Editor’s note: Special thanks to Sean Bernard of Claremont, California, for sharing the essay below with Small Press Reviews. In it, Bernard reviews Unintended Consquences by Larry Fondation (Raw Dog Screaming Press, July 2009, cloth, $24.95), Poor People by William T. Vollmann (Ecco, 2007, paper, $16.95), and Welcome to Oakland by Eric Miles Williamson (Raw Dog Screaming Press, June 2009, cloth, $29.95). Any readers interested in submitting long-form essays on small-press books and their relation to larger social and literary issues can feel free to query me at marc (at) marcschuster.com.
Isn’t it true that writers once wrote — and readers once read — about our poor?
Absolutely — after all, the fiction from our high school literature classes was (and still is) filled with standard American classics, reassuring and familiar works approved by school boards across the country, works featuring very much the struggling poor of our country. Pearl Buck, Upton Sinclair, Jack London. Harper Lee, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck. Books about characters who often worried about having roofs over their heads, about eating their next meal. Characters with little — if any — security. Poor.
And many more great American writers of the early twentieth century wrote very consciously about the poor. John Dos Passos wrote the USA Trilogy (a work Norman Mailer called the greatest in American fiction). The novels of Faulkner, our greatest writer, are filled with poor folks. The characters of Bellow, Elkin, Conroy. The early works of McCarthy.
Why is it important that these authors wrote poor people?
The obvious (and somewhat boring) answer is that it’s a good writer’s duty. On their own, every day, readers experience the ordinary. They don’t experience sweatshops, migrant working, racial violence — not unless our best writers bring it to them, as our best writers, our Faulkners and Steinbecks, once did. Literature shows the entirety of a society. Good writers lift our most unkempt corners so that our literature is complete — so that we can see ourselves, no matter how bad we look. Tolstoy and the peasants. Zola and the mines. Solzhenitsyn and the gulag.
The poor are part of our national landscape. They should be part of our literature.
Who are our best writers? Our contemporary Faulkners and Steinbecks?
Authors of comparable girth — longevity, critical success — include John Updike, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo. McCarthy, again. Pynchon.
Do they write about our poor people?
Pynchon? Updike? Roth? DeLillo? No. Oates, at times. McCarthy, no more.
So is their turning from the poor the reason we* no longer read about our poor?
Not entirely — it’s not only them. What other celebrated authors of the last twenty or thirty years write about our poor? Toni Morrison**? Richard Ford? Peter Matthiessen? Richard Powers? Marilynne Robinson? Denis Johnson? Ben Marcus? David Foster Wallace? Diane Johnson? Thom Jones? Elizabeth McCracken? Michael Chabon? George Saunders? Claire Messud? Dave Eggers? Ethan Canin? Jeffrey Eugenides? Jonathan Franzen? The authors published frequently in The New Yorker — do any write consciously about poverty?
*“We” are the people working on books, the poets, the short story writers, very likely with MFA degrees, the people who read Book Forum or Quarterly Conversation, who blog and glance at Book Slut every now and then, who know the signifier of the sign “Book Slut,” who know sign, who know signifier. Who know of and have opinions about Ben Marcus. Who desire publication in McSweeney’s. Us. Me and you.
** The poor, yes. American poor, yes. Our poor? From our time? Not so much.
So why are stories concerned with poverty rarely published by The New Yorker?
Back up a sec. Though neither was as successful as Jesus’s Son or Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson did write two novels about the poor. Doesn’t that disprove your theory?
So there are books about the poor by well-known authors.
Yes, but very few. Written primarily by Southerners. And William Vollmann.
William Vollmann? The prostitute guy who tries crack and fights with mujahadeen?
That’s the guy. William Vollmann is the closest thing we have to a modern John Steinbeck (or maybe Steinbeck was the closest thing we had until Vollmann himself, in terms of success, caliber, and conscience). Vollmann is a writer actively concerned in his literature with being moral in the current world. He does not preach right and wrong.
