HE SHALL BE LEVI
And he shall take issue with Sarah Palin. And he shall not abstain from loving Bristol. And he shall spend much time hunting bears. And, yes, he shall be a good man
By John Jeremiah Sullivan

Late Frontier Myth, Early Formational Stages

The dall or Dall’s sheep (Ovis dalli dalli) is an all-white subspecies of wild mountain sheep found in Alaska, where it inhabits the most northerly range of any sheep in the New World. A creature of the snowy passes and dry, craggy alpine meadows, a Dall sheep may go its entire life without venturing below the timberline. In wintertime they eat lichen. Their lambs are sometimes carried off in the talons of golden eagles. The rams grow massive, curling horns, with age rings like a tree’s, which they wield in fall tournaments of so-called hierarchical head butting.

One morning last September, a Dall ram was grazing on cliffside furze in the wilderness north of Anchorage when a couple of seasoned hunters—a father and son named Keith and Levi Johnston—crept within sight of him down the crest of a nearby ridge. They had traveled from the small town of Wasilla, in the lower part of the state, and both carried traditional muzzle-loader rifles, accurate in their hands at more than 200 yards.

The ram sampled the air, but the men were above him. He went on eating and looking up with the strange wariness of the game animal as it is seen through a hunting scope, sensing everything except that its time has been measured. This sheep, who feared few predators, owing to the sheer extremity of his terrain and an uncanny ability to leap from pinnacle to pinnacle among the rocks, was meant to die that morning, from a bullet fired by the boy, Levi. Something intervened.

There was a deep lapping noise that grew louder. Low in the sky there appeared a great black bird with swirling wings.

The bird opened its belly, delivering more men onto the ground. They squawked at the boy and led him into the bird, and the bird moved off, and the ram forgot what had happened and went to check on his ewes, and the father returned to the locally owned gun shop in Wasilla, where they said, “Aren’t you supposed to be sheep hunting?” and he said, “Yeah, I was, till the Secret Service came and took my sheep-hunting partner!” and they laughed.

Levi was in the bird. It flew with him all the way to a city in another world, in what he would describe as the south, in Minnesota, and dropped him into a sort of conference room, full of talkative people—some of whose faces he knew without knowing how—and a guy was touching him, and before the smell of the open country had left his nostrils completely he was leaning back in a chair, having makeup applied to his face, to his eyes and neck, and gel worked into his hair. They had cut his hair. Indeed they had given him a superb haircut, probably the best he would ever have, a haircut designed to shape away the last traces of baby fat from his cheeks and define his jawline, and they stood him in the corner and dressed him from head to toe in new preppy clothes and looked him in the face and said, “You do not say a word.”

“Those words exactly?” I asked.

“Pretty much,” he answered.

If facts were unstable—it may not have been the Secret Service, it may have been campaign operatives; they got him not from the field but from a campsite, or picked him up at home on the day after the hunt—that paled in interest next to the sense, as you spoke to people here, that you were hearing a scrap of western folklore being born. The boy who went to hunt sheep, and got spirited off by the Secret Service, and then came home.

*****

Anchorage

welcome, southerner, to the law offices of Rex Lamont Butler & Associates, third-floor suite in a nice gray building, windows looking onto a late-sunny avenue with an alp at the end of it. Mr. Butler is in court. No, he did not mention your name. You may wait.

I had waited hours, into the evening, although the sky outside had not visibly darkened. The walls of the waiting room were festooned with thank-you cards from clients. It was advertising you couldn’t buy. They looked a little shabby at first—Butler hadn’t framed them or anything, just tacked the back flaps to the wall so you could open and read them. Of course, it was impossible not to read them, not to become engrossed in the serial melodrama that had flowered from his paneling over twenty-five years. Mr. Butler, you are a good man. Mr. Butler, without you my sister’s babies would have no mother. Mr. Butler, nobody would listen to us, but you took our case, you listened to us. Anyone who grew up in Anchorage knew Rex Lamont Butler’s ads from the paper, saying to remember his name, if you were in trouble.

Sherry Johnston made contact with Butler in February of this year. At first it had nothing to do with her famous son, Levi. She herself had been busted a couple of months before for selling a handful of OxyContin tablets to an informant in the Target parking lot in Wasilla. It later emerged that another, only slightly less small-time Wasilla pill-peddler had given her up to the police, lacking, evidently, any prize more valuable than the chronically pain-addled mother of two, caught trading out of her own legitimate prescription in order to pay bills.

