Friday, December 6, 2013

Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich
Ehrenreich's subject is how people earning minimum wage get by. The book sold very well, but its readers were not, I suspect, from either the top or the bottom of the economic ladder. Probably socially conscious liberals read it and were gratified that convictions they already held were supported by the facts. The author does provide facts – the best kind, those based on personal experience. She gets employment as a waitress at a chain restaurant, as a dietary aid at a nursing home, as a maid employed by a cleaning service, and as a “sales associate” at WalMart. She describes the jobs, her co-workers and bosses, and the way she has to live in order to make ends meet. It’s no horror story – we’re not in the meat-packing houses of The Jungle – but nobody (I’m disregarding the most callous) can say all is fine for low wage workers. A major problem is the lack of affordable housing. Although Ehrenreich rates her performances at the jobs (which are challenging and demanding) as deserving a B or a B+, she’s unable to find decent living accommodations on her salaries (one place she stays in is an over-priced “rat trap” of a motel). But, unlike the people she works with, she has another life, a quite comfortable one, to fall back on. That others are stuck in a world from which she can escape is a fact that Ehrenreich is fully aware of, and she wonders about the damage done, over time, to the spirit of those anonymous others. Her compassion is the non-mushy variety; she grants simple respect to maids who clean bathrooms and salespeople who sort endless cartloads of clothes. This examination of a subject of social and economic importance has the virtue of being highly readable and frequently funny. As I followed Barbara Ehrenreich’s stints in low wage America, I came to like the lady. I’d give her a solid A for Nickel and Dimed.

The Chip-Chip Gatherers - Shiva Naipaul
Naipaul’s grounded approach and unadorned prose impart a solidity to his portrayal of members of an Indian community living in (or escaping from) an impoverished Settlement in his native Trinidad. I formed a mind’s eye image of his characters, each standing in a distinctive pose. These statues could be labeled according to the person’s dominant trait. The labels would be harsh ones, for human nature is depicted at its petty worst. Life itself is a grubby affair with no meaning, so selfishness is justified; the operative credo is do for yourself, rely on nobody. If you search these pages for love you won’t find it; this is true even with parents and their children. Only Sita arouses sympathy. She refuses to take part in the emotional melee around her, barricading herself behind a clear-sighted and prideful indifference; yet in doing so she faces the void of isolation. At the end characters disappear, or wander off to indeterminate fates, or remain unreformed. All we’re left with is those statues. Because they represent real people, this novel attains a disquieting universality.

Wasps - Robley Wilson, Jr.
I read “Wasps” in the prestigious Norton Anthology of Short Fiction (third edition); I liked its freshness and checked out a collection by the author from my local library. It turns out that “Wasps” is by far the best thing in Dancing for Men; the title story is the second worst (“Thalia” takes that honor). Wilson’s persistent problem has to do with motivation; his characters act in ways that make no sense. I could give examples (actually, I’d love to), but that would take up too much space. Anyway, the point of this review has to do with the fact that the author is represented in Norton and is thus rubbing shoulders with the likes of Chekhov, Kafka, Joyce. The editor of the anthology, R. V. Cassill, writes in his preface that he included “writers who have very recently claimed a place in contemporary literature.” I agree that they should be included, but only if they have claimed a place by producing a body of excellent work. At the time the anthology came out in 1986, Wilson didn’t qualify; he had written very little (even Dancing needs filler to reach the 150 page mark). It seemed to me that there was a missing link in all this, so I Googled the names of the two men. I found a blurb Cassill wrote for the collection, in which his praise is lavish: “It is one of those rare books one treasures as a genuine service to the heart’s blind grope for understanding.” In my own grope for understanding I continued the search and came across a fact that may constitute a smoking gun: both men were on the faculty at Indiana University in 1981 (one year before Dancing was published and five years before the anthology came out). Friendship would, sadly, answer many questions.

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