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.

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.

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar and J.T. Waldman

13166589Nonfiction — print. Hill and Wang, 2012. 176 pgs. Library copy. 

Over the course of an afternoon in Ohio, Pekar interweaves the history of Judaism from Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac on the alter for God to expressions of the Jewish faith in 2011 with his own personal history as a Jew and a critic of Israel. Panels are devoted to depicting both histories — the personal and the publicly shared — as well as the time Pekar and Waldman spend at a used book store and the Cleveland Public Library during Pekar’s monologue.

Raised by a Zionist and communist mother and a conservative Jewish father, Pekar grew up revering and blindly supporting Israel. It wasn’t until he became involved in anti-war and communist activities in the United States during the 1960s and the 1970s that Pekar really began to question the beliefs that had been instilled in him.

His disillusionment becomes more pronounced over time, and this development coincides with his history lesson for Waldman on present-day Israel’s struggles over its identity as a Jewish, democratic country with both the rise in the number of Arab citizens and a more Orthodox clergy defining who counts as Jewish. This back and forth helps to encapsulate the reaction an individual will have on the micro-scale to macro-level events.

As the events of Pekar’s life and the history of Judaism march towards the present-day, this reaction starts to fade and Pekar begins to list out his grievances towards Israel. Whether that is because Pekar long made up his mind about Israel or because he was running out of time on that particular day in Cleveland or because Waldman was unable to follow-up with Pekar to expand on the story due to his unexpected death that year, it remains unclear. But this shifts the fulcrum of Pekar becoming a critic of Israel from what the country has done on the global stage to one particular moment in the 1970s when the country rejected him.

When Pekar becomes disillusioned with life in America after being declared unfit for military service and unable to find a job, he seizes on the idea that Israel must accept him because he is Jewish and makes inquiries into how to immigrate at the local Israeli embassy. He is immediately and swift rejected by the Israeli authority who laughs at him and points out that Israel has no need for a wannabe music critic or a disabled person. That moment, it seems, is the real moment when Pekar decides he can no longer support Israel.

A valid reason for his disillusionment with Israel? I think that’s too personal to comment on, although I do understand how bitterly disappointing this rejection would be if one grew up hearing about Israel is the homeland for all Jews (and it fits really well with the title of the book). Given the way other issues are seemingly listed out rather than addressed in detail as this moment was makes this a more personal story than a jumping point for the reader to have a philosophical and/or political debate with themselves.

I loved the variation in the panels by Waldman. At one point, he and Pekar get into the car and drive from the used book store to the public library. This could have been an odd lull in the story yet Waldman keeps the transition interesting by styling the panels like the dashed lines of an old map leading to treasure under a large ‘X’. (You can see an example of this above.) And the pop-up of Harvey and his critic on the newspaper clips of their words? Genius! It brings the writers and their words alive in the way a reprint of the columns could never.

There is a short epilogue written and drawn by Pekar’s wife, Joyce Brabner, following his untimely death. Stylistically different from the rest of the book, the epilogue nevertheless encapsulates the story and how Pekar viewed himself  — a Jewish artist uninterested in fame whose homeland is Cleveland not Israel.