Unfortunately, his better works are more journalism than fiction. For example, Poor People (2007) is a series of anthropologies as he interviews poor people, describes their circumstances, and basically asks each of them, Why are some people poor? Then he sorts the depressing information and presents it matter-of-factly, generally staying out the way:
“People’s clothes would stick to their bodies; the parasol-carrying women would dab at their foreheads. And then the haze of heat, plant-breath and motor-breath would press down upon the white skyscrapers, tree-lined streets, whitish-grubbyish roof-tiles, gridlocked traffic and construction skeletons of Nan Ning, which boasted more towers every month.” (82)
When he does enter his narratives, Vollmann uses himself as a case study to question the best human response to situations from seeing a black guy walking toward him down the street at night in the city (I’m afraid — am I racist or am I smart?) to giving to the poor (Will this help? Does it matter if it doesn’t? Am I doing this for me?) to questioning his own work:
“This book is not ‘practical.’ It cannot tell anyone what to do, much less how to do it. For all I know, the normality of our epoch may render resource-sharing substantially impossible. But what is greater or braver than to beat down misfortune, or at least to try?” (247)
But that’s non-fiction. How’s his fiction about poor people?
Not as good, unfortunately.
Why do Vollmann and Southerners write about poverty while few others do?
They’re around poor people. Vollmann chooses to be; Southerners live in a place that’s still greatly impoverished. Once upon a time we — writers and readers — were nearer poverty, too. Our parents were once poor, or our grandparents, great-grandparents. They were immigrants or a part of our shared American poor history, the Great Depression.
Now? Despite the current recession, subscription rates to Netflix have risen steadily each month in 2009 — while cable television subscriptions have decreased.
Today, “poor” this year means sacrificing cable for Netflix.
That’s a different kind of poor.
The old poor, the worry about roof and hunger — that poor is now Other. To be old poor in an America — where new poor means no cable TV — implies failure on the fault of the poor person. To be poor during the Great Depression meant little — plenty of ordinary people were poor. Now, though, it means you’re addicted to drugs or were born of a mother addicted to drugs or suffer acute personality disorders or were poisoned in an overseas war or deformed or just a victim of rotten luck over and over again. The level of failure is so grand we can’t possibly relate. The poor now aren’t like our grandparents.
They’re people who have failed our pleasant society — our pleasant society hasn’t failed them.
It’s their fault.*
*Even if unlucky, we can prevail despite bad luck. Will Smith teaches us this in The Pursuit of Happyness (sic).
If there are fewer “old” poor now, less books about them is to be expected, right?
Yes. Because there are fewer poor people in our country doesn’t mean we ought to ignore those we have. And while we could use more books about any fading group — Luddites, militias, weavers, and so on — the poor are a unique in that they reveal the cracks in our society. Luddites, less so.
But writing about the old poor is hard. Do any non-Southern Vollmanns try?
Yes. Two who’ve done it for some time each have a new work out: Eric Williamson with Welcome to Oakland and Larry Fondation with Unintended Consequences.
Williamson was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway with his first novel, East Bay Grease, writes an American literature column in the celebrated French literary review Transfuge, and this new book may become an HBO series (which doesn’t automatically mean greatness, obviously — still, HBO). His best novel Two-Up is about gunite workers in the Bay Area. For his part, Fondation has published critically-acclaimed works including Angry Nights, Common Criminals, and Fish, Soap, and Bonds. All focus on poverty and violence in Los Angeles, and though Angry Nights is his greatest work, the others are also excellent; for Fish, Soap, and Bonds, he garnered a Christopher Isherwood grant.
How does Williamson write about the poor?
Every way he can.
Welcome to Oakland is narrated by the once and future poor T-Bird Murphy. Before taking us on a fragmented tour of his twenty-ish years in Oakland, the story begins in a distant present with Murphy acidly mocking his youthful American dreams: “I wanted an address, a phone number, a normal life that didn’t surprise me at all… I wanted to be happy” (11).
This isn’t the familiarly defeated, hopeless poor guy we think we know.
This guy hates us.
