Books

Richard Cooke
Tired of Winning

Tired of Winning: A Chronicle of American Decline collects into one volume selected dispatches from Richard Cooke, The Monthly’s United States correspondent. Taken together, they evoke life in Trump’s America and showcase the work of an ascendant talent.

Cooke has a knack for off-the-cuff anecdotes that gently sidestep into profundities. In New York City on the night of the 2016 election, he is intimidated by MAGA frat boys and reflects that he can “feel the country altering minute by minute”. He checks himself. Trump’s ascension to the presidency does not mark something new: “These election-night episodes weren’t portents, they were echoes.”

In Tired of Winning, Cooke combines reportage, personal essay, art criticism and baffled conjecture in an effort to understand the state of the nation. He is not the first writer to attempt a portrait of the creaking American empire, nor even the first Australian. Don Watson set the bar with 2008’s American Journeys, a melancholy, grumpy picaresque of America’s crumbling institutions. Cooke’s journey is fundamentally different – he finds an America eviscerating itself through soured exceptionalism.

As he visits a gun range, a bar where slimy lobbyists lament the moral decline of Washington, and an exhibition of George W. Bush’s paintings, Cooke endeavours to weave together myriad threads of fraying American statehood. It’s a brutal task for a writer – entering a discourse fuelled by hostility, misinformation, bad faith and semiotic dishonesty.

Trying to pinpoint when gaslighting became presidential discourse, he asks, “Where were you when you heard that truth was dead? I must admit I’ve forgotten. Was it during George W. Bush’s first term? Or … when Bill Clinton said, under oath, that it depended what the meaning of the word ‘is’ was.”

Cooke flexes his rhetorical muscles in Tired of Winning, drawing on history, sociopolitical theory, online discourse and a measure of exasperated bombast. An elegiac essay on Philip Roth and a free-wheeling profile of Patricia Lockwood feel strangely out of place in a collection that, ultimately, cannot help being drawn back to that dank, lightless mass today’s culture seems to spin around: Donald Trump. This is not a particularly shining portrait of America, but it is brilliant.

Liam Pieper

Black Inc, 240pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 20, 2019 as "Richard Cooke, Tired of Winning". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Liam Pieper