Thus far, Sherry Johnston’s tale follows a recognizable course of small-town values. The weirdness of her case is that while she was being pursued by the state police—whose informant was sending her texts, asking her to “go for coffee” at Target—she was also undergoing occasional surveillance by the U.S. Secret Service. Her 18-year-old had impregnated the governor’s daughter, the kids were engaged, now the governor was maybe becoming vice president. Either that brought the Johnstons close enough to the White House to make them conceivable targets, albeit of some wildly confused and frustrated polar terrorists, or else the Secret Service possessed an interest purely in Sherry’s house, as a place where the candidate’s daughter spent time. The state government took an unusual interest in the case. That, along with the monitoring, delayed the bust by several weeks.

When McCain lost the election in November, Sarah Palin went back to being governor, and the black cars faded away, and pretty soon the cops had what they needed and were pounding on the front door of Sherry Johnston’s house—Levi’s boyhood home. They booked her. It was a week before Christmas. The defense lawyer from the public-advocacy office said she should probably get ready to do a little time. The case progressed poorly, and she reached out to Butler in a pleading four-page handwritten letter. Butler took pity on this woman, “poor as a church mouse,” and agreed to represent her for essentially nothing.

Did it affect Rex Butler’s decision, the fact that, due to the Palin connection, Sherry Johnston’s parking-lot bust is the only Alaskan criminal case anyone in the Lower Forty-eight has ever heard of, and that Rex Butler is not a man to shrink from a little fame? Or that former state assistant attorney general Butler—who is black and a Democrat and has publicly characterized Governor Palin’s policies on African-Americans as “Don’t need them, don’t worry about them”—might take a certain glee in putting more light on a situation the Republican governor prays every night will go sailing on a vanishing glacier? As a Frenchman said, we do not look where God looks, we would not understand what is written there.

Only after Butler had taken on Sherry Johnston as a client, for the OxyContin thing, did she ask him to help her boy, Levi, too. “Please help my son,” she said.

This is why I am here, waiting for Butler. Levi has people now. To get to Levi, you must go through Rex.

When Rex showed up, he was preceded by someone, a person called Tank. To get to Rex, you must get past Tank. That is unlikely until such time as Tank decides to let you by—which he will do, in that event, with good humor, having assumed his gentle-giant mien. He does 300 push-ups in one set every night before going to bed, and he often goes to bed at three in the morning. He has had some kind of military training. Later, when we knew each other, when we “had history,” as he put it, I asked him to let me try on his soft sky blue Sean John baseball cap. It dropped straight to my eyes, loose as a candle snuffer, and my head is so large that a waitress at a country restaurant once told me I looked like “a 40-year-old fetus.” Tank’s head was slowly swallowing its ears.

On the wall of Rex’s inner office hung two sets of photographs of Rex with Johnnie Cochran, taken on different occasions. I asked about Cochran.

“He was so real,” Rex Butler said. “If he were here, he’d be talking like we are.”

“Listen,” I said, “tell me where to stick it if this question is offensive or anything, but are there many other black people in Alaska?”

“What you need,” said Rex, “is to read Black on a Background of White, about the history of blacks in Alaska, written by a fraternity brother of mine, Louis Overstreet.”

Duly read, fascinating. Classic frontier scenario: Blacks flow in to fill a labor demand or (like Tank) with the military, stay for the relaxed social conditions and attendant opportunities, achieve in the end a hard-won pride, a unique destiny. Rex Butler is identified as a young African-American attorney “on the way up,” a man who “has a vision” and is “working for a change that is imminent.” The book was written in 1988. There is no doubt he has done well.

Tank’s cell phone rang. It was Levi. I could hear him. “Guess what.”

“What?” said Tank.

“I shot a big-ass bear,” Levi said.

There followed one of those conversations where one person is holding up a phone and two physically present people are shouting at it. “How big was the bear?” Over six feet. That’s good for a blackie. “Did you take any pictures?” No, we left the camera in the boat. “Dammit, Levi. Where is the bear?” At the taxidermist. They were slowly cooking the hide in a special oven, cooking away the gristle and juices. “This writer needs to see it,” Rex said, maintaining eye contact with me. “He’s never skinned a bear. Maybe he’s never eaten bear meat. Can he see it at the morgue? He wants to go bear hunting with you.”

