Poverty or working-class America in 2015 may not be the tip-of-the tongue, sexy subjects we look for from writers of contemporary fiction. However, these may also be just the sorts of subject the writers of our times need to address. To begin his November 2013 Opinion piece for the New York Times, Mark Rank, Professor of Social Welfare at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote “Few topics in American society have more myths and stereotypes surrounding them than poverty.” He went on to discuss how a typical individual in the United States will experience a year or two of poverty. Despite the fact that many will experience at least a short turn in it, our attitudes towards poverty are less nuanced than the reality. Rank writes, “The common explanation for poverty has emphasized a lack of motivation, the failure to work hard enough and poor decision making in life.” If our writers reflect back to us the conditions and culture we live in, it’s worth considering writing about poor America, rural America, and the America that has emerged from the 2008 financial crisis.
The middle class suburbs of 20th Century writers, like John Cheever and John Updike, can’t hold, and continue to be gutted out, leaving us without a firm grounding. Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson, writing earlier this year, asks, “With construction weak, manufacturing evaporating, and routinized work going digital, has the U.S. economy run out of crutches for the middle class?” Given the uncertainty of our times, who makes art out of this shaky ground, to whom we can look to reflect, interpret, shape, and inform a culture experiencing such flux?
With skill and authenticity, two recent fiction collections, Ann Pancake’s Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Mothers, Tell Your Daughters present us with human and compelling portraits of the America that has come to be.
Pancake roots her writing in West Virginia, in the pillaged physical landscape and the complicated inner lives of her characters. Never stereotype or caricature, Pancake’s portrait of the Mountain State is nuanced between what her characters have and what they yearn for. In her opening novella, “In Such Light” Pancake directly confronts the haves and have-nots of Remington, West Virginia: “The one day in May when the Alexander Henry had done all its summer hiring, Janie had stood in line with seventy other people, many in their Sunday clothes, her seeing the country in those clothes.” She deftly describes the job-seekers as, “gaunt men with white shirts bunched at their waists, younger men in pool-blue leisure suits and tennis shoes. Women wearing double-knit slacks in tropical colors and faux silk shirts, others humped into dresses, their legs battened down in thick brown hose.” This is followed by an important observation, “The people who needed the money the least ended up getting the jobs.” Thus, Pancake introduces us to the once prosperous town of Remington, 1983. And while it reflects an older version, Pancake’s details could be used to describe many modern-day West Virginia towns.
The protagonist of “In Such Light,” Janie, staying with her grandparents in “prosperous” Remington on her summer break from college, avoids McCloud County, whose fate, Janie tells us, is far less favorable. “Remington, West Virginia, Janie saw as real life. The life real people lived and the one she’d reach after she suffered and struggled through the one she’d accidentally been plunked in as a baby.”
Although Janie sees Remington as a place of prosperity, Pancake’s watchful eye to physical landscape reminds us it’s not. On a motorcycle ride with her summer boyfriend, Janie takes in the details that reveal a ravaged landscape. First the environmental damage active outside of town:
With Nathan, she traveled under horizons of coal power plants, heaving up out of their own steam and effluvium like daymare mirages, menacing unoccupied castles, the cooling towers monstrous squat beakers, some mutation out of a chemistry set. The oil refineries with their perverse metal trees, overtall, spindly, their flares rippling, biblical, each crown a sterile altar. They ripped past hulks of plants even more mysterious, seeping noxious stenches that gummed the roof of your mouth, many of the buildings painted a color that matched their stink, putrescent chartreuses, vomitous creams.
If the active damage wasn’t enough, Pancake layers on with the description of the abandoned or near-abandoned places that once housed work:
These were the places that used to make things, not chemicals, electricity, gasoline, but things you could actually touch, and now the vegetation rising, the weeds shrouding, pressing, fecund, wanton, “plants” and “plants” Janie’d think in her alcohol haze, noticing for the first time how the word had been stolen, but ultimately the plants had won.
In other stories, Pancake continues to allow her characters and settings to reveal the realities of Appalachia. In “Arsonists” We meet Dell, who “was pushing sixty, had taken early retirement, and where were their life savings? Right in there in the house. Like a big pile of money blowing away littler and littler with every exposition, every dust cloud, every coal truck crashing through town.” Meanwhile, the residents in town are treated to COAL KEEPS THE LIGHTS ON signs placed all around town as a reminder who is king, even as this “king” withdraws from its subjects the crutches of stable jobs, good wages, and even the quiet and safety of small town life. Complicating the story is how one makes a living in this place; Dell, along with his tortured friend Kenny, spent years as both underground and strip miners. “And they’d been proud of what they did,” Dell muses. “They made America’s electricity, the kept on the lights. The money they earned raised their kids comfortable, like they deserved, way beyond how him and Kenny’d come up, refurbished Dell’s old company house to modern, built Kenny’s from the foundation up.” Coal companies — big business — both giveth and taketh away well beyond the motivations of its former workers. Pancake paints vivid portraits of life after the boom of coal towns. By the time we get to the final story in the collection, the title story, we meet the very young Mish, who grows up in a landscape of far-away drives to Wal-Mart and Dallas Cowboy coats, “reaching almost to his knees on one end and to his ears on the other…a couple of sizes too big so you can grow into it.” There’s no middle ground or middle class on which to stand, and Pancake invites us into their world with honesty laced with compassion.
Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Michigan might seem far away from Pancake’s West Virginia, but the landscape of the characters bears resemblance. Characters eke out livings in the spaces salvaged from earlier excess. With Campbell, however, plucky characters voice their discontent. The narrator of “Playhouse” helps her brother, Steve, construct a playhouse for his daughter as he rants about ineffective politics: “If it’s up to those fuckers, we got no taxes and no labor laws, no unions and no EPA. You know, I have to think about the environmental shit now, with Pinky in the picture.”
Brash as they can be, Campbell’s characters don’t just rant. These are people who also yearn. At the end of “Tell Yourself” Campbell’s pitch-perfect details paint a ragged-edged kind of beauty:
You heat the oven for fish sticks for the boys, something you give them when their sister isn’t here, and you slice potatoes to bake alongside. You liked cooking for Stan, who was appreciative of a homemade meal of any kind, even fish sticks once when that was all you had. Sometimes when you were watching TV after dinner, Stan patted his thighs and invited you to sit on his big lap and relax. Sitting that way with his strong arms around you, with his belly pressing into the small of your back like a support cushion, made you forget about the day’s appalling customers, the aches from negotiating washing machines into place, made you forget even about the way the passing years have thickened your body and lined your face.
Campbell’s use of the second-person point-of-view heightens the effect that these fish sticks, this hard work, and this imperfect intimacy could be the reader