From a New York Times review by Jennifer Szalai of the book by Kerry Howley titled “Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey Through the Deep State”:
The people in Kerry Howley’s new book include fabulists, truth tellers, combatants, whistle-blowers. Like many of us, they have left traces of themselves in the digital ether by making a phone call, texting a friend, looking up something online. Certain conveniences have become so frictionless that we reflexively entrust devices with mundane yet intimate secrets: group-chat gossip, numbers of steps taken, dumb selfies.
“It is our fate to live in the age of the indelible,” Howley writes in “Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs,” her account of the national security state and the people entangled in it. “It’s best to just take another photograph. Keep building up the database. Throw it into the cloud, whatever that is.”
Howley is a writer for New York magazine and the author of “Thrown” (2014), a book about mixed martial arts fighters (real) that was narrated by a philosophy student named Kit (not real). As far as I can tell, “Bottoms Up” seems to be narrated by Howley — though who she “really is” and, by extension, who any of us “really are” is something that this book encourages us not to take for granted.
The book is riveting and darkly funny and, in all senses of the word, unclassifiable. Howley writes about privacy and its absence; about hiding and leaking and secrets and betrayal. But she also writes about the strange experience of living, and how it gets flattened and codified into data that can be turned into portraits of static, permanent beings — creatures who would be unrecognizable to ourselves.
“With endless information comes the ability to take information from its context, to tell stories perfectly matched to the intentions of the teller, freed from the complex texture of reality,” Howley writes. Countering that slide toward bland propaganda, “Bottoms Up” returns information to its context, capturing as much as possible the texture of reality, showing us how bewildering it often is.
She reintroduces us to figures like Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and John Walker Lindh. We revisit the case of John Kiriakou, the ex-C.I.A. officer who disclosed on television that the American government had waterboarded (that is, tortured) a detainee. Kiriakou would become the first C.I.A. officer convicted of a leak. He later took a job at the Russian propaganda outfit Sputnik Radio.
But at the center of this book is Reality Winner (“her real name, let’s move past it now”), who was 9 years old on 9/11. What happened to Winner is the point on which a number of the book’s themes converge. She joined the Air Force at 18, becoming a linguist who spoke Dari and Pashto. She later worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency. In 2017 she was arrested for mailing five printed pages of classified information to The Intercept that detailed Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 elections.
Howley got to know Winner and her family, depicting a young woman who “took ideas in their fullness, ignorant of their social context, and therefore radically open to argument.” Winner worked as a translator for the drone program while teaching yoga and worrying about global warming. “She was not on a team,” Howley writes. The book suggests it was this — the fact that nothing Winner did was easily amenable to the narrative of a particular side — that eventually did her in.
Winner sent the classified information to The Intercept because she visited the site for news; she knew that some of its journalists were skeptical about the allegation of Russian meddling, and she wanted to show them evidence of the meddling. Howley explains, step-by-step, how The Intercept bungled the handling of those five pages, neglecting to consult its own first-rate digital security experts, eventually showing the document — creases and watermarks intact, betraying the source — to the N.S.A. for verification. “It would prove extremely unfortunate for Reality that the audience who might be most interested in and moved by her case was largely captured by a publication embarrassed by it,” Howley notes.
It would also prove extremely unfortunate for Reality that the American government used her work for the American government against her. “It had taught her obscure languages,” Howley writes, “knowledge of which it now implied was dangerous.” A note Winner had made about wanting to “burn the White House down” was taken as proof of malevolent intent, omitting the “ha, ha” that followed it. (Winner later wondered if she would have fared better with an “lol jk.”) She was sentenced to 63 months — “the longest sentence ever handed down for an Espionage Act conviction.” The government assembled the fragments from Winner’s life and projected a story into the absences, essentially creating what Howley elsewhere calls a “fantasy built on solid ground.”
This warped kind of world-building bears more than a passing resemblance to what conspiracy theorists do. So it’s fitting that the title “Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs” comes from a 2014 viral video of a Christian woman at a conference who presents a (remarkably polished and assured) case that Monster Energy drinks are a vehicle for Satan. From there it’s just a short crawl to QAnon’s elaborate nightmares about Satan-worshiping pedophiles.
The arc of Howley’s extraordinary book feels both startling and inevitable; of course a journey through the deep state would send her down the rabbit hole. “There’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out, and I think we have the president to do it,” Marjorie Taylor Greene, now a congresswoman from Georgia, said in 2017. How’s that for the banality of evil? As Howley puts it, “True believers speak of Satanism with the bored fluency of someone selling condos.”
But it’s not as if QAnon has had to make up its nonsense out of whole cloth. Its propagation also relies on the not uncommon impulse to worry for one’s children. It was only toward the end of the book that I noticed how children were a recurrent presence — Howley’s, her friend’s, those of a camera assistant in Baghdad killed by an American strike.
Howley learned she was pregnant while reporting the book. “I despaired many times, in the writing, about my ability to protect the thing I was growing,” she says. She was immersed in a world “that had forgotten what it was like to construct a self in the dark.” We become ourselves by shedding our past selves — but now those discarded selves are recorded somewhere, potentially living longer than we do. In her acknowledgments, Howley ends with a note to her children that could serve as a blessing for us all: “May you be only as remembered as you wish.”
Jennifer Szalai is the nonfiction book critic for The Times.