Bill O’Reilly is obsessed with how long it takes a murder victim to die. In his novel – that’s right, his novel – we find out, for example, that “the soft tissue gave way quickly and the steel penetrated the correspondent’s brain stem. Ron Costello was clinically dead in four seconds.” Or, “Lance Worthington couldn’t feel the razor-sharp box-cutter blade slice through his throat…. it was exactly two seconds before he lost consciousness.” Some deaths come even quicker: “A slab of sizzling white hot metal fell directly on his head. Death for Shannon Michaels came one second later.” Others seem excruciatingly long: “The salt water came, deeper this time, submerging his head. It took thirty minutes for the consultant to die.” There’s not a single moment that the clock isn’t ticking, where O’Reilly spares us this utterly irrelevant and spastic novelistic detail. And so Bill O’Reilly falls victim to the almost pathological proclivity of high-powered conservatives to write trashy, dime-store novels.
Originally published in 1998 (and republished by a larger press in 2004), Those who Trespass is a sadistic revenge fantasy in which the protagonist – an O’Reilly alter-ego– systematically murders those who have wronged him in the cutthroat world of television news. Many authors deliberately obscure the relationship between their real lives and their novelistic creations. O’Reilly, on the other hand, declares the two to be one and the same, and supposedly based his book on years of journal entries. In a 1998 interview, he described the novel as being as true to life as possible: “I call this ‘faction.’ The only thing not true in ‘Those Who Trespass’ are the murders. The rest is true. You can take it to the bank.”
O’Reilly provides himself with not one, but two alter-egos. There is evil Bill O’Reilly, a 6’3” ex-television news reporter named Shannon Michaels, who, like O’Reilly, is the “product of two Celtic parents.” Like O’Reilly, Michaels “despises dishonesty,” and even likes to leave the occasional obscene answering machine message. Like O’Reilly – who was fired from CBS in the mid-1980’s – Michaels has been victimized by the office politics of “workplace terrorists.”
Good Bill O’Reilly comes to us in the form of Detective Tommy O’Malley. O’Malley is also the product of two Celtic parents, and also prizes truth and integrity. Like O’Reilly, O’Malley grew up in Levittown, New York and went on to attend Boston University.
Those who Trespass follows these O’Reilly doppelgangers across the country as they play a game of cat-and-mouse. As Michaels embarks upon a campaign of vengeance, killing the network executives and consultants who left him out to dry, O’Malley is hot on his trail, slowly solving the purported “mystery.”
Midway through the novel, we are privileged with a wonderful little interlude: the Bill O’Reilly Guide to Sex. Michaels seduces the lovely Ashley Van Buren, a beautiful old-money WASP turned crack crime reporter, by putting Luther Vandross on the stereo. He then plays an erotic game with her – “something he learned in Thailand” – which results in unadulterated sexual bliss: “He slipped her panties down her legs, and, within seconds, his tongue was inside her, moving rapidly… She had not felt physical pleasure of this kind for a long time. Maybe it had never been this good.” O’Reilly, who has recounted his “very successful bachelorhood” in interviews, thus reveals himself – or at-least his alter-ego – to be a truly fantastic lover. Of course he is.
Despite the ironic thrill of its hackneyed style and clichéd plot, the novel’s greatest value is its admission into the unhinged mind of its author. The “facts” the narrator of Those who Trespass describes reveal a great deal about O’Reilly; indeed, we see the world as Bill O’Reilly sees it, politics aside. And we soon realize: the man really believes his own bullshit.
The way O’Reilly depicts the inner city – which, we ought to remember, he considers part of the “fact” section of his “faction” novel – is fantastical. It is also quite illuminating. I don’t think O’Reilly believes himself to be a racist. But the set of assumptions he’s working with are so bizarre that his real-life conclusions can’t help but reflect a racist mentality. O’Reilly, acting as omniscient narrator, plays urban sociologist to explain the origins of nineties black gang violence:
An onslaught of babies born addicted to drugs, or severely abused as children, were now young adults, and many had absolutely no respect for life. They were true sociopaths… They lived their lives deep in the recesses of evil: selling drugs to kids, prostituting their own sisters, gunning down trusted friends for money.
