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Our Endless Numbered Days

December 6, 2016

Oh how I wish someone had “spoiled” Claire Fuller’s novel Our Endless Numbered Days for me! It is well written and interesting enough to keep a person reading, but I was immensely disappointed by the ending.

The story of how Peggy and her father go off to live in the wilderness is exciting, what with their bursts of enthusiasm for odd, impractical projects and the difficulty they have learning to feed themselves. Peggy, who is only eight years old at the beginning of the book, insists that her father call her “Rapunzel” which is soon shortened to “Punzel.” He tells her that her mother is dead, and that everyone in the rest of the world has died too, that they are the only people left.

The little girl learns wilderness skills, like how to snare and skin a squirrel, and she eventually learns to split wood. Some of this is not without its gory aspect, and a few of the early scenes put me off a bit. One of these is the fishing episode where her father tells her a story to illustrate his point, that it is:
“important to always look behind before you cast because on that trip he had caught his father’s eyebrow with the hook as he flicked the line over his shoulder. The barb had gone in above the eye, emerging from a fold in the lid….My grandpa had made my father cut through the skin of his eyelid with the fish-gutting knife to remove the hook.”
I should have been warned by stories like this, but I didn’t heed the warning.

I persisted in thinking that this was a survival story. The parts about how they were starving during their first winter were balm for my dieting soul during this pre-holiday season full of recipes. I especially liked this description:
“Hunger flowed over me in waves; bedtime was the worst, when I would feel that my stomach was devouring itself from the inside and I would sit up in bed, holding my cramping muscles, looking around the cabin for something I could eat.”

In the end, however, this is not a survival story. Punzel is with her increasingly crazy father in the wilderness for nine years, until she turns seventeen. Perhaps the spoiler is obvious to you from this bare outline of the plot. It did not occur to me that this single point was going to be the only point of the book; I kept thinking that the book was going to be about something other than the obvious. But no. Here it is, the big secret of this book: Punzel kills her father, walks out of the wilderness, gets back to her mother, and is revealed to be pregnant by the only man she’s ever known.

I don’t know about you, but I call that a disappointment. It’s like I read a whole book when I could have just been told “the moral of the story.”

Well, if you’ve read this far, now you know. Save yourself the few pleasures of this story, which come to nothing, in the end. No one is changed by how Punzel managed to survive, both mentally and physically. She goes back to London and conventional life, where they call her “Peggy” again and she safety-pins a skirt around her waist in preparation for shocking her friends and family.

Have you ever spent hours of your life on a story that fell apart at the end? It’s not just about the moral–at the very end of the credits for the movie Dr. Strange, there’s a warning about not “driving while distracted,” which is kind of funny in its understatement. But the moral of Our Endless Numbered Days is massively reductive, especially in light of that wonderfully paradoxical title.



December 5, 2016

I’m not a big fan of Connie Willis; I think her novels are over-written and like many successful writers in the modern era, she could use a good editor. Despite its length, though, I liked reading Crosstalk.

Set in a not-very-distant future, Crosstalk is the story of a woman named Briddey who is from a close family and works at a company called Commspan with a peculiar man called C.B. and her boss Trent, who she is dating.

Briddey’s family irritated me at the beginning, always calling and interfering. I couldn’t understand why she let them intrude on her the way they do. They have opinions on what Briddey does during every moment of her day. They first big decision they weigh in on is the “EED” Briddey and Trent are planning. We don’t know what an “EED” is at first, but everyone seems to think it’s very romantic and they mention that the doctor who will perform it “did Brad and Angelina’s” and “he did Caitlyn Jenner’s….And Kim Kardashian’s.” (Sadly, this 2016 novel is already out of date in its listing of couples in the future.) We later find out that an “EED” is a “neurological enhancement” which “increases your ability to connect emotionally with your partner” and that it requires surgery.

