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Book excerpt: "Great Expectations" by Vinson Cunningham

Hogarth Books

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In "Great Expectations" (Hogarth), the debut novel of New Yorker essayist and theater critic Vinson Cunningham, a young man is transformed by working for the presidential campaign of an aspirational Black senator from Illinois. 

Read an excerpt below. 

"Great Expectations" by Vinson Cunningham

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i'd seen the senator speak a few times before my life got caught up, however distantly, with his, but the first time I can remember paying real attention was when he delivered the speech announcing his run for the presidency. He spoke before the pillars of the Illinois statehouse, where, something like a century and a half earlier, Abraham Lincoln had performed the same ritual. The Senator brought his elegant wife and young daughters onstage when he made his entrance. A song by U2 played as they waved. All four wore long coats and breathed ghosts of visible vapor into the cold February morning. It was as frigid and sunny out there in Springfield as it was almost a thousand miles away, where I sat alone, hollering distance from the northern woods of Central Park, watching the Senator on TV.

"Giving all praise and honor to God for bringing us together here today," he began. I recognized that black-pulpit touch immediately, and felt almost flattered by the feeling—new to me—of being pandered to so directly by someone who so nakedly wanted something in return. It was later reported that he had spent the moments before the address praying in a circle with his family and certain friends, including the light-skinned stentor who was his pastor in Chicago. Perhaps the churchy greeting was a case of spillover from the sound of the pastor's prayer. Or—and from the vantage of several years, this seems by far the likelier answer—the Senator had begun, even then, at the outset of his campaign, to understand his supporters, however small their number at that point, as congregants, as members of a mystical body, their bonds invisible but real. They waved and stretched their arms toward the stage; some lifted red, white, and blue signs emblazoned with his name in a sleek sans serif. The whole thing seemed aimed at making you cry.

I wonder now (this, again, with all the benefit and distortion of hindsight) whether these first words of the campaign and their hungry reception by the crowd were the sharpest harbinger—more than demography or conscious strategy—of the victory to come. Toward the end of the speech, during a stream of steadily intensifying clauses whose final pooling was a plea to join him in the work of renewal, he wondered "if you"—the assembled—"feel destiny calling." In bidding goodbye, he said, "Thank you," and then, more curiously, "I love you."

Excerpted from "Great Expectations" by Vinson Cunningham. Copyright © 2024 by Vinson Cunningham. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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