“I’m not going into the woods with them,” said Tank.

“Why not?” said Rex. “Just don’t wear a brown suit!”

We laughed until we had to collect our breath.

“Levi is a very interesting person who has been thrown under the bus,” Rex said, turning to me. His features took on a grave slackness of extreme fatigue. “Now he’s coming out from under the bus.

“I think you’ll like him.”

*****

Among Twenty Snowy Mountains

i had lunch with Levi the next day. Tank was there, too. That’s how it would be—the three of us—for most of the week, back and forth between Anchorage and Wasilla, or as Tank and Levi call it, the ’Silla, as in “If you grew up in the ’Silla.…” Rex checked in about once a day to make sure everyone was okay. He wanted me to know that I had this young man’s future in my hands.

Levi and Tank were forced to get new cell-phone numbers a lot, and their new numbers were only one digit apart, the last one. It was quite sweet. Tank is Levi’s mentor in this new world of people who want something from you. Tank told Levi to say “Gentlemen don’t kiss and tell,” in case Larry King tried to ask him about sex with Bristol, which transpired. Tank is working to contain and reduce in frequency Levi’s homophobic outbursts, instituting a new philosophy of “versatility.”

“We versatile, we versatile,” Tank says in mantra fashion whenever he senses Levi tensing up around an unfamiliar social type. “Versatile” does not mean “tolerant.” Tank sees “versatile,” he told me when we were playing slots at a casino later, as a plain over which he must guide Levi on the young man’s journey from intolerance to tolerance.

They were tense in the restaurant, surly with the waiters. The day before, it had been reported in an Anchorage Daily News gossip column how they were seen “breaking bread” in town with Rex. Tank had been identified as the “super-stud P.I.” of Anchorage.

He is in fact a working investigator, for Rex’s clients and his own.

Is YOUR partner, husband or wife
CHEATING? Having an AFFAIR or
FLING? Let us uncover the truth. Tank
Jones Investigations: Discreet, confidential.

He may possess superstud qualities, too. I noticed, as the week wore on, that many women in their forties and fifties would experience around him a desire to rub their heads against his arm like a cat. It was a Great Big Guy thing. Life is different for them. They go through the world differently. People on the street enjoy getting out of their way.

Levi was mostly monosyllabic at that first lunch. He didn’t know me yet, and he didn’t trust me yet, and really, even when he came to know and trust me, he was still mostly monosyllabic, but the syllables took on greater depth.

He did something impressive almost right away. He refused to go bear hunting with me. It was the obvious thing for us to do. Indeed, people at home whom I’d told I was going to Alaska for an encounter with Levi said unprompted, “Are you going bear hunting?” There’s no question it could have happened, had he wanted it to. On my first day in Alaska, he got back from a bear-hunting trip. The day after I left, he went on another one. So it was feasible. And it would have shown him doing something dangerous that he’s good at and proud of. (As he said to me some days afterward, in a conversation about fame, “If I can hold my own with a bear charging me, I think I can handle a bunch of cameras.”) But a little child could look at me and see that any hunt I were to join would end in a Cheneyesque face-blasting incident. No one has ever allowed me to handle a gun, and everyone I know has one. Levi was not going bear hunting with me. He didn’t want a reporter to die on his watch, with him as a guide, and he sure as hell didn’t want to be shot by me.

As it sunk in that his reluctance could not be weakened, even by Tank, I had to deal with the idea that the kid was a serious person, and I ordered another. Not kid, drink. At least I knew they were going to let me gaze on the bear in the oven.

Is it weird, I asked him. (They have told me that he goes into the woods to get away from it all, at one point hinting it might be the case that I could meet with him only in the woods.)

“Yes,” he said. There were people sleeping on his lawn; there were people spying on his house. Tank told me about a computer printout as thick as two phone books, full of numbers that had called his home, not just psychos and Inside Edition but The New York Times and the Times of London. Every paper with a young unmarried father on staff, in the mail room, had that kid e-mailing, saying, Hey, look, I understand, you can talk to us. A guy showed up in a pizza-delivery uniform and pulled out a camera. One night, Levi went out with his dog and saw a guy dressed in camouflage running through the woods with a zoom lens. “Just running back and forth,” Levi said, “like an idiot.” He has had to cut off most of his friends, who were selling stories to the tabloids. He trusts, during my time there, only one cousin, and Tank. And the men who work at Chimo Guns in Wasilla. There’s a wider circle of almost-trust.