C.B.–who works in the basement of Commspan, a place with no cellphone coverage, even for their own special “voice-texting function” which “was designed specifically for areas with poor reception”–tries to talk Briddey out of the EED. He tells her that “Commspan promises…more communication. But that isn’t what people want. They’ve got way too much already—laptops, smartphones, tablets, social media. They’ve got connectivity coming out their ears.” C.B. tells her about apps he is working on for less connectivity, since “you used to be able to say you couldn’t get to the phone in time or didn’t get their message…but thanks to advances in communications technology, those excuses won’t work anymore.” But Briddey doesn’t really listen to anything he says, any more than she listens to her sister Mary Clare, who weighs in on the proposed EED by commenting “I just don’t understand the attraction to a man who insists on brain surgery as some kind of prenuptial.”

Immediately after her surgery, Briddey finds that although she can’t sense Trent’s feelings, she can hear the thoughts of C.B., who turns out to have been able to hear other peoples’ thoughts since puberty. He thinks at her “I told you it could have unintended consequences” and then proceeds to pick her up from the hospital and comfort her. Eventually he teaches her how to deal with the increasingly disconcerting number of thoughts she can hear from other people.

Briddey isn’t the brightest bulb on the porch so the middle part of the novel is very long, as she figures out things like why she shouldn’t go out in public places before she’s learned to control her mind-reading and why Trent actually wanted her to get the EED in the first place (minor spoiler: it’s not because he’s in love). C.B. is endlessly patient with her as she figures it all out (my theory about this is that she’s the most empty-headed female he’s ever met, and he likes the quiet).

There’s some minor skirmishing at the end, involving Trent’s determination to control the new market in mind-reading communications and the answering determination of C.B. and Briddey’s family—who all turn out to be mind-readers—to stop him. It’s an enjoyable 498-page book, and would have been even better told at less length.

The Dinner

November 30, 2016

Okay, horrible, nasty people. Grouchy convalescents. Thieves and murderers. Third-party voters. Have I got a book for you!

My imaginary friend Nancy sent me The Dinner by Herman Koch (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett) as a present after reading about how horrible I was feeling during my protracted convalescence after knee surgery, and how surly reading about too-nice-to-be-true characters like the ones in A Man Called Ove was making me feel. This book calmed me right down, much the way my best friend in high school used to do it (“Jeanne,” she would say, pulling me down to her eye level and looking intensely into my eyes for a minute before intoning, “God hates you.” This used to kind of, you know, um, put things into better perspective). This book came with a handwritten note warning me that “the people in this book are all awful.”

The Dinner takes place during the course (and courses) of a fancy restaurant dinner for four. It is narrated by a man named Paul who is having dinner with his wife, Claire, his sister-in-law, Babette, and his brother, Serge, who is a famous politician. The narrator himself, we find out, was formerly employed as a teacher but let go because of a psychiatric condition, one that turns out to be inheritable (at least according to the narrator, who we cannot trust at all).

At first we think the narrator’s resentment of his brother’s fame might be warranted, especially because we recognize the type:
“You have big politicos who like to work in the kitchen, who collect old comic books or have a wooden boat they’ve fixed up all by themselves. The hobby they choose usually clashes entirely with the face that goes with it, going completely against the grain of what everyone has made of them till then. The worst stick-in-the-mud, someone with all the charisma of a sheet of cardboard, suddenly turns out to cook splendid French meals at home in his free time; the next weekend supplement of the national newspaper features him in full color on the cover, his knitted oven mitts holding up a casserole filled with Provencal meatloaf. The most striking thing about the stick-in-the-mud, besides his apron with a reproduction of a Toulouse-Lautrec poster, is his completely implausible smile, meant to convey the joy of cooking to his constituency.”

Soon, though, we begin to suspect that something is not quite right. Maybe it’s the convoluted thought process the narrator reveals in telling us why he ordered the “warm goat’s cheese with lamb’s lettuce” as an appetizer, even though he reveals that he doesn’t like goat’s cheese. Maybe it’s his reaction to being invited to his brother’s summer home in the Dordogne, where, he says:
“I thought about Straw Dogs and Deliverance, films that come to mind whenever I am out in the sticks, but never more than here, in the Dordogne, on the hilltop where my brother and his wife had created what they called ‘their little French paradise.’ In Straw Dogs, the local population—after limiting themselves at first to a little badgering—take horrible revenge on the newcomers who think they’ve bought a cute little house in the English countryside. In Deliverance, it’s the American hillbillies who rudely interrupt a group of city slickers on a canoeing trip. Rape and murder feature prominently in both films.”

