Lockdown in Hell World


"Luke O’Neil is like no other journalist working today, fusing original reporting with memoir and frequently-profane observational humor to create what feels like a new type of truth-telling: precise, fucked-up, infuriating, and, somehow, beautiful. ...This is what it looks like when a gifted writer finds his voice.” —Hamish McKenzie, co-founder of Substack


"A vital and despairing collection of essays on modern American life.” —Longreads

"Reading ...Hell World is a lot like staring deep into O'Neil's soul, and it's often a pretty dark place." —Boston Magazine

"Stream-of-consciousness reports that detail the many reasons reasonable people have to be angry right now.” —New York Magazine

"A fever dream ... It's a lot to handle, but it's great." —InsideHook

"Tells it like it is. ... It's that honesty, along with pure writing ability, creativity, and a heavy helping of empathy, that makes Luke's writing so special.” —The Alternative

"At once scathingly ironic and disarmingly sincere...” —Full Stop Magazine

"Writings on contemporary matters, from politics to music ... should be beautiful but hideous at the same time-and O'Neil scratches that itch for a remarkable 538 pages.” —Dig Boston

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About the Book

Foreshadowing a subsequent exodus, Luke O’Neil and his wife moved from the city to the suburbs just prior to the lockdown. Isolated not only by a virus but also by the alienation of a neighborhood where social distancing meant more than just geographical separation, O’Neil faced trials on numerous fronts: How to avoid potentially lethal clashes with new Republican neighbors? How to continue a working life as one America’s most electric, hard-hitting commentators without the opportunity of face-to-face reporting? How to maintain his own sanity, always a frail ship, while the world as we knew it disintegrated?

These pages chronicle that struggle. In turns furious, funny and philosophical they show a writer leavening his own feelings of helplessness by conversing with others experiencing the same discomfort – a postal worker, grocery store clerk, hotel receptionist, and people with kids stuck at home or Trump supporting family members. He talks, too, with a demonstrator whose eye was blinded by a police projectile on a Black Lives Matter protest.

Shifting back and forth across a summer lost to a virus and an economic system already deeply unjust and now profoundly dysfunctional, the sense of desperation that laces together O’Neil’s taut rendering serves, paradoxically, to reassure: In battling to overcome the particular obstacles they face in the pandemic, working class people are in this together.

176 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-408-9 • E-book ISBN 978-1-68219-245-0


About the Author

Luke O'Neil author photo

Photo courtesy the author
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Luke O’Neil has written for Esquire, New York Magazine, The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Playboy, Slate, Vice, and many other publications. He is the author of Welcome to Hell World: Dispatches from the American Dystopia.

Read an Excerpt

I want to swallow all the days ahead at once

It’s March and I am a child who knows nothing and you are a child who knows nothing except that we can feel something moving in the basement and we know not to go down there. It’s August and we’re huddled in a besieged grocery store as terrific insects hurl themselves against the glass wearing the faces of our loved ones bearing invitations to playdates and barbecues.

It’s March and I am a child who knows nothing and the idea of being isolated at home and unable to see anyone for weeks more never mind months more seems so suffocating that if I let myself envision it I feel like I’m going to collapse. Instead what I try to do is think about it one day at a time as the folks in the famous secret program which I probably will need to join after this is all over like to say. You don’t have to survive and wait out the entirety of this thing all at once right now all you have to do is make it through today I told people back then when I was a child. Tomorrow will probably be the same shit and the day after that too but tomorrow isn’t your problem at the moment I said but children like me are very famously idiots.

It’s April and we’ve just moved into our new home and after over a month of quarantine I don’t know if I can take my own advice from way back in March anymore. I want to swallow all the days ahead at once right now in one disgusting gulp like I’m trying to hide evidence from the police or like I’m trying to smuggle the duration of the virus onto an airplane and then I take a restless nap on the plane and shit it out after and hand it off to someone else so it’s not my problem anymore. The relief when it’s no longer in your possession. I want to come out the other side. I want to get to the part where we’re all like What the fuck was that all about? then we all go get egg sausage and cheese on an English muffin at Dunkins and eat them silently and very fast in a bustling unworried crowd of people whose eyes don’t have poison inside of them.

It’s August and I don’t particularly care what happens anymore or about the passage of time in general. Soon Michelle will be forced into returning to school to teach a roomful of children how not to die instead of how to do multiplication but no one in charge has of yet provided her with that particular curriculum.

It’s April and a reader writes to me about his time at war.

“I take the quarantine day by day and don’t focus on the end date, which is exactly how it was on my deployments to Iraq. Once you get used to the kind of weird new part of life of being shelled and fired at you fall into a routine of absolute monotony. Every day you trudge to the chow hall for breakfast, trudge to work, trudge back to the chow hall for lunch, trudge to work or work-related activity or meeting. Go to the gym and spend at least two hours there just to waste time. Everyone tells you not to keep track of the days or count them down or whatever, but by the halfway mark everyone eventually ends up making one of these pie charts from a Microsoft office program that tells you how much time you have left until you return home or return to normal.”

I wonder if being shelled at would be worth it to be able to go to the gym at this point.

“By the end you are so bored and so want to be done with what you are currently stuck in that it becomes a physical feeling. It’s hard to explain but it actually felt like it was mentally fatiguing. I read dozens of books on each deployment but by the end of them I couldn’t read anymore because my angst would build to the point that I could feel it in my chest and then my throat.”

I’ve only finished one book during the entirety of quarantine thus far it was The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene. I’ve started many more but finishing a book or finishing anything besides maybe a bottle is a problem for me now.

The book is set during the Blitz in London and people go about their normal daily lives as best as possible going to work at a cafe and having social gatherings and church raffles and so on as the bombs drop all around them. A siren goes off and they all hide or brace themselves for the impact and hope the bombs fall somewhere else distant somewhere where they won’t get them and then they get up after the dust clears the next day and do it all over again once the names of the dead have been reported dutifully in the newspaper. The characters in the book and the characters in the actual war had no idea when the war would end but we do and that’s called irony unless I’m mistaken. We have no idea about when our own thing here will end at this point maybe the people reading this do and that’s irony too.

A dozen or more friends’ parents are gone now but I’ve been absurdly fortunate to have suffered no close personal loss throughout all of this which is a miracle of sorts. My sister who is a nurse that works with the elderly contracted the virus early on and was sick and exhausted and rundown for a couple of weeks but seems to have recovered. We still don’t fully understand what recovering means at this point though. My good friend’s father died in New York City and he talked to me about the ghastly absurdity of the nurse placing a phone up to his ear because of course he and his brothers couldn’t go and say goodbye in person. They got to listen to him breathe for a while. My friend said he wasn’t sure if his father knew they were there on the line so they ended up talking amongst themselves about other random shit and I wonder if their father laying there in the bed perhaps aware he was going to die presently thought to himself Jesus Christ with this shit.

Probably he was just happy to hear his children’s voices.

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