In roughly the past year, Levi has experienced:
(a) having dad leave home;
(b) seeing mom get arrested and face incarceration, in national news;
(c) watching own son be born, with Sarah
Palin also in room;
(d) dropping out of high school and taking electrician job;
(e) losing fiancée, son, job for reasons that mystify him and may be political;
(f) becoming instantaneously megafamous—Antichrist to some, slab of sweet Arctic man-beef to others—but either way finding self at center of momentous events with zero comprehension or aid after having left home to go on sheep hunt.

Lunchtime conclusion: The reason Levi often seems like he has about seventy-five English words with which to process and articulate these experiences and their effect on his interior life is that he has been thoroughly traumatized by them.

Rex was right, you kind of liked him. He had no sense of entitlement, because he never expected anything. When he started dating Bristol, her mother was a former mayor of Wasilla, and now I have seen Wasilla. He was never interested in her family, and they never really liked him. Todd tolerated him, Levi says. They went riding on snowmobiles.

You may be aware—it became an item of trivia during Sarah Palin’s rise—that if you say “snowmobile” in Alaska, people laugh at you and tell you that it’s “snow machine.” That’s what Levi would have said, and did say. Here was the exchange. Q: “What is Bristol like? Tell me about her.” A: “I don’t know. Pretty smart. Her family does a lot of snow-machining.” Let me address this issue briefly. Snowmobile is an excellent and distinct-sounding word that has been honed and rounded by millions of mouths over nearly a hundred years into a luminous nugget of idiomatic data. To go riding on a snowmobile means something. The snow itself, and the cold wind, have established residence in that word. Scarves and goggles and heroic rescues and even a slight French accent are there. A snow machine is a machine that makes snow for a rich kid’s birthday party. What if I were to make myself a pair of snowshoes and wear them out one day, and when met by admiring persons who said, “Nice snowshoes,” I’d pivot on them and say, “They’re snowplanks, idiot.”

When Levi and Todd were riding on their snowmobiles, Levi liked to “do jumps and things, go all over”; Todd liked to “go straight ahead at a hundred miles per hour” (which must be considered a possible cause of the flash-frozen appearance of Todd Palin’s visage). Levi tells me that on several occasions, Todd even offered to buy Bristol a new car if she would dump Levi.

*****

Momentito

it takes some mental effort to recover the feeling of how much he seemed to mean at one time, and practically yesterday. Obama has made him seem kitschy already, has stolen his power to signify. Not presuming anything about one’s politics—referring instead to the sheer dynamism of events since the election. We are a couple of beads farther along the necklace of cultural time from Levi. We are post-Levi. It’s decadent to think of him now. But the chemical traces remain of a plausibility structure inside which his very face seemed full of information and even warning. Something was happening to the country, it was splitting in two. Levi looked like a place where the ripping might start. We were laughing at him then, too, of course—that was largely it. If McCain’s choosing Palin had been cynical (as borne out by their recoiling from each other in defeat), not until his embrace of Levi did things become farcical. September 3, on the tarmac, that was when you knew we had reached some point, some level. The McCains came out to welcome the Palins onto the ticket. It was an introduction and some kind of cryptic archconservative coronation. Wind blowing, Bristol dressed in a crisp khaki dress coat. Suddenly into the group shot hove this Levi, chaw-chomping Levi, young, dumb, and full of comeliness, a self-proclaimed redneck hockey enthusiast, no-kids-wanting-but-no-protection-using Levi Johnston, tricked out like a duck hunter now, granted, not like a serious hunter, but no less ready to kick your ass if you messed with him or manifested homosexual tendencies around him. He was at once a bodying forth of the Bush octad and its whole queasy bargain with American masculinity, and at the same time a captivating time bomb of white Alaskan authenticity, with a tattoo on his ring finger. We knew he was there only because it had been deemed worse for him not to be there. That gave him a curious magnetism. And John McCain, fine, he was trying to win a campaign, he’s an opportunist. He’s also a United States senator and a war hero, and there was something in how he greeted Levi—how for a second it mattered whether he greeted this boy, and in what manner—like an acknowledgment. Not of one man to another, exactly, but of one force to another. It was either the beginning or the end of something. Briefly recall when you didn’t know which.