Definitely we know something is off when we get the narrator’s—and his wife’s—lack of reaction to recognizing their son Michel as one of the boys caught on a video that is being shown on the news; the boys are setting a homeless woman on fire.

We begin to learn how Paul has taught his son that it’s perfectly all right to indulge in what any sane person would call unwarranted and over-the-top displays of homicidal rage. We get more details about the horrific crime Michel has committed, along with his cousin, Serge’s son. And then we start to realize that another crime is occurring while the desserts are being served, and that no one around this table deserves any of our sympathy.

As readers, we almost start to see the narrator’s point, the point he was trying to make in the rant that results in him being let go from his job as a history teacher:
“In a group of one hundred people, how many assholes are there? How many fathers who humiliate their children? How many morons whose breath stinks like rotten meat but who refuse to do anything about it? How many hopeless cases who go on complaining all their lives about the nonexistent injustices they’ve had to suffer? Look around you, I said. How many of your classmates would you be pleased not to see return to their desks tomorrow morning? Think about that one member of your own family, that irritating uncle with his pointless horseshit stories at birthday parties, that ugly cousin who mistreats his cat. Think about how relieved you would be—and not only you, but virtually the entire family—if that uncle or cousin would step on a land mine or be hit by a five-hundred-pounder dropped from a high altitude.”

But because the narrator of this book is so awful, readers learn to resist his point of view. And that’s a good thing, especially in this post-election world. So try reading The Dinner when you are feeling misanthropic, mean, and miserable. I did, and it was a transformative experience–who can feel all that terrible in the middle of realizing that the person through whose eyes she is seeing is truly quite terrible? Not me! Thanks, Nancy!

Mister Monkey

November 29, 2016

Mister Monkey, by Francine Prose, tells the story of a children’s play and the stories of its cast and audience members, who pass each other on the streets of New York City. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, and a bigger story emerges as we see how each character views the moments when their lives intersect.

First we see the play from Margot’s point of view. She is an older actress reduced to a comic character in a children’s play, and she resents it, longing instead for more parts like the one she played at Yale, Sonya in Uncle Vanya. When she thinks of those days, she believes that “the fact that Margot got the part of Sonya proves that she hasn’t imagined or invented the promising girl she used to be.”

The next point of view is the monkey’s, played by “a twelve-year-old actor and gymnast and singer the size of an eight-year-old who can take direction like a grown-up and do triple flips” and who has fully embraced his character while also struggling with puberty to the point that he is driven to add a bit of mayhem to each night’s performance:
“He wants to spit or sneeze into his paw so that, at the end of the song, when Jason and Danielle skip out onto the stage and dance his sorrows away in a fruitcake jitterbug, each of them will grab his paw and get a slimy surprise. Adam knows it’s a terrible thing to want. Does it make him a terrible person?”
Adam has a crush on Margot, which manifests itself at each performance by his terrorizing her on stage. She, of course, has no idea.

One of the saddest points of view is that of the grandfather who took his young grandson—a child who talks in the theater–to see the play. When he takes the grandson home, he is invited to stay for dinner, along with a number of affluent NYC parents, and all they can talk about is their children. The grandfather is a retired curator of paintings and when his conversational ventures keep falling flat, he finally resorts to sarcasm when a woman asks if a painter he has mentioned is “anyone I would have heard of?” His reply, which he is immediately sorry for, is “tell me all the painters you’ve heard of, and I’ll stop you when you get there.” Later we hear about this dinner from the grandson, Edward, who thinks that he “did hear his grandfather try to change the subject from Hugo eating a candy bar to peanut allergies in general. No one understood what he was saying. They just thought he was a goofy old man.”

