Stars and Bars is William Boyd’s 1984 novel about an Englishman adrift in the United States. The book interested me because it’s about someone seeking their personal identity through nationality. As a way of thinking of yourself, this is an idea I have always been uncomfortable with, and which has caused no end of political trouble in the last few years.
Henderson Dores, the central character, starts the book by not wanting to be an Englishman anymore. This shy, awkward, typically diffident product of an English public school, decides to make a new life for himself in America, taking a job as an art valuer at a New York auction house. But the thing is, he wants to replace his identity as an Englishman with the identity of an American, and that’s where his problems start.
He keeps responding to life in terms of things outside him – allowing his life to be shaped by other people’s desires, or by how he looks in other people’s eyes. This leads to all kinds of tangles, which come to a head when Henderson goes to a decaying mansion in Georgia, to value some paintings which an eccentric collector is ready to sell.
Here, through a series of disasters, Henderson has his identity stripped away. In a telling scene he finds himself back in New York, at night, during a rain storm, with no money, no credit cards, no passport, and no clothes. His nakedness is covered by nothing more than cardboard and plastic wrapping, which he finds in an alley. But ironically he now feels that he fits in as one of the misfit individuals who live around him in the city.
In losing his identity Henderson finds what he is looking for, which is ultimately himself. In the end that is all we have. We can think of ourselves as British, English, American; or we can identify with something like the job we do, but in the end we remain an individual. Henderson is left with very little once all the outside stuff has gone, but I felt that by the end he had the chance to rebuild on firmer foundations.
I found Stars and Bars a clever, thoughtful and funny book. There are sections that made me uncomfortable, but they were part of this idea of losing false identities and seeing through to what is really there. What is really there might not be polite, or dignified, or even acceptable. It’s like a dream where we see all manner of weird and unacceptable visions once the filter of the waking mind has been turned off. And a few descriptions of that type of dream do feature in the book. But, in the end, there is something to be said for the revealing of things that usually remain hidden, just as if Karl Jung were listening with compassion to our shameful dreams and helping us come to terms with hidden aspects of ourselves.