The call is one we’ve been expecting, so when it comes we’re jolted but not surprised. It’s from my wife’s sister, who lives in Arizona. She and her husband are both proudly unvaccinated—predictably enough, since their chief sources of information are Fox News and social media. They’ve believed from the beginning that the coronavirus has been overblown by mainstream media, and that doctors are in on it because they somehow get paid more when they record the death of somebody who died in, say, a car accident as having been caused by COVID‑19, though how exactly that would work, my relatives don’t explain. For them, the vaccines are not about public health so much as personal freedom. My body, my choice, and they’ve made theirs.
And now, the reckoning. For a year and a half they’ve been lucky, but their luck has finally run out. Both have been infected by the virus. On the phone my sister-in-law can’t stop coughing, though she says her own case is relatively mild. Her husband, however, is being put on a ventilator; his chances of survival, according to his doctors, are roughly 50–50. She’s distraught, and the question she wants my wife to help her with isn’t “How could we have been so stupid?” but rather “Why is this happening?,” and she asks this in all sincerity. The obvious answer is one she can’t or won’t accept—in part, I suspect, because it naturally leads to another question that, even in this excruciating moment, she refuses to entertain: “What else have we been wrong about?”
I can’t listen. As my wife tries her best to console her sister, I have to leave the room. The events of the past two years—political, cultural, epidemiological—have eroded my ability to sympathize with people who should damn well know better. I ought to be able to summon a more sympathetic response than “What on earth did you expect?” but often I just can’t. I am fed up and, I admit, no longer my best self. Somehow it has come to this. We are now a nation that has to be specifically warned not to drink bleach. Out of necessity, a feed-store owner in Nevada is refusing to sell ivermectin to anyone who can’t prove they own a horse. Though three different vaccines against the coronavirus have been proved safe and effective for use here in the United States, and though those vaccines are free, people like my wife’s sister and her husband will use up precious oxygen berating their doctors for refusing to treat them as a veterinarian would treat a barnyard animal suffering from a completely unrelated malady. Such lunacy makes common decency difficult to summon and act upon.
When my wife finally hangs up in the next room, I hear her let out a cry of pure exasperation, and for some reason when she does, a memory of my father lurches unbidden from the back of my mind to the front.
When I enter the tavern, he’s seated at the bar, surrounded by his cronies, one of whom notices my entrance and alerts him. Jimmy. Your kid. This is how it’s been since I actually was a kid. After my parents separated, I didn’t see much of him, but every now and then there he’d be, big as life, talking with some guys in front of the pool hall or drinking coffee at the counter of the Palace Diner. Seeing me approach, somebody would nudge him and stage-whisper, Jimmy. Isn’t that your son? But that was then. At the time of this particular memory, I’m probably 30, a newly minted college professor with a recent Ph.D., and because my life is elsewhere now, I haven’t seen him for some time. He has an apartment, of course, a place where he goes to crash after last call, where he showers in the morning and again after work before heading to whatever blue-collar dive bar he and his buddies are gracing these days. So this is where I’ve sought him out. On a barstool he is the personification of elegance, and I expect him to execute his signature move: The stool itself will swivel, but so too will his head, a beat quicker, allowing him to locate me before the stool and the rest of his body complete their arc. This time, though, something is off. Both stool and man rotate as if welded together.
When he hands me a bottle of the beer he remembers me drinking years earlier, while we worked road construction together, I imitate his hunched, rigid shoulders and say, “So, what’s all this?”
“Nothing,” he assures me. “A stiff neck is all.”
“Since when?” I ask.
He shrugs. “A while.”
I clock the expression on one of his friend’s faces. Fucking Jimmy, it says. What’re you gonna do? So, longer than a while, then.
“It’s no big deal,” he tells me. “I know a guy.”