Even sadder is the story of a nice girl named Sonya who teaches kindergarten and one night accepts a blind date, during which she gets a text meant for one of her date’s friends saying “Dude, on the scale of one to ten, she’s a 4.” In a later chapter, however, told from the point of view of the waiter, whose name is Mario, we see what else was happening:
“If the girl’s a keeper, he’ll do a thumbs-up when he hands me the wine menu, and I’m supposed to bring him something high on the list. But if she’s a dog….we go to Plan B. I bring the guy something drinkable but cheap. Check, please. Call it a night.
So the girl arrives. She’s pretty, beautiful skin, everything about her is sweet sweet sweet, but….She looks like a kindergarten teacher instead of the lingerie model the guy obviously has in mind. He knows, and she knows, and Enzo and I know, and everyone in the restaurant knows she’s not what he thinks he deserves. So I bring them a bottle that’s rated ten out of ten by the staff for the red most likely to give you a crippling sinus headache.”

We get a little of the story of the author of the children’s book that the play is based on, a man named Ray who is introduced while riding in a NYC taxi, when
“the driver asks Ray if he wants to let the evening in. It takes Ray a while to understand what he means. It’s a goddamn poem. By all means let in the evening….The driver pushes a button, the windows roll down. Has someone told him that evening is English for the carbon monoxide, grit, and whatever airborne toxins blast into the car as they stop at the red light at Park and 125th? English for the bone-shaking rattle from the train trestle, the smell of stewing garbage, the half-delicious, half-crematorial smoke from the halal food truck, and a plume of rage from the mother pushing a stroller halfway into the intersection: her semaphoric fuck you to the traffic? What blows in through the open window is like a concerto in which each musician is playing whatever note he wants, all of them playing at once.”

It turns out that Ray, a Vietnam vet, wrote a sweet little children’s book about an orphaned monkey who finds a happy life with a family in NYC as part of his effort to banish a horrific image from the war:
“The family of dead monkeys beside the path through the jungle. The dad and mom and two baby monkeys hung from the trees, in nooses, executed, like humans. What sick fuck would do that?”

And it turns out that Mario the waiter is a big fan of live theater:
“He’s often wanted to say something after a play, to wait near the stage door and tel an actor or director how much he’d admired the show. But he’s never known how to begin. Just the thought of it makes his heart race.”
Ray gives Mario tickets to every new production of Mister Monkey, and we find out that he has seen the play so many times he can now “overlook the imbecilic plot and find out if the director has done anything interesting with the unpromising hand he’s been dealt.”

Of course, it turns out that Mario thinks Margot is splendid in her role in the latest production of Mister Monkey, and “he wants to tell her about the production of Uncle Vanya that made him fall in love with the theater.”
And of course in the end, Margot and Mario find each other–mostly because of an anonymous letter with a quotation from Chekhov that the director of the play wrote to the costume designer but then sent to Margot one day when she looked like she needed something to lift her spirits.

Interestingly told and intricately plotted, Mister Monkey is fun, fast-paced, and clever.

Karen Memory

November 22, 2016

Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory, recommended by Stefanie of So Many Books, was my favorite of the books I read while convalescing after knee surgery.

I also read Gena/Finn by Moskowitz and Helgeson, which was like reading a series of Tumblr posts, Pretty Wicked by Kelly Charron, which has an evil narrator who is so straightforward that I don’t have much to say about her story, The Beautiful Possible by Amy Gottlieb, which is very Jewish and also about marital infidelity, War for the Oaks, by Emma Bull, which has some great modern descriptions of fairies and fairyland, and Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina, which didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know but made me donate to a fund for African elephants. I don’t think I’ll get around to writing any more about these books, although I’m certainly willing to talk about them if you’re interested.

Even though I am not a particular fan of steampunk, I enjoyed the fast pace and the amusing alternate future of Karen Memory. Karen is a girl making her own way in the world since her father, a rancher, died, and she earns her living having sex with men–although during the events of the story she tells, she falls in love with another girl. Karen works at a house she calls “Madame Damnable’s Sewing Circle,” where the girls like and support each other and their Madame.

Karen’s voice is charming and oddly innocent. She says
“Girls in my profession know a little too much about men. The ones who want to know a woman as a person are fewer than you’d hope, and most of those don’t even realize it about themselves. They don’t care who a woman is, or what she’s scared of, or who she wants to become. They think they want a woman, but what they really want is a flattering looking glass wearing lipstick and telling them what they want to hear. Easy enough for me; it’s my job, ain’t it?”

