Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey Through the Deep State
A NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST • A NEW YORK TIMES TOP TEN BOOK OF THE YEAR • A VANITY FAIR BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
“Riveting and darkly funny and in all senses of the word, unclassifiable.” – The New York Times
A wild, humane, and hilarious meditation on post-privacy America—from the acclaimed author of Thrown
Who are you? You are data about data. You are a map of connections—a culmination of everything you have ever posted, searched, emailed, liked, and followed. In this groundbreaking work of narrative nonfiction, Kerry Howley investigates the curious implications of living in the age of the indelible. Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs tells the true story of intelligence specialist Reality Winner, a lone young woman who stuffs a state secret under her skirt and trusts the wrong people to help. After printing five pages of dangerous information she was never supposed to see, Winner finds herself at the mercy of forces more invasive than she could have possibly imagined.
Following Winner’s unlikely journey from rural Texas to a federal courtroom, Howley maps a hidden world, drawing in John Walker Lindh, Lady Gaga, Edward Snowden, a rescue dog named Outlaw Babyface Nelson, and a mother who will do whatever it takes to get her daughter out of jail. Howley’s subjects face a challenge new to history: they are imprisoned by their past selves, trapped for as long as the Internet endures. A soap opera set in the deep state, Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs is a free fall into a world where everything is recorded and nothing is sacred, from a singular writer unafraid to ask essential questions about the strangeness of modern life.
Praise for Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey Through the Deep State
A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The New Republic
“An odyssey through the post-9/11 American security state… Howley’s prose reminded me of Don DeLillo’s, not just in its preternatural attunement to invisible currents of feeling which course between varied pockets of the globalized American project, but also in the feeling that she’d taken her experience of the world and melted it down into a weapon meant to puncture our hardened habits of perception… Bottoms Up restores the world to something akin to its original strangeness. It’s a daring approach, and an invaluable one: seeing the world anew makes it feel, in some small way, up for grabs, and this feeling is a precondition for real thought.”
—Peter C. Baker, The New Yorker
“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… 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… 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, The New York Times
"When whistleblower Reality Winner was arrested in 2017 and later pleaded guilty to sending classified documents to The Intercept, it was a story with huge relevance to the group of activists and journalists with interests in the security state and its overreaches, but it didn’t easily translate to the broader public... Kerry Howley draws an intimate portrait of the woman, her world, and her motivations with literary flair and a wry voice.... Most attempts to understand the war on terror leave a reader with more questions and moral confusion than they began with. In approaching that lack of stability with intellect and keen aesthetics, Howley’s book leaves a reader immeasurably enriched."
"At 25, [Reality] Winner—yoga teacher, beloved sister, AR-15 owner—was sentenced to five years in prison for leaking classified documents about a Russian election attack. Howley deftly analyzes the brutal, surreal conditions that underlie this drama and the way that they implicate all of us, even if surveillance of our phones would mostly reveal repeated visits to WebMD and Reformation. This is the kind of book you wind up holding open to read even as you brush your teeth, eat breakfast, and try to walk the dog."
“So well-written, vivid, and empathetic that it could honestly have been about anything and I would have devoured it.”
—Olga Khazan, The Atlantic
“What appeals about Howley’s book is precisely her taste for the anecdote that won’t quite fit, the historical person who won’t settle down and become a consistently admirable character, the way real-life events can seem both plotted and chaotic. She seeks forms that will honor the opaque quality of real people and real events, and that remind us of the shaping, the fictionalizing, that has to accompany any statement of truth.”
—Phil Christman, The Bulwark
"The travails of Reality Winner, aspiring whistleblower in over her head, make a fantastic story. But there is no better way to tell it than through the cracked lens of Kerry Howley’s inimitable prose. Sly and sidling, Howley’s trip through the deep state’s wires is off-kilter and often funny as she drags you to the realization that there is no such thing as a private life anymore."
—Jason Linkins, The New Republic
"Kerry Howley been scary good at making art. But this one here, it's a gut check, chin check, pancreas check for writers and humans. How the f**k did you make this?”
—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy
"Bottoms Up is magnificent. I neglected my family through much of the holidays to finish it."
—Sara Quin, musician and New York Times bestselling co-author of High School
"A taut and riveting tour behind the curtain of an America that is unknown to us, but in which we all live. Kerry Howley is an astute, funny, contemplative, and relentless guide whose eye misses nothing. I would follow her anywhere."
—Melissa Febos, bestselling author of Girlhood and Body Work
“I love this book because I can't quite describe what it is. It bristles with the precise kind of strangeness that we live in but cannot name. Howley is one of the very best nonfiction writers working today and she is in peak form here. I'm jealous of her prose.”
—Chris Hayes, bestselling author of A Colony in a Nation
"This is a work of profound moral and political importance, and an exhilarating evolution of an art form by one of our great contemporary writers. Howley meditates on freedom, privacy, storytelling, and the state, carefully following the threads of the War on Terror to the political upheavals of the present day. Not only is Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs a necessary expansion and corrective to established narratives of decades of American overreach and cruelty, it is a beautiful, stylish, nuanced, and empathetic work of art, unlike any I've read before."
—Lydia Kiesling, author of The Golden State
“Kerry Howley sees it all. You may want to believe that the digital age has remade surveillance into a distant abstraction—all-seeing but also objective, supra-human, impersonal. Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs is an unsparing map of that delusion, and of the sticky human spiderweb — nodes and eyeballs, informants, and subjects — in which we all now live, complicitly. A generational subject now has its generational masterwork.”
—David Wallace-Wells, bestselling author of The Uninhabitable Earth
"Bottoms Up and The Devil Laughs is the book Joan Didion would have produced if Didion chose to delve into the motivations, circumstances, passions, absurdities and persecutions of 'national security' whistleblowers and other people on the margins of the War on Terror. Howley chronicles a widespread, insidious social derangement, but never for a moment treats her characters as anything other than fully realized human beings... Still, the heart of the book is the story of Reality Winner, and I doubt anyone will ever tell it better than Howley does."
—Spencer Ackerman, author of Reign of Terror
"In this fascinating dispatch from the height of the surveillance age, Howley (Thrown) expands on her New York magazine profile of Reality Winner, the intelligence specialist who leaked classified reports on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election... Based on extensive interviews with Winner, her family, and her friends, and enriched by incisive character sketches of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and other whistleblowers, Howley reveals how the gravest threat to the national security state has become ‘ideological, morally serious twentysomethings finding themselves as they sifted through secrets their younger selves had promised to keep.’ Witty, humane, and fiercely intelligent, this is a striking critique of a world intent on 'burying itself' in information."
—Publishers Weekly, starred
"Howley manages to push beyond partisan hack work to lay bare the flaws or biases in everyone’s read on Reality [Winner]—be it the right or left, the Intercept or NSA, Winner’s family, her lawyers, or her prosecutors. She illustrates the ways in which the raw data of someone’s life can be culled into a story they didn’t know they had told... Howley’s capacity for incisive empathy extends to those whom most would dismiss as kooks. Just as narrators who purport to be reliable can be wrong, she suggests, those whom we write off as unreliable can, on some level, be right."
—Tarpley Hitt, BookForum
"A provocative look at the culture of intelligence and its subversions."
"In this wide-ranging, often chilling survey, Howley meditates on the ways in which data collected by U.S. government agencies can be used to invade and destroy the lives of citizens... Howley makes a convincing argument that Winner was convicted less for the leak than for misleading evidence from old social media posts and personal texts... and suggests that we all might be subject to danger from the same sort of posts, preserved without our knowledge in government databases."