Needless to say, would you want these people to get welfare checks? Would you believe that the scum of the earth deserved a second chance? Or would you write them off as an entire group of people, as O’Reilly usually does?
O’Reilly is only peripherally concerned by the plight of poor, urban America. It’s the world of power – rich, WASP power – that intrigues him. Despite his casual racism, despite his anti-immigration positions, O’Reilly’s real target is the nation’s elite, the Old Boy’s Club from which, as an Irish-Catholic kid from Long Island, he feels most excluded.
Shannon Michaels’ victims – who, despite their nominal victimhood, ostensibly deserve to die – are all rich WASPs who “lived in a world of rules and entitlement.” Their names are stereotypically Anglo-Saxon: Ron Costello, Hillary Ross, Martin Moore, Lance Worthington. They are physically inferior to Michaels, fat or ugly or both, in stark contrast to their killer’s “genetic gifts” and “gym-toned body.”
O’Reilly’s other alter-ego, Detective O’Malley, expresses further disdain for this world of inheritances and trust-funds: “[He] despised a permissive culture that allowed teenagers to disrespect just about everything…. They were spoiled and damaged by the privileges of wealth.”
Even sexual prowess is compromised by WASP privilege. Shannon Michaels’ romantic interest, Ashley Van Buren, is “fed up with preppy men,” having dated a series of Ivy League athletes who proved incapable of satisfying her sexual needs. O’Reilly implies that these preps are latent homosexuals, revealing the full scope of his lingering resentment.
Like Joseph McCarthy, O’Reilly’s populism rides a wave of white, working-class discontent. O’Reilly sees himself as a blue-collar guy from Long Island who has successfully navigated the world of the rich and powerful; his role, as he writes about Shannon Michaels, is to interpret high-society for the less fortunate. He condescends to his readers as a know-it-all who, believe it or not, was once like they are. O’Reilly describes New York apartments: “A ‘prewar’ building [is] a structure that was built before World War II… It was exactly what one would expect of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the world.” Some of his readers undoubtedly do not know what to expect of such a neighborhood. Yet O’Reilly does not describe the neighborhood; he only tells us that he knows what its like.
O’Reilly also shows his audience the world of high-class dining, or at least shows off his knowledge of that world: “It had cost Shannon Michaels a crisp fifty-dollar bill, but the restaurant captain had come through on a very busy Saturday night… The Rainbow Grill, at the top of 30 Rockefeller Center, more than one hundred stories up, afforded spectacular views of the city” (just like in real life, O’Reilly doesn’t pay too much attention to facts: the tallest building in Rockefeller Center is 71 stories high; the Rainbow Room is on the 65th floor). Once again, O’Reilly is intent on proving that he’s made it, that he knows how to grease the right wheels, that he can get a table wherever and whenever he wants.
Shannon Michaels has a large house in Sands Point overlooking the Long Island Sound; he owns a collection of rare history books; he has a nice car; he knows how to decorate and how to sail. Why, then, is he so bitter? Why bother embarking on a campaign of murderous vengeance? In Michaels, we see the deep marks of O’Reilly’s own character. For O’Reilly, everything is personal; no feud is too small to see through to the end. This is the origin of his enormous success. People don’t care about facts, or about good writing; they care about other people.
Despite its overwhelming clumsiness, Those who Trespass, like The O’Reilly Factor, is remarkably transfixing. Both are solipsistic and borderline insane, but entertaining in the process. They’re entertaining because even at his worst, especially at his worst, Bill O’Reilly intrigues us. Whether writing preposterously racist scenes of black urban life or physically threatening 9/11 victims who disagree with him, O’Reilly generates great theater.
O’Reilly refuses give up the role of aggrieved victim. Towards the end of the novel, Shannon Michaels explains the problems that members of the press face in maintaining their personal integrity:
Journalism is a profession that requires its participants to be aggressive, skeptical, and persistent in pursuit of truth. Yet the moment you enter your own newsroom, you’ve got to drop all that. The managers want total conformity… if you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ll be terrorized by administrators or others who’ve been given a semblance of power.
O’Reilly describes the enemies of real journalism as those who refuse to sift through propaganda, those who demand that others subscribe to their vision of the truth regardless of the facts. Though he certainly doesn’t realize it, O’Reilly might as well be describing himself.