*****

Wasilla

it is a shithole surrounded by such loveliness. Stand there and blink back and forth, shutting your left eye, then your right. Left eye: spit of highway, aggressive proliferation of half-abandoned strip malls, a few roads dwindling off to little houses. Right eye: the mountains, the expanding sky, the shadowy crevasses, a bald eagle. Highway, strip malls, little houses; mountains, sky, crevasses, eagle. Highwaystripmallslittlehouses; mountainsskycrevasseseagle.

Both eyes: Wasilla.

For most of its history, the Iditarod dogsled race began here, in the heart of the Mat-Su Valley, but the snow is not coming heavy enough anymore. They have moved the starting line.

You can feel the Palins. From my budget hotel on Lake Lucille, I can see the big wooden wall that surrounds their house, and a roof beyond it. They are of this place, they belong here, but their power has disturbed an equilibrium. At the gun shop, where the owners have known the family forever, the men at the counter say they believe deep down that when she puts her head on her pillow at night, she wishes she had never said yes to McCain. It’s a remark made with some sadness, sure, but also by way of indicating Cincinnatus qualities.

She is a great American frontier story. Maybe that was hard for you, as it was for me, to see, when we were so busy hoping she would win or lose. But the historical demiurge that spoke through Sarah Palin is one that has cyclically made and remade this country. The funny grammar and the grating voice, the appeal to the old ways hand in hand with new kinds of political ferocity. Tocqueville would have loved her, would have taken her by the hand and walked with her in a meadow. Here it is happening again, at the end of our west. Levi is a mushroom growing in the shadow of that story, I know. But one can talk to Levi.

“Do you want to go on a trip on one of those planes with the floating things that can land in a lake?” I asked him. “What’s that called?”

“A floatplane,” he said.

Levi’s unemployed. That makes helping take care of his son, Tripp, tricky. He has been on The Tyra Banks Show, where he met Nick Lachey, but he has very little money. Sarah Palin’s father has called him a deadbeat dad in the paper. Levi then responded, saying he’s tried to get a job but his notoriety makes it impossible. No crew boss wants paparazzi following his men around, I suppose. And they are mainly Palin people around here. Levi’s known to be on the outs.

At one point, before he and Bristol broke up, he did have a job, as an apprentice electrician on the North Slope, where the pipelines are. His father works there, in management. But reporters started scrutinizing everything connected with Sarah Palin, looking for ethics violations, and someone noticed that to get Levi’s apprenticeship, you were supposed to have finished high school. Had Palin asked someone to bend the rules? Levi’s dad told him he ought to go ahead and quit, before they were forced to fire him.

Is he actively seeking work? That’s not really something you can quantify. I didn’t see him fill out any applications, but then I didn’t see him cleaning his rifles, either. I don’t know what he does. He goes places.

Is it possible that he considers me his work, that he’s hoping greater media exposure and “the chance to tell his story” (huge book deal) will lead to a life in which he doesn’t have to fly back and forth to and from the slope, living in a rented house with a dozen other men, shivering his ass off with a wrench in his hand? You bet your frozen titties.

*****

Warrior

he drove me by the rinks where he played hockey growing up.

Levi was exceptionally good at hockey. And in hockey country. Freshman varsity, junior nationals, college scouts. Called “a game changer” by his coaches. He skated the last game of his junior season on a broken tibia and helped win it. Earlier he had scored both goals in a 2–0 upset that was called Wasilla’s “most significant victory in a decade.”

He took me to his backyard, where there was a square depression in the grass, as if an older cabin had once stood there. Every winter the water truck would come and fill it up, and the yard would freeze. Lots of people do this up there, he said. As it froze, you leveled it with a hot brush. Levi’s father played goal, and Levi would skate up and down and fire the puck all day. The yard was full of horns and antlers and the jawbones of other animals.

When he says, “I hung up my skates,” which is an odd thing for a 19-year-old boy who had just been playing hockey at the peak of his abilities to say, there’s something to it. I don’t know what, but he’s not self-mythologizing. He never brags, in fact, about the hockey. What do I tell you? Levi has chambers.
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