It’s March and the snow is starting to melt and the Covid-19 death total has crossed a half-million; sitting on my bedside table is a new collection of reportage and essays that’s chronicled this pandemic from its early days as a novel virus through its growth into a daily presence and anxiety-inducing roommate. It’s Lockdown In Hell World, by Luke O’Neil, published by OR Books, a leftist press based out of the US.
For those new to him, O’Neil is a writer and journalist who’s based out of the greater Boston area, and his new collection is an interesting, if mixed bag of reportage.
He writes in a stream-of-consciousness style, which is to say his columns don’t have a lot of punctuation and they ramble a little. But they’re also interesting reading: he’s open about his struggles in day-to-day life, and he writes with a refreshing candidness about the media, which he’s no fan of. Liberal networks like MSNBC get bashed almost as much as right-leaning ones like Fox. Middlebrow newspaper columnists get bashed, as do a litany of subjects: police unions, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, the NYPD, among others.
With his casual and acerbic prose, O’Neil slides right in along the so-called Dirtbag Left, although I doubt he’d appreciate that comparison. His attacks on both the establishment left – the Democratic Party in particular – and the right place him in about the same area as podcasters like Chapo Trap House, who are similarly dismal about the state of America today. And, as O’Neil tells it, there’s a lot to worry about. He writes about neighbours who get into arguments with him, beloved music venues closing and the rising anxiety as the Covid-19 death toll inches ever higher.
When he writes in a more personal form, his book feels like an early memoir of this weird time: he misses going swimming, seeing a therapist and what he’d do in a zombie outbreak. He lays himself bare, and this forges a connection with his readers – who, it bears mention, subscribe to his newsletter Hell World, where this collection is drawn from. His book is packed with quotes from his readers, who tell of family members who refuse to wear masks, think the pandemic was planned or just generally don’t take the Covid-19 crisis seriously.
Where O’Neil’s book shines, however, is when he gets into reporter mode and interviews people on the front lines of 2020’s most compelling moments. They include a photographer who was shot by police while covering a protest in Minnesota, a grocery store worker in California newly classified as an Essential Worker, and a media watchdog who scans cable news, keeping tabs on right-wing discourse. When he engages with them, his talent as a reporter shines: he asks probing, insightful questions and gets detailed, compelling answers. His casualness also establishes a kind of rapport, showing him as someone who isn’t a suit-wearing network reporter clinging to objectivity, but someone who’s on their side.
At the same time, this casualness is also the book’s weak point: by firmly establishing himself as a member of the angry, disaffected left, he risks an audience of people of a similar viewpoint: snarky, bitter and maybe a little cynical of how things went down during the four years Donald Trump was in office. His use of old newsletters is a risk too: are people who already subscribe and read him going to pay for content they’ve already read? (Indeed, throughout the book are underlined words one assumes were originally links!).
This represents an interesting, if curious trend in non-fiction. Writers are using platforms like Substack or Tinyletter to build an audience and a back-log of content, then collect the results in a book that’s marketed to the very same audience. It’s not just O’Neil – Canadian writers like Anne Donaghue or Stacy May Fowles used this tactic for books, just as quickly dropping the newsletter once a book was finished. It’s hard not to feel cynical about this tactic, which seems like a tactic to write a book under the guise of something else. When Merrit Kopas did this a while back, she had the self-awareness to title her zine These Were Free On My Blog.
All the same, Lockdown in Hell World shows something like it promises. O’Neil is angry, fed up and not taking it anymore. His vitriolic prose is bound to charm a certain kind of reader, almost as likely as it’s bound to annoy another kind. And although there’s a certain kind of bitterness at work in this collection, there’s also a sense of optimism, a feeling although things are bad and the news sucks, there’s also people working hard to make this world a better place – often the activists he speaks to. It’s not for everyone, but the Chapo fan in your life will get a kick out of this.