The novel resembles by turns Notes From Underground, Ellison’s Invisible Man, even Absalom, Absalom!, and Williamson throws in a handful of post-modern techniques, too, to see what sticks. T-Bird lists at one point Thirty-two aspects of Fuckers, Qualities of and How to Identify (eg, “have British names,” 78) and later adds a critical manifesto: “What we need is some imperfect fiction, some fiction that does not try to bring order to the chaos of life, but which instead tries to not only represent the chaos with chaos” (104).
While the novel is in places an incessant rant against stupid people (who usually are rich), Murphy/Williamson calms down enough to just tell story. The novel’s most brilliant section shows Murphy residing in a dump that, thanks to its philosophizing Aussie caretaker (“Permanence is the realm of only the very powerful and the very stupid” (169)) is more art-installation than trash. The squalor becomes beautiful, and we see that in poverty each moment means, each life means:
“I could see the dumps from where I stood, dark hills rising against the glow of the bay, and I could see the glow of Jones at work on his crazy junk sculpture, and seeing that glow, knowing that Jones was at work shoving his metal in the air and ramming it up the asses of the gods, I felt good. I felt as if everything made sense and that in this world there are some things they can’t take away from us and those things are the things we make, the things we create just for the hell of it without any hope of ever making a buck or fucking someone out of their check.” (178)
Reading Welcome to Oakland is strange. We’re the insulted, throughout — sort of — the educated, the non-poor, and so the novel is in a way attending your own roast. Still, we know that Murphy is in some ways one of us, as the work captures the conflict of hating those who have what you don’t… while wishing you were them. Welcome to Oakland is crass and unfinished, which is either reckless or daring, maybe both, at the approach perfectly weds form to theme. We can give Williamson credit for making an angry, frustrating, smart, and sometimes beautiful mess of a book about a mess of people in a mess of a town.
How does he write about poor people?
By having been one, remembering it bitterly/lovingly, and letting the pain fly.
How does Fondation write about the poor?
Unintended Consequences, which (appropriately) resembles the fragmented realism of Vollmann’s early stories, though whittled to an even finer point, is a stylistic counterpoint to Welcome to Oakland: rather than Williamson’s long rushing sentences and blend of literary techniques and references, Fondation gives us a larger look at poverty — in terms of wealth, yes, but more so the impoverished urban landscape — with sixty-five slim stories in 140 pages, stories like needles without their vial. The accumulation of violence and decay touches not only on the poor in wealth but poor in spirit: we get homeless encampments routed by urban redevelopment and lonely orphans and barflies, yes, but also cheating middle-class husbands, depressed suburbanites caught in the big city, and so on. As Fondation’s characters don’t know how else to react to physical or intellectual threats, they grab knives, guns, broken bottles, and get to work, and the violence is ultimately more sad than disturbing.
While the relentless approach works, at times it almost comes across as silly, as in “Strolling,” where a woman with nice legs (Miss Legs) is hit on by a jerk in a Mustang:
“You got a nice ass, baby. I’ll stick you good.”
“Fuck off, loser,” the woman said. “I’d rather fuck him.” She pointed at J.L. Hill. (She meant no harm.)
The man in the Mustang did not miss a beat. He pulled out a Colt Python and pointed it at Hill. He squeezed off three shots in a short burst, then another short burst, all right on target. Hill slumped to the ground.
The downtown lunch crowed scattered screaming. The driver persisted.
“He’s dead. Will you fuck me now?” (62)
At which point the woman gets in the car and drives off with the shooter (really). Is the story grim? Funny? Ironic? Does it show us how sad the lives of the poor (in spirit? in intellect?) in Los Angeles truly are? Not really. It and the others like it are out of place in an otherwise taut collection; thankfully, Fondation usually stays focused, and his approach to writing about the poor is novel and effective. By avoiding an intertwined narrative (as in a work like Crash) and simply juxtaposing the experiences of the homeless/financially poor with the lives of the more wealthy but no less poor, by blending spare first-person monologues with brief distant third-person sketches, by including humor, sadness, hope, and most of all anger, Fondation has made Unintended Consequences an oil- and blood-soaked fabric of urban life:
I live alone in a single room; last year I did not.
At the dark bar, spilled beer puddles on the polyurethane.
We don’t know whether to stay or leave. For a whole host of reasons.
We stay until the pungent end. (“City Blocks,” 140)
So which is the better work of fiction about the poor?
While both Unintended Consequences and Welcome to Oakland — two hugely disparate works — are admirable and unique to contemporary American fiction… probably neither of them. Both pieces are so repeatedly opinionated, angry, and passionate, so outraged… that they’re too loud for us.* The ranting bum on the street? The ranting drunk in the bar? Interesting the first time. The second, third, fourth times? Not so much. And so these books, though impressive artistic works, aren’t ultimately as moving as they could be.
So who does it best? Interestingly it’s almost Vollmann, with Poor People. Though journalism, Poor People would be horrifying and fantastic re-imagined as a work of fiction: a tale told by a cold anthropologist, a bored and wealthy Humbertian narrator who curiously and conscientiously studies the poor like ants yet to be squashed by life, revealing them to us (himself as one of us), prodding them, asking questions. “Learning” from them so that we can learn from them, too. Of course Poor People is not nearly so cold and callous… but it flirts enough with condescension that such a marvelous fictional version is not hard to envision.
* We have sensitive eardrums.
If these three authors are already doing it, why should we write about poor people?
A long answer begins by admitting there are obvious platitudes here — the poor are “part” of us, etc, we should include everyone in our country in our fiction, etc, etc, otherwise we’re jerks. Here’s a better reason: look at the greatest works of contemporary-life-based fiction* from the last twenty or thirty years. What is our most lauded American novel, a work that defines our country? Would many people — would we — offer Underworld, for example?
Compare Underworld — in its total encapsulation of life — to The Savage Detectives.
Compare it to 2666.
Compare it to Juan Villoro’s El Testigo.
To Anna Karenina.
To our own great works. Moby-Dick, Huck Finn.
We can’t compare it because for all Underworld’s heft and artistry, DeLillo is no BolaÒo, no Melville, no Tolstoy. A novel like Underworld, while deeply commendable, is only a couple slices of a much greater American experience; the greatest works from the greatest authors encapsulate much more, encapsulate everything — or at least try to.
Reading DeLillo shows us that he simply doesn’t live in the larger world; like us, he’s too far from poor. Like us, it’s not so much on his mind.
And all our lauded authors are equally removed. And so too their works.
We should write about the poor to write the greatest fiction that can be.
* “Realism” seems too limiting a term.
Well, then, how do we write about poor people?
It’s hard. We don’t want to go out and be poor ourselves. That’s too hard. Spending lots of time with the poor would also be a big sacrifice. Besides, in many ways poverty isn’t compelling. For one, on a daily basis, it’s boring. Not much happens and what little does is repetitive (as the flaws in Unintended Consequences and Welcome to Oakland are their repetition). Beyond that, we don’t aspire to poverty — we don’t want to imagine it. Beyond that, the downfalls of the poor are clichéd. As we learn in Poor People, most poor people are poor for sad and uninteresting reasons: they got fired from jobs and never found work again. They’re alcoholics. They blame society as being too complex… so trying to fix the situation is pointless. They are defeated. And there’s not much story in defeat.
Still, there are ways.
Vollmann gives one avenue: by thinking about them. Caring. Having interest. Path #1.
Fondation gives us another: slice life down to the barest essence and then, rather than forcing an artificial entwined narrative that pulls all lives together, simply place the lives of the poor beside the lives of the non-poor. #2.
And Williamson in Welcome to Oakland, presents a narrator who is half-us, half-them: a hybrid conflicted soul who loathes everyone. The screaming bastard child. #3.
So it’s very possible — and important — to write about the poor, to make poverty artful, meaningful, true. These writers have to large extent already succeeded. Let’s learn from their works and their methods, especially that most basic one they’ve all used: simply by trying.
–Esssay by Sean Bernard