Turns out the guy he knows is a horse trainer in nearby Saratoga Springs who has access to dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), an industrial solvent that is easily absorbed into the skin and used, among other things, to reduce inflammation in racehorses. Doctors prescribe medical-grade DMSO to treat bladder inflammation and irritation in humans, as well as joint pain and shingles. But these days, DMSO can also be purchased in various strengths in health-food stores. When my father scores his topical-cream version the day after admitting to me that he has a stiff neck, he will not be supervised by a doctor or even, for that matter, the horse trainer. He’s probably been warned not to get it in his eyes if he can help it, because, yeah, it’s an industrial solvent. But hey, guess what? The stuff actually works! Almost immediately he can move his neck—not a lot, but still. Okay, there are some side effects. It stinks to high heaven. As advertised, it absorbs right into the skin, and from there it keeps right on going. My father can taste it, metallic, on the back of his tongue, and because the taste is even worse than the smell, his appetite is pretty well shot. But so what? He isn’t going to be using it forever, just until the stiff neck goes away, so he considers the trade-off a pretty good one. By the end of the week, he’s his old self, on barstools and off. He considers himself fortunate to know a guy with access to a miracle cure, whereas other people with a stiff neck just have to suffer through it.
You know how this story ends, right? Months later, after a long-deferred trip to the VA hospital, my father will learn that the cause of his stiff neck, which kept returning despite repeated applications of DMSO, is lung cancer. It’s a shame he didn’t come in sooner, he will be told. Too bad he’s wasted precious months treating his lung cancer with horse liniment, which alleviates his discomfort just enough for him to continue working, which even at 60 he still needs to do.
Yes, too bad.
One of the problems with screaming “How could you be so stupid?” at people who behave stupidly is that we too often think of the question as rhetorical when it isn’t. Though vaccine hesitancy is often seen as purely political, that’s not necessarily the case. It also correlates to lack of health care, which means that when public-health officials urge the unvaccinated to consult their family doctors (on the assumption that they might be more persuasive than government agencies), they’re assuming facts not in evidence. If you can’t afford health insurance, you probably can’t afford a doctor either, and if this is how you’ve been living for the past decade, chances are good that surviving without sound medical advice has become part of your behavioral DNA. Your strategy will be much like my father’s: keep working, save what you can (not much) for the rainy day you know is coming, and hope for the best. Maybe you’ll get lucky and know a guy.
So, yes, my father was foolish not to go to a doctor sooner, but it’s not terribly surprising that he didn’t. After he returned from the Second World War, his primary access to health care was the VA hospital, an hour away, in Albany. Road construction in upstate New York was seasonal. Summers, you worked 10-hour days and six-day weeks, so when exactly would you go to the doctor? How would you even know when to schedule an appointment? Winters, when you went on unemployment, you had more time but far less money. You might consult a doctor if you fell seriously ill, but you were unlikely to have a regular physician or get regular checkups. Even if you were injured and in pain, you’d be as likely to turn to somebody on the street to sell you painkillers. (Here again, you’d know a guy.) While unwise, such behavior isn’t stupidity so much as lack of resources, and recognizing this should, at the very least, slow our march to judgment.
Okay, you say, but surely there are some things that anybody should know better than to do. Should people really have to be told not to drink bleach? Shouldn’t you know better than to refuse a free vaccine whose efficacy and safety have been vouched for by infectious-disease experts, and turn instead to a dewormer vouched for by veterinarians? And when you have a stiff neck, shouldn’t you know better than to consult a horse trainer? Maybe, but the irony is that many people who behave foolishly consider themselves to be “in the know,” to be in possession of inside knowledge; access to it, for them, is a point of pride. The lesson that life seemed determined to teach my father on a daily basis was that he didn’t know anyone worth knowing, that he had no strings to pull. Because he had only a high-school education and worked with his hands, America seemed determined to make him understand just how unimportant he was in the larger scheme of things. So the possibility that in this particular instance he actually did know somebody worth knowing had to be very rewarding. And to his credit, he didn’t want to hoard his good fortune. Like believers in the kinds of conspiracy theories that my wife’s sister and her husband routinely devour, my father was eager to spread the word, to make the introduction, to teach others the secret handshake. You know Spring Street, right? The gray duplex at the top of the hill? Knock three times. Tell them Jimmy sent you.
Still, even though you want to spread the word, you don’t tell everybody about your guy. You don’t tell people who drive expensive foreign cars and have summer homes. They have their own guys, legions of them. No, you only tell people like yourself, people you know on sight by how they dress and carry themselves, by where and what they drink, by the calluses on their hands when you shake. The men of your tribe. Which returns me to the day my father admitted to having that stiff neck. There I was, taking him in as he rotated on his barstool and marveling, as I often did after not seeing him for a while, at how little he and his world changed over time. His buddies all rolling their eyes when he told me not to worry, that he knew a guy. Fucking Jimmy. What’re you gonna do? But he was taking me in as well, which means he knew—he had to know—from my tweed jacket and button-down Oxford shirt and loafers and, yes, from my hands, recently grown soft, that I now belonged to a different tribe altogether.
And yet, how temperamentally alike we were—undaunted by hard work; quick to anger; slow to forgive insults, real or imagined; stubborn beyond belief. We also both delighted in stories, especially lively tales of dim-witted behavior. We both had firsthand, hard-won appreciation of foolishness, indeed idiocy of every stripe. The protagonists of the stories we loved most tended to be guys (some women, but mostly guys) who, despite the best of intentions, manage to do the exact wrong thing at precisely the wrong time, in the kind of setting that guarantees an abundance of witnesses. They aren’t stupid, but you wouldn’t know it to watch them in action, the way they ignore pertinent evidence, miscalculate the odds of success, head due south, and then double down when things start—predictably, though they never predict it—to go terribly wrong. What endears these guys to us, I’ve always believed, is that we recognize ourselves in their folly. As a novelist, I have just this one requirement: I have to be able to imagine myself doing what my characters do, no matter how foolish, because if I would never do that, then they probably wouldn’t either.
By way of illustration, here’s a fun fact. Two decades after my father scored his horse liniment, DMSO again appeared on my radar. One Sunday morning in the men’s locker room after a racquetball match, I noticed that my opponent, fresh from the shower, was rubbing a clear liquid onto the shoulder he’d injured a month earlier. The stuff stank to high heaven. “What is that?” I asked, and when he handed me the plastic tube, there it was in big red letters: DMSO. It’s great for any kind of muscle inflammation, my friend assured me. His only reservation was that you could taste it on the back of your tongue.
Later that same year, when I tore my rotator cuff, I visited the store he told me about, the only one around, he said, that sold this stuff. In fact, it stocked not just the clear-liquid DMSO but also a cream that claimed to be “rose scented.” “Lord,” my wife said when I emerged from the shower, “what is that god-awful smell?” My shoulder immediately felt better, though, and that evening, to celebrate, I cooked one of our favorite meals. Unfortunately, the metallic taste on the back of my tongue kind of ruined it.
If you Google DMSO, among the things you’ll see is a warning that the product should not be used to treat cancer. Apparently, given its popularity, a warning is necessary.
Though he knew I wanted to be a writer, my father died before I achieved much success, and I often wonder what he would’ve made of what I do for a living. I suspect he would’ve viewed any connection between his telling stories in bars to my writing and publishing them as tangential at best. He told stories because they dovetailed so perfectly with drinking beer and watching a ball game on the wall-mounted TV above the bar. To him, storytelling was a synonym for slinging some bull, and I often remind myself of this when I read over something I’ve written and find it pretentious. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have occurred to my father that what he did for shits and giggles might have a moral dimension. Had he lived, I doubt I ever would have shared with him my conviction that the empathy you need to create characters who live lives different from your own can make you a better person, that it can center and give meaning to your life, the way religion or public service does.
Do I still believe that? I’d like to. But I’d also like to understand how somebody like me, with an admitted soft spot for fools, who actually put the word fool in the title of two of his novels, has suddenly and unexpectedly become so utterly fed up with them. By what mechanism does empathy, which has rewarded me so richly as both an artist and a man, morph into knee-jerk hard-heartedness? How exactly did I become a man who wants to scream “What did you expect?” at someone I care for and whose husband is on a ventilator, his life slipping away? That I’m clearly far from alone in my exasperation is cold comfort, as is the distinct possibility that the past few years have taught many of us that there are limits to everything, including, perhaps, basic kindness.
Maybe the time has come to look more carefully at exactly what we’re all so fed up with. What if it isn’t individual foolishness that we’ve grown weary of, but rather group folly? Invoking tribalism is a reflex these days, but maybe we miss the tragicomic absurdity of those loyalties. At the end of one of my books, Straight Man, a bunch of academics are crowded in a small room (they’ve been cheering up a colleague who’s suffered a cardiac event), and when the time comes to exit, they need to cooperate because the door opens inward. It’s no surprise that they’re unable to—the whole novel has been about their insular squabbling. Against all reason, they press forward en masse. And that’s where the book leaves them, trapped in that claustrophobic space. Sure, they’ll eventually figure it out and escape, but what they’ll never escape, we understand, is themselves and the lives they’ve chosen.
The book, though readers have found it funny, reflects all too clearly my state of mind when I wrote it. I was, well, fed up—with academic life in general, but most of all with my colleagues, despite the fact that many were friends. The lesson is that rendering judgment on groups of people and their shared behaviors is far easier than disapproving of idiosyncratic individuals. Writing off a whole class of people is easier than writing off your brother or father or friend. Which means that maybe I’m not really fed up with my wife’s sister and her husband. What I’ve had it with is the behavior of the tribe they belong to.
And the problem is that tribes are often more than just large gatherings of individuals. They can be greater (or lesser, depending on your definition) than the sum of their parts. For as long as they cohere, they become—some would argue—a whole new organism, like the spontaneous, murderous mob at the end of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. In appearance, mobs can resemble large flocks of birds that bank left or right at the same instant, as if responding to some unheard command. Clearly, it’s what the flock is up to that counts, not the identity of the individual birds. The fact that not everyone who marched on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, meant to take part in an insurrection doesn’t really matter. They became part of something larger than themselves and subservient to its will. Social media was partly to blame, obviously, its algorithms designed to strengthen the bonds of affinity groups, even if the affinity is criminality or lawlessness. Those algorithms render us pliable, content to view one another as a “basket of deplorables.”
Only after the mob disbands and disperses do we discover in that basket someone we care about. Talk to these people after they’ve become themselves again, and you discover that many were there because they “know a guy” who gave them information that not everybody had. This guy they know probably isn’t real in the same sense that the horse trainer who gave my father the DMSO was real. They’ve never actually met. But by now, the deal is familiar to anyone who’s online. The guy is selling his product not just to you but to everyone like you. And he knows who these people are because you’ve been so clear about your allegiances. From your “likes,” he can deduce your fears, your grievances, your dreams, your social class, your work and life experience. Most of all, he wants you to understand how important you are. Indeed, what needs doing probably can’t be done without you. He tells you where to go and what to do when you get there. He lets you in on the secret handshake. Knock three times. Tell them Jimmy sent you.
So is there hope for us, and for America, or are we witnessing the end of our experiment in democracy? On bad days, I’m inclined to believe the latter, because we seem to have been assigned the impossible task of putting the toothpaste back in the tube even as others continue to squeeze it. But maybe that isn’t the task at all. Maybe instead of fretting over our collective future, we need to recall our individual pasts. Maybe that’s why my father paid me a visit when my wife was talking with her sister. Maybe what’s important isn’t the words her sister was saying on the phone, but rather that she called in the first place. Think about it: She knows all too well the tribe my wife and I belong to—educated, liberal, coastal, financially secure. In a word, elite. She and her now dying husband loathe everything we stand for. We are everything they rail against on social media. Yet, pushed to the brink of despair, it’s her big sister, someone she looked up to when they were young, someone who’s been a comfort to her in other rough times, that she wants to talk to, someone she imagines might be able to comfort her now. Even though my wife and I don’t believe that the 2020 election was stolen, or that those who stormed the Capitol were patriots, and even though my sister-in-law keeps hearing that some members of our tribe belong to a pedophile ring that feeds on innocent children and that others of us are hell-bent on curtailing her personal freedoms, she is willing to give my wife a pass.
In this willingness, she’s not unlike my father. He too was bullheaded, his opinions unshakable. One of his best friends, Calvin, was a Black man, but he remained prejudiced against Black people. All he would say of Calvin, who became Wussy in my novel The Risk Pool, was that he was “one of the good ones.” Their friendship, so unlikely on the face of it, was as durable as any I’ve ever known. Maybe my father’s bigotry struck Calvin as mostly benign. Fucking Jimmy. What’re you gonna do? Perhaps most important, they were generous of spirit, not just tolerating each other’s foolishness but reveling in it, as a reliable source of shits and giggles.
One warm evening, years after my father’s death from lung cancer, Calvin threw open a window of his second-floor apartment and sat down on the ledge to cool off. The way I heard it, he was drinking beer and forgot where he was perched. The story that I tell myself is a bit kinder—that Calvin must have leaned back to laugh, maybe even at some memory of my father, and simply lost his balance. I can easily imagine doing something like that myself.
Fools. Maybe in the end that’s the only tribe we all belong to.
This article appears in the April 2022 print edition with the headline “Stiff Neck.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.
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