump rallies and a memorial service for the January 6 insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt to a televangelist’s church in Miami and a self-declared prophet in Omaha, Sharlet takes a hard, unwavering look at the nation’s guns-and-Bibles underbelly
— James Sullivan - Boston Globe
[The Undertow] induced a physiological response similar to the one I experienced while reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Both books are mood-altering, mind-altering odysseys.
— Elizabeth D. Samet - The American Scholar
Sharlet’s books require the kind of reportage that feels both immersive and terrifying—his work takes him deep into uncomfortable territory, holding a mirror up to the world we think we live in to reveal another place altogether. That’s what The Undertow promises: a deep dive into the religious dimensions—and fanaticism—of American politics. From a conference for incels to the celebrated martyrdom of a Capitol rioter, Sharlet’s new book will be a must read for everyone looking to understand how the country got to where we are.
— Emily Firetog - Literary Hub
At once heartbreaking and quietly hopeful.… These dispatches immerse readers in the currents threatening to pull a nation apart, while skirting the nihilism that could drag us under.
— Jessica Bruder, author of Nomadland
Jeff Sharlet’s rich narrative prose unpacks a worldview in which US democracy is an existential threat. These essays are an essential read for all Americans.
— Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works
In these reports from America’s different corners there comes a feeling for why we’re so broken and what it might take to heal. Brilliant, lucid, incisive, meticulously reported—Jeff Sharlet is at his best here even when we are not.
— Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
That America is deeply divided is undeniable. Yet underneath this polarization lies a rich tapestry of human experience, stories of individuals inspired by myths, driven by fears, and searching for meaning. At once unexpectedly sympathetic and profoundly disquieting, Jeff Sharlet’s work shows how the task of binding our nation together is a daunting one, but the fate of American democracy depends on it.
— Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne
Brilliant, humane, and incisive, Jeff Sharlet illuminates the fault lines of a fractured nation. His meticulous reporting connects the dots on a stark but hopeful journey.
— Wajahat Ali, author of Go Back to Where You Came From
Riveting, insightful.… Weaving religion, hate, hope, and fear into stories that catch us unaware, Jeff Sharlet confronts us with the realities of the shifting American psyche—a must-read in order to understand the conflicting voices and tensions in America today.
— Anthea Butler, author of White Evangelical Racism
Poetic descriptions of America’s landscape and history punctuate Sharlet’s unsettling insights into the undercurrents of fear, isolation, and anger coursing through the country. It’s a jaw-dropping portrait of a country on the edge.
— Publishers Weekly
A frightening, wholly believable vision of an American cataclysm to come—possibly soon.
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A grim but necessary examination of democracy’s potential assassins, leavened by Sharlet’s incredible storytelling and acute observations.