I especially like Karen’s matter-of-fact description of one of her co-workers: “the thing about Miss Francina is that Miss Francina’s got a pecker under her dress. But that ain’t nothing but God’s rude joke. She’s one of us girls every way that matters, and handy for a bouncer, besides.”

The steampunk elements add a whimsical touch to the story:
“I flipped open the morning paper to check the Mad Science Report. No experiments were scheduled, and no duels had been announced—at least among the Licensed Scientists—but you never knowed when a giant automaton was going to run rogue unscheduled.”

In fact, the girls have several unusual machines in the house, including a “surgery machine—it hissed and clanked like a steam engine” and a sewing machine that Karen ends up having to use as a weapon. Another of their machines is a “kitchen gadget” that “scrubbed and sliced and stirred and scraped, its octopus arms going every which way.”

The villain of the story, Bantle, has a machine that makes people work his will, and he is using it to get himself into a position of power in the town. Madame Damnable and her girls, along with their bouncer Crispin, a black lawman from out of town, Marshall Reeves, and his partner, an Indian named Tomoatooah, oppose Bantle’s machinations (ha, see what I did there?).

Eventually they find Bantle is involved in a scheme so nefarious it goes beyond their little town, and they also foil that bigger plot–and a bigger, sea-going machine:
“They was tentacles, arms like an octopus, only jointed metal and big as tree trunks, and instead of suckers they had big, jagged barbs or teeth like God’s own bread knife.”

The culmination of the story is Karen’s narration of her own heroic run through the town inside a special sewing machine to which some of the other women in the house have made alterations (yeah, turns out it’s impossible to describe this book without the puns):
“their tinkering had turned it into the next best thing to a one-woman ironclad. The gyroscopes meant all I had to do was keep the feet rising and falling….Bullets commenced to rattle and spark off the stones around me, and one or two ricocheted off my galvanized trash bin lids.”

There’s an epilogue, in which we find out how everyone on Karen’s side lives happily ever after. Karen gets the girl. Virtue prevails. It’s great fun.

At this point, I have decided I am done convalescing—I started walking more, still using at least one crutch, and found that the more I walk, the more I can walk. So I am trying to walk a little further every day. I even made it into part of an enormous grocery store and hauled out a 15-pound turkey (with some help!) in preparation for Eleanor and Walker coming home for Thanksgiving dinner this week.

The bustle in a house

November 21, 2016

img_1770“Sometimes,” said Pooh, “the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.” One of our small things was our fifteen-year-old cat Sabrina, who died on Saturday. She hated winter, and literally died rather than face another one. She was that kind of cat, stubborn and willful and terrible, really terrible.

I fell in love with her at first sight. She was in a cage at the local humane society, where she had spent all of a couple of hours, and I saw her, opened the door, and took her home. I didn’t even consult Ron. I just had to add her to our household, where she never got along very well with any of our other cats.

img_3632The kids loved her, despite her always-somewhat-prickly temperament. Eleanor drew comics about her rodent-catching exploits, an entire series she entitled “Sabrina, Feline Phantom” because she was the best hunter any of us had ever seen. Walker, only five when he met her, soon learned how aloof she could act one minute, and how demanding the next.

Ron loved her because of or in spite of how inconvenient she would make herself, especially on her occasional forays onto his lap late at night, when he was trying to type. She would make herself at home on the lap and then absolutely forbid any movement or cessation of petting from the lap provider.

img_3493She was always our lookout at the front of the house, perched on the back of the sofa in front of the picture window in winter, and basking in the sun on our front porch in decent weather, which she defined narrowly (for Ohio) as any sunny day above 75 degrees.

She was a drama queen, as we found out the first time we took her to the vet for a checkup. If she had to have a rabies shot, she would swoon for the rest of the day afterwards (if you’ve never seen a cat swoon, it consists mostly of getting up and lying yourself down again heavily whenever someone else comes in the room). I’d swear sometimes she actually put her paw to her forehead.

img_3199She was part sealpoint Siamese, and part something else, which resulted in a mix that is called “lynxpoint.” We have had three cats that looked like that and had different mixtures of the fierce and loving disposition that seems to go along with the beautiful gray coat and blue eyes.

You’ve never seen anything more fierce than Sabrina on the prowl. Or Sabrina wanting you to pet her–in her old age, she would curl up with Eleanor in her bed and would carefully insert a claw into a tender place, like an armpit, whenever she decided it was time for Eleanor to wake up or turn her attention from whatever else she was doing and pet her.

The cat reminded me of my mother, especially as they both aged. They were both fierce in their love and anything they pursued, and they were equal parts prickly and fascinating. (Also they would really hate it that I would compare either of them to anyone else, ever.)

We wrapped the small body in a blanket and put it in a box. Ron dug her grave where she used to sit in the sunshine. We buried her in the snow, and then we went back inside, where Tristan and Pippin are watching us as we clean up and put away some of the her things, thinking of the Emily Dickinson poem:

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth–

The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.

img_4155-1This is the last photo I took of Sabrina, on Wednesday. She had hopped up on the table where I was typing at my computer and gotten in between me and the keyboard, lying on some papers (which I eventually had to pull out from under her) while alternately biting at my hands and butting them with her head to get me to do the right thing and get to work on petting her.

Now that Sabrina has become an actual feline phantom, I know I’ll continue to see her in shadow at the front of our house. We will never know another small soul so fierce and beautiful and vigilant.

Liminal Lives: Just Mercy and Hillbilly Elegy

November 13, 2016

I’m teaching a class about how to teach writing, and the students just turned in their “Critical Comparison” essays, in which we (the class is team-taught) ask them to put two articles about writing “into conversation” with each other.

That made me think about how, in the wake of the recent presidential election, I should deal with two of the books on my tall “read but not written about” stack–one is Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, published in 2016 and reviewed in the New Yorker and at The American Conservative,* where you’ll also find an interview with the author. The other one is Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, published in 2014 and reviewed in the New York Times. I went to hear Stevenson speak this fall at Kenyon, where he told a few of the stories from his book.

What do these two books have in common? Their focus is on people who are on the margins of American society–the “hillbillies” and the incarcerated. In the past few decades, the lives of such people have become increasingly fragile, sometimes breaking on the rocks of one car accident, one company closing down, or one family member getting sick.

Stevenson tells us that “the prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.” His book is about “our system’s disturbing indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of unfair prosecutions and convictions.” I don’t see any of that getting better in the next four years unless all the people I know who are not indifferent can manage to work towards making everyone else in this country less comfortable and less tolerant of injustice towards the lives of people they mostly never see, or never realize they are seeing.

In Just Mercy, Stevenson also relates a number of disturbing stories about women being sent to jail because someone suspected they were pregnant and later asked where their babies were—one woman had suffered a traumatic miscarriage at home, while another, it turned out, “had a tubal ligation five years prior to her arrest.” In Alabama, he says, in 2006, they passed a law that made it a felony to expose a child to a “dangerous environment,” subsequently interpreting “the term environment to include the womb and the term child to include a fetus,” so that “pregnant women could now be criminally prosecuted and sent to prison for decades if there was any evidence that they had used drugs at any point during their pregnancy,” presumably including the first two months, when a woman doesn’t always know she is pregnant (although Arizona law currently says that pregnancy starts two weeks before conception).

Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy gives us a look at “the way our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state” and the effect this had on the “psychology and community and culture and faith” of people left in small towns where factories have shut down. He quotes from The Truly Disadvantaged by William Julius Wilson, saying that while Wilson was writing about black people in the inner city, the description “struck a nerve” because it also describes the places Vance grew up:
“the people left behind were trapped in towns and cities that could no longer support such large populations with high-quality work. Those who could—generally the well educated, wealthy, or well connected—left, leaving behind communities of poor people. These remaining folks were the ‘truly disadvantaged,’—unable to find good jobs on their own and surrounded by communities that offered little in the way of connections or social support.”

Vance argues that “what separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.” He says, “my dad, for example, has never disparaged hard work, but he mistrusts some of the most obvious paths to upward mobility. When he found out that I had decided to go to Yale Law, he asked whether, on my applications, I had ‘pretended to be black or liberal.’ This is how low the cultural expectations of working-class white Americans have fallen.”

At one point, Vance describes his experience as a military veteran sitting in a college class (at OSU, in Columbus, Ohio) and having to listen “as a nineteen-year-old classmate…spouted off about the Iraq war. He explained that those fighting the war were typically less intelligent than those (like him) who immediately went to college.” At another point he tells about “the first (and last) time I took a Yale friend to Cracker Barrel. In my youth, it was the height of fine dining—my grandma’s and my favorite restaurant. With Yale friends, it was a greasy public health crisis.” For many people reading this book, those are familiar attitudes.

Most of us don’t think about such attitudes as smug, although they are. I’ve been realizing, after reading “The Smug Style in American Liberalism,” how smug I have been, and how smug most of the people who surround me are. I’m working on trying to change.

The list of things that Vance says he didn’t know when he got to law school is sobering:
“That you needed to wear a suit to a job interview.
That wearing a suit large enough to fit a silverback gorilla was inappropriate.
That a butter knife wasn’t just decorative (after all, anything that requires a butter knife can be done better with a spoon or an index finger).
That pleather and leather were different substances.
That your shoes and belt should match.
That certain cities and states had better job prospects.
That going to a nicer college brought benefits outside of bragging rights.
That finance was an industry that people worked in.”

How can anyone who works in higher education fail to be concerned? We don’t realize how small a fraction of the population of our own country we are reaching in the classes we teach, and so we have created an academic elite that is nearly as ignorant about the lives of people like Vance as he was about the lives of his classmates in law school, and almost entirely untouched by the lives of people behind bars–unless we read a book about them, like Stevenson’s, or have a friend who volunteers in a prison (and my friend who volunteers says that watching Orange is the New Black doesn’t really count).

Since Stevenson’s book was published, I think more Americans have become aware that “black and brown boys routinely have multiple encounters with the police. Even though many of these children have done nothing wrong, they are targeted by police, presumed guilty, and suspected by law enforcement of being dangerous or engaged in criminal activity. The random stops, questioning, and harassment dramatically increase the risk of arrest for petty crimes. Many of these children develop criminal records for behavior that more affluent children engage in with impunity.”
But unless you put a face on this, the face of a child you are personally fond of, you’ll continue to see this as a political problem, rather than a personal one, and you’ll continue to think of helping people who aren’t like you as charity, rather than necessity.

Stevenson points out that “we’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak–not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken.” And because so many of us don’t know anyone like these people we’re imprisoning. Actually, in his speech at Kenyon, Stevenson emphasized that it’s important for Americans to get to know some people they wouldn’t ordinarily encounter–he calls it “getting proximate.”

In light of the election results (and some of the seriously comic takes on it, like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock’s brilliant SNL sketch), I think we’re each going to have to expand our thinking in order to find ways to invite the fragile people on the margins farther in, to become a more cohesive society. And if we’re serious about it, we’re each going to have to either invest a lot of our time or a lot more of our money.

Many of my friends are deeply invested in their careers, and most of them are inside the ivory tower, so they will have to choose the money option. But that’s not going to be enough. It’s time for more of us to realize that we have to find new ways of thinking about others—for one thing, we have to stop making our smug liberal jokes, both because it’s time to break the habit and because we can’t talk on the one hand about how we value “first generation” college students and on the other hand make jokes that belittle their families and ways of life right in front of them (they don’t look different–I’ve heard liberals on my campus make smug liberal jokes in front of first-gen students without a clue that not everyone in their audience was brought up exactly as they were).  And on social media, as Emmitt Rensin points out (in “The Smug Style in American Liberalism,” link above),”The rubes have seen your videos. You posted it on their wall.” Those of us in the “academic elite” need to become more aware of the ways we are displaying blatant lack of respect for other people.

It’s not enough for any of us to wear a “Black Lives Matter” button or a safety pin and go about our usual business. It’s not enough for an academic to put a sign advertising her support for minority students on her office door. I’m not sure what will be enough, but what is required of us in the future that will begin unfolding now is a lot more than many of us have been willing to give before.


*In case you’re wondering whether I read The American Conservative, the answer is that I do read it occasionally, mostly because I consider Rod Dreher–whose opinions don’t often agree with my own–a friend. We agree about loving the books of Walker Percy; he is the prime organizer of the annual Walker Percy festival in St. Francisville, LA each June.

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