It’s not unusual for neighbors to squabble, or to fight, but the still-unexplained assault on Rand Paul, by a neighbor, as Paul sat on his lawn tractor, was noteworthy because Paul is a United States senator. The incident was also curious because the principals were both doctors: the assailant was a fifty-nine-year-old retired anesthesiologist named Rene Boucher, and Paul, who is fifty-four, was a practicing ophthalmologist until 2010, when he won a Senate seat, in Kentucky, as a Tea Party Republican. The two men live in a gated community called Rivergreen, in Bowling Green, where they seemed to lead lives of contented privilege. (An anonymous posting on a Rivergreen discussion site reads, “The main gate has the touch pad which calls the resident you want to visit. . . . If you don’t know someone who lives there, you don’t belong, period. It’s that way on purpose!!!!”) According to the Washington Post, Boucher often stopped by a coffee shop on the Bowling Green town square, where, wearing a beret and an ascot, he’d play chess with a friend.
Boucher is a Democrat, but his lawyer said in a statement that the incident had “absolutely nothing to do with either’s politics or political agendas. It was a very regrettable dispute between two neighbors over a matter that most people would regard as trivial.” He expressed the wish, probably a hopeless one, that “these two gentlemen could get back to being neighbors as quickly as possible.” That’s not how it was viewed by Paul, who tweeted last week that the medical report “indicates six broken ribs & new X-ray shows a pleural effusion.” He faces a long recovery, but, on Monday, he announced that he was returning to work, tweeting that, although he’s still “in a good deal of pain,” he is “ready to fight for liberty and help move forward with tax cuts in the coming days and weeks.” Boucher has pleaded not guilty to charges of fourth-degree assault; if federal charges are filed (because Paul is an elected official), Boucher could face prison time. Personal-injury lawyers in Kentucky are no doubt salivating.
Jim Skaggs, the developer of Rivergreen, told the Louisville Courier-Journal that the two doctors, who have been neighbors for more than seventeen years, have a long and somewhat disagreeable history, much of it focussed on property rights. Although Skaggs was once the chairman of the Warren County Republican Party, he seemed to side with Boucher, whom he called a “near-perfect” neighbor, as opposed to Paul, who, he said, was less willing to go along with the regulations of the homeowners association “because he has a strong belief in property rights.” Skaggs thought that the breaking point came when Paul allegedly blew lawn trimmings into Boucher’s yard. “I think this is something that has been festering,” Skaggs said, mentioning past disagreements over who should cut down a tree branch when it stretched over a property line. The Times reported that Paul grows pumpkins, and composts.
Pumpkins and compost may well be at the root of things. This fall has been unusually warm in Kentucky, and the heat may affect decomposing organic matter in unpleasant, olfactory ways. Paul, who leans toward libertarianism, could well have considered the compost of a private gardener, on private property, to be an inalienable right, and one can sympathize with that view.
Someone who would have understood this odd, violent episode is the novelist Thomas Berger, whose terrific and funny 1980 novel, “Neighbors” (the basis of an unfunny movie starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd), understood the weird rages that spring up between people in close proximity. “I hope we can be friends,” Ramona, a new neighbor, tells the novel’s protagonist. “I’m sure we can,” he replies, to which Ramona says, “I didn’t mean that polite social kind of shit.” Berger’s characters seem less stable than the residents of Rivergreen, and the neighborliness-gone-bad is more ominous, as when he writes, “To have an outright enemy as one’s nearest neighbor, when one lived at the termination of a dead-end road, with only a wooded hollow beyond, a weed-field across the street, was unthinkable.”
At the time of the novel’s publication, Berger told the critic Richard Schickel what he’d learned from Kafka: “That at any moment banality might turn sinister, for existence was not meant to be unfailingly genial.” The sinister banality of American life periodically moves into view, with a lot of it these days emanating from Donald J. Trump, the person who was elected President, a year ago. Since that time, there have been many reminders that there are indeed things worth fighting for: that, in this most fortunate of nations, re-learning, and believing in, the virtues of coöperation across borders, and ideologies, is among them. The attack on Rand Paul, whether over lawn trimmings, compost, the noise of a riding mower, or something still concealed, is a reminder of how easy it is to get worked up, even crazily so, over all sorts of questions—such as Keurig’s reluctance to sponsor Sean Hannity—that, in the end, mostly manage to break a lot of coffee makers while dividing Americans.