Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson

30107561Fiction – print. Ecco, 2017. 336 pgs. Borrowed from a friend.

Eighteen-year-old Isabelle Poole graduates from high school with perfect grades and a baby on the way. Her job as a pig roaster at the local BBQ joint doesn’t pay enough for her to raise the baby on her own, and the father of her baby — her high school art teacher — has checked himself into a mental hospital. Yet Izzy is determined to keep her baby — so determined that she’s willing to join “The Infinite Family Project” headed by Dr. Preston Grind and funded by an eccentric Tennessean businesswoman.

The goal of the project is to prove that cooperatively raising children in a single home provides the best start in life. Izzy and the other nine couples are to raise the babies for ten years without distinguishing which child is biologically their own and, in return, the program will provide them with job training, parenting classes, and free room and board.

The bond between parent and child proves to be too strong, though, and other parents in the program begin to struggle with the need to be with their — and only their — child. And as the ten individual families begin to morph into one big family, the lines between couples and families begin to fracture in ways the Dr. Grind and his small group of doctoral students did not expect.

When a friend asked me if I wanted to borrow this book from her, she announced that the book is good, but weird. “Like really, really weird”. At the time, I figured she was referring to the premise, which sounded bizarre but intriguing enough that I left the coffee shop with the book tucked under my arm.

Having finished the book (and, later confirming with her), it is clear that she meant to say the plot structure are the “really, really weird” parts of the book. The first third follows a more traditional narrative structure with the reader being introduced to Izzy, learning of her emotional and financial dilemmas around her baby, and watching her decide whether or not to pursue a spot in Dr. Grind’s story.

Soon after she gives birth and is whisked away to the Infinite Family compound, the novel switches into bi-yearly updates as to how the project is going. Wilson drops the reader into the most important scene for that year’s drama — a mother deciding she needs to see her baby more, a couple deciding to wife swap — for two chapters, and then proceeds to do the same for the next year. After a number of years, the novel switches back to the more traditional structure with Izzy facing a decision about how she wants to move on with her son now that the project is over.

The benefit to this structure is Wilson can cover more time in a shorter number of pages. He drills right down into the heart of the problem for each year exposing the fatal flaws in the overall project and showing how Izzy matures from an indecisive eighteen-year-old to a much more confident young woman. The downside to this structure — and, ultimately, why the novel didn’t work for me — is Wilson denies readers the opportunity to get to know the other characters.

Everyone else — the other parents, the grad students, Dr. Grind — become caricatures rather than fully fleshed out individuals. The other eighteen parents were indistinguishable from the next and, if Izzy claimed one was her best friend and the other was rude, I had to take her word for it rather than seeing for myself.  I cared for Izzy because the earlier third of the novel helped me see why I should, but the middle third did not lend the same courtesy to the other parents and their children and there was little motivation to keep reading as things between Izzy and the other parents came to a head.

Frankly, Wilson’s examination of fringe parenting methods and their impact on the human psyche provided the scaffolding for a weirdly intriguing novel. Sadly, this scaffolding crumbled thanks to the underdevelopment of supporting characters and the cramming of an ambitious scope into a 336-paged book.

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Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

28695425Nonfiction – print. The New Press, 2016. 351 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “Anger and Mourning on the American Right” and then sub-subtitled “A Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide”, Hochschild’s book documents her attempt to scale the “empathy wall”. As a sociologist living in the liberal stronghold of Berkeley, California, Hochschild found herself condemning those “Red Staters” joining the Tea Party movement and voting for the interests of billionaires like the Koch brothers. Yet, she didn’t know any of these “Red Staters” — her circle of friends, her daily interactions were limited to people who voted and believed exactly like her.

To rectify this, to climb her self-described “empathy wall”, Hochschild relocated to Louisiana and proceeded to seek out self-proclaimed members of the Tea Party movement. Why Louisiana? By nearly every measure, Louisiana in the worst state in the Union. It was ranked 50 out of 50 for both child poverty and infectious disease transmission in 2015, 48 for infant mortality, 47 in percent of population considered obese and cancer-related deaths, 46 in public education in 2017,  and 42 for percent of population without health insurance. It has been negatively impacted by natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina in 2005) and man-made (Deepwater Horizon in 2010).

And yet residents of the state routinely elect politicians who reduce regulation on businesses polluting the environment and cut funding for public education and health initiatives. They align themselves with the Tea Party and proclaim a deep dislike for the federal government even as they mourn the declining beauty of the bayou, which the Environmental Protection Agency (also known as the federal government) could help clean-up, or watch their family members succumb to cancer from interacting with toxic chemicals at work that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (again, the federal government) regulates.The mental gymnastics it must take to see a problem and decide the solution is actually the cause of the problem.

In her conversations with Louisianians, Hochschild decides that Tea Party adherents “arrive at their dislike of the federal government via three routes — through their religious faith (the government curtailed the church, they felt), through hatred of taxes (which they saw as too high and too progressive), and through its impact on their loss of honor” (pg. 35). These three routes dovetail together in the way “Red Staters” deride the government assisting people through programs like Medicare, Section 8 housing, and SNAP/WIC benefits, which are collectively known as “welfare”.

Welfare programs, according to the Tea Party adherents Hochschild interviews, are an example of the government using taxes to support “the wrong people– especially welfare beneficiaries who “lazed around days and partied at nights” and government workers in cushy jobs” (pg. 35). One man, Lee, does not want the politically correct “rules” of liberals and Democrats to tell him who to feel sorry for and, therefore, who his taxes should support.

People like Lee believe their religious convictions can guide them in deciding who is or is not worthy of help, and the government is stepping in to replace the role of the church with these programs. If an individual needs assistance, then they should turn to their religious community and allow that community (presumably Christian) to provide help. If they do not have a religious community, then perhaps the root of their problem is their lack of moral grounding and personal conviction.

And, according to others interview by Hochschild, those who do posses personal convictions and religiously-based morals lose their honor as a result of these programs. Either they ignore their personal conviction to work in order to quality for these programs — thus becoming deadbeat “welfare queens” who are exploiting hard-working people — or, they watch themselves and their families be pushed further and further backwards in line.

It is the perceived position in line that Hochschild identifies as the real reason — “the deep story”, in her terminology — for why those on the right are so angry and so willing to vote against their own interests. To her interviewees, everyone in America is standing in a single file line. The closer you are to the front of the line, the closer you are to realizing the American Dream and becoming as wealthy as the Koch brothers.

Yet, as the statistics provided about Louisiana suggest, many of those living in Louisiana are at the other end of the line. Over generations, thanks to the oil and gas industry in Louisiana, these interviewees started to move forward in line. But, now, liberals and  Democrats have invited other people to cut in front of them in line — blacks through affirmative action, women through feminism, immigrants through a lack of border patrol, animals and plants through environmental regulation — and it’s not fair.

It’s not fair because these (white, male) residents of Louisiana have waited in line for a long time. It’s not fair because the line is growing longer thanks to immigration and it’s moving slower thanks to jobs — jobs that used to let people leapfrog in line — moving overseas. It’s not fair because liberals and Democrats denigrate these Louisianans as racists and backwards from their comfortable spots way further up in line.

The only way to make it fair, according to these interviewees, is to put the line back the way it was. If the environmental regulations are removed and taxes are lowered, companies will bring jobs back from overseas, which will help the line speed up. If affirmative action and gender-based hiring preferences are unlawful and the border is enforced, then fewer people will cut in line ahead of those who have been waiting a long time. (Never mind that some people weren’t even allowed to line up for decades.) And if government welfare programs ended, then those who do not deserve their places in line will fall behind those who work hard and follow their religious convictions. It is as simple as that.

So simple, in fact, that I’m not confident I needed Hochschild’s book to teach me this. (Perhaps because my 18+ years of living in deep red states means I still interact with more “red staters” than Hochschild ever did in the years before she left Berkeley.) Her attempt at fostering understanding, at getting to the “deep story” often obscured (rightly, in my opinion) in charges of racism and sexism and other -isms is admirable, though, and I did appreciate the exercise in mental gynamistics her book required of me to get from start to finish.

And, ultimately, her book probably best explains why Trump won broke the “blue wall” of union members in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan and won the presidency. To these union members and to their fellow voters in Louisiana, reducing the wait time in line will “make America great again” and “reward” the rugged individualism codified American Dream is based on. Or, at least, doing so will make America (financially) great for them — their fellow Americans, their environment, and their children’s health be damned.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

27161156Nonfiction – print. Harper, 2016. 263 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”, Vance recounts his childhood raised by an often deride segment of America — the “hillbilly”, Scots-Irish living in the Appalachia region of the United States. Vance’s mother — a nurse — struggled with drug addiction throughout his life, and that coupled with the constant cycle of stepfathers and boyfriends in Vance’s life meant he often took refuge in the home of his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw. This refuge provided a steadying hand for Vance; he would go on to graduate from Ohio State, receive a law degree from Yale, and reach the crux of the “American Dream”.

(Early on in his memoir, Vance explains how he’s never heard anyone outside his Scots-Irish community use the terms Mamaw and Papaw. My grandparents were originally from Oklahoma, but the very last birthday card I received from my grandmother is signed “Love Mamaw  and Papa”. I never used their chosen monikers, though, because none of my friends in Texas referred to their grandparents in this manner.)

In many ways, Vance’s Mamaw and Papaw achieved the American dream. They moved from Jackson, Kentucky — where both were raised in abject poverty — to Middletown, Ohio. Papaw worked a steady, unionized job at the factory in town, and the family were able to afford a home in a nicer neighborhood for their three children. Yet their “American Dream” wasn’t without its problems — Papaw was an alcoholic, domestic violence marked much of Mamaw and Papaw’s relationship, their daughter became a drug addict, their neighborhood in Ohio lost value after the factory began shedding jobs, etc.

“I remember sitting in that busy courtroom, with half a dozen other families all around, and thinking they looked just like us. The moms and dads and grandparents didn’t wear suits like lawyers and judges. They wore sweatpants and stretchy pants and T-shirts. Their hair was a bit frizzy. And it was the first time I noticed “TV accents” — the neutral accent that so many news anchors had. The social workers and the judge and the lawyer all had TV accents. None of us did. The people who ran the courthouse were different from us. The people subjected it to were not.” (pg. 79)

Vance places much of the blame for their setbacks on the fact that neither of them was able to leave their “hillybilly” roots behind. The guns and the violence and the drinking permeating the Scots-Irish culture (think Hatfields and McCoys) traveled across the border with them, and their adopted hometown became known as “Middletucky” because so many Kentuckians moved to Ohio for the same economic prospects that his grandparents relocated for. Except the best parts of their community — the extensive family networks, the social trust — failed to be reestablished in “Middletucky”, and Vance explains how he and his grandparents began to see themselves as “better”.

Not solely in the sense of the white-black racism that so permeates American culture, but in a sense of being better than their fellow working class Americans. Because at least Vance and his grandparents didn’t take welfare benefits. (Except they did.) And they didn’t rundown the neighborhood by allowing Section 8 voucher holders to rent from them. And they had jobs unlike, according to Vance, thirty percent of the young men in Middletown work fewer than twenty hours a week and aren’t aware of their own laziness.

“We began to view much of our fellow working class with mistrust. Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large majority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else.” (pg. 139)

This sense of being “better” builds a hatred of both the (white) neighbors and the federal government. Because if welfare didn’t exist, then the neighbor buying T-bone steaks wouldn’t be able to have more than Vance or Mamaw. Because if Section 8 housing didn’t exist, then Vance and his sister could have left their bicycles on the front porch. Because if hard work was the determinate for success, then the white, working class of Appalachia would be more successful than the coastal elites who dominate the political and economic spheres of America.

And that particular refrain is not new or revolutionary or groundbreaking; it’s something well-known to those of us who spent any time in the South or the Midwest. So, no, I did not take anything particularly new or revolutionary or groundbreaking away from reading this memoir. What I did find fascinating, though, was the way Vance’s memoir largely manages to fall in lockstep with the argument so often held up by Republican circles as to why black Americans are economically disadvantaged — the failure of the black community to police their own morality.

Take, for example, the issue of education. Vance was barely holding onto a 2.1 GPA by the time he moved in his grandparents during his sophomore year of high school, and he credits his grandmother purchasing a $180 calculator for him as the kick in the pants he needed to start investing in his own education because he needed to honor her sacrifice to put together that amount of money. Thus demonstrating that if only (grand)parent expressed an interest in their (grand)child’s education, they will success.

Yet he previously blamed his grades on his own lack of interest in school (a “moral” failing), the way he bounced around from one school to another following the collapse of his mother’s latest relationship (a “moral” failing), and the lack of resources afford the school district in Middletown (a governmental failing). And he explained how he didn’t feel prepared for college until the Marines — in other words, the government — taught him that he could achieve. So, despite his grandparents stepping in to police the morality in which he was being raised, he still needed government intervention to help him out.

Or, look at the way he addresses his mother’s drug problems and cycle of poor relationships. He explains how his sister and, to some degree, he have placed the blamed for their mother’s failings at her feet. But he also, at turns, blames her parents and their hillbilly culture for raising her without the example of a stable relationship, and both he and his grandparents tried to protect her from jail time or from losing custody of him. A level of empathy he tries to impart of his readers. At the same time, the African American community has been decimated by mass incarceration for similar crimes without any attempts of empathy for the experiences of those left behind.

Is it fair to take a memoir about life as a member of a specific segment of the American population and criticize it for failing to address the experiences of another segment of Americans? No, it’s not, and I fully recognize that fact. Yet, following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, there was a rush among Americans — journalists, pundits, my own friends — to understand the white, working-class Americans who cast their votes for Trump. To try to create a narrative to explain why Trump won over the more experienced candidate despite the polls suggesting he would be soundly defeated.

And Vance’s memoir seemed to top all of the “Understanding the Trump Voter” book lists floating around post-election. People are turning to him and his experience to try and foster empathy for a group that voted for a man like Trump, and I do believe it’s important to understand why the Right feel the need to “take their country back” and vote against their own economic interests.

“President Obama came on the scene right as so many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them. We know we’re not going well. We see it every day: in the obituaries for teenage kids that conspicuously omit the cause of death (reading between the lines: overdose), in the deadbeats we watch our daughters waste their time with. Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it — not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.” (pg. 191)

But readers must also be careful not to push the white, working class Scots-Irish into the same trap that the African American community has pushed into. To start to believe that if only government was smaller, if only communities were stronger, if only  white working class folks and black Americans worked harder and lived in stable relationships, then their lives would be better. Because there are systemic issues — lack of educational resources being a major one — affecting both communities that cannot be fixed by morality or a relationship with God alone. (On that particular note, Vance explains how his community claims to be more religious, but attends church far less than they claim in surveys.)

Interestingly, Vance says he worries the true message of his book — the difficulty of achieving the “American Dream” due to the compounding problems of poverty, lack of education, unstable home life, drug addiction — is lost when people try to use his book as a primer on “Trumpism”. His interview with Ezra Klein, which I listened to after finishing the book, expands more upon this and starts to pull his book away from the “if only you were more moral” trap as Vance does actually believe the US government should step in to assist with these problems. (In both the memoir and the interview, he doesn’t really know how or in what shape that assistance should take place.)

This “true message”, though, is an important one, and my critiques should not be taken as justification for passing on Vance’s memoir. It opens a window into a world that pundits, politicians, and “coastal elites” have shut for far too long but, please, look out that window without closing your eyes to the fact that some of the lessons from this memoir have already been put into action — work for welfare requirements, for example — and have not worked in alleviating poverty or opening the American dream to people of lower economic economics.

Murder in the Bayou by Ethan Brown

28365038Nonfiction — print. Scribner, 2016. 224 pgs. Library copy.

Between 2005 and 2009, the bodies of eight women were discovered dumped in the bayous and canals of Jefferson Davis parish in Louisiana. The “Jeff Davis 8” victims cross the racial divide of the county; their commonality stems from the fact that all were engaged in prostitution, addicted to drugs, and were related in some way to each other.

The most important commonality, however, is that each of the eight victims was connected in some way to the sheriff’s department operating out of Jennings, Louisiana. This connection extends beyond the typical law versus criminal interaction — one of the women was last seen transported in a pick-up truck that was then sold to one of the police officers — and provides a major incentive for the department to botch their investigation.

The book follows the botched investigations into each woman’s murder in order to expose the corruption and criminality permeating these eight cases. A single chapter is devoted to introducing each victim, how and where she was found, and Brown’s theory on her final moments. As the number of victims increases, though, Brown starts to drop this formula in an attempt to start teasing out common threads and an overarching theory about the extent of corruption in these investigations.

The downside of this shift in writing style is that the earlier victims are given more focus and attention, and the details of their cases appear firmer than those of the latter cases. I relied heavily upon the list of victims, suspects, and their relationship to one another provided at the beginning of the book in order to keep facts straight as Brown attempted to connect dots that I didn’t always see.

However, the attention to detail in terms of describing the setting and the people interviewed was quite well done. I really felt I was standing alongside Brown as he traveled across the parish conducting interviews and piecing together timelines. (His descriptions actually aided in my understanding the environment of another book I read after this one set in the adjacent parish to Jefferson Davis.)

Brown’s book is an expanded version of a piece he published on Medium asking “Who Killed the Jeff Davis 8?”. I read the Medium piece after finishing the book and felt I could have read one or the other and walked away with the same information. The one benefit to the book is the final chapters are allocated to explaining how the community reacted to the article. The local newspaper asked to republish the article, but then rescinded their request and began criticizing the validity of his investigation. Interviewees tell Brown that he should leave town and never return.

And yet no one is ever convicted in any of the eight cases in the eight years since the final murder. A number of people have been charged, but those charges have been dropped due to lack of evidence or botched police procedures. Sadly, the position of these women on the socioeconomic ladder and the corruption in this parish mean it is unlikely these women will ever get the attention or justice they deserve.

 

The Cut by George Pelecanos

12904753Fiction — print. Reagan Arthur, 2011. 292 pgs. Purchased.

After returning from serving overseas in Iraq, Spiro Lucas has built a business for himself as a “finder” in Washington D.C. Attorneys, criminals, and the occasional average citizen hire him to locate stolen possession in exchange for a substantial cut of the item’s value — forty percent. The large finder’s fee assures his clients of his Lucas’ discretion and allows the ex-Marine to avoid dealing with the difficulty of reintegrating into civilian society.

Theoretically, the arrangement should allow  Lucas to take on the cases that interest him most or tug on his heartstrings. (He started down this line of work after meeting a woman in a bar whose ex-boyfriend stole jewelry she inherited.) Yet the teenage boy that Lucas just helped get off a car theft charge on technically turns out to be the son of a major drug trafficker, and daddy dearest refuses to take no for an answer.

The case? A number of packages containing weed used in Anwan Hawkins’ drug ring have been stolen off the porches of unsuspecting homeowners working 9 to 5 before his runners can retrieve them. If Lucas recovers the packages, he’ll get a forty percent of the marijuana’s street value — the biggest payday of Lucas’ short career — and a sort of get-out-of-jail card from one of D.C.’s notorious crime bosses.

Lucas takes the job and begins his investigation getting to know Hawkins’ two runners and interviewing residents of a neighborhood near the high school where his adopted brother teaches. But, of course, things begin to go horribly wrong and bodies begin stacking up in the D.C. morgue threatening the lives of Lucas’ brother, mother, girlfriend, and Lucas, himself.

The departure from the typical detective characterization is what I appreciated most about Pelecanos’ novel. Lucas has the required family problems — his father died while he was overseas, his relationships with his siblings are strained — but he also rides around D.C. on a bicycle and attends church with his mother regularly. He shies away from dive bars with the exception of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, tries to help his fellow vets get back on their feet, and reads widely and veraciously. His internal battles, thus, feel more organic, and continually morph, change, and react as his circumstances change unlike another favorite investigator of mine who never seems to change from case to case.

The novel also provides an insider’s look to the District of Columbia. I lived briefly in the area and recognized a number of streets and neighborhoods visited by Lucas. The feeling, the sights and sounds of these areas were perfectly captured, and I felt like I was cycling along Rock Creek side-by-side with Lucas.  (There were a number of areas visited by Lucas during the seedier parts of his investigation that I didn’t recognize reflecting the socioeconomic divide and racist-driven feelings of “safety” in the district.)

The sole drawback to the novel was how quickly I figured out the big twist to the plot, and I thought it was rather obvious for how slowly it took Lucas to reach the same conclusion. The rest of the novel — the characters, especially — were enough to keep my high esteem of Pelecanos’ novel, and I’d happily pick up the next book in the series or another penned by this offer. One of the rare instances where grabbing a book solely because of its connection to a favorite television show (“The Wire”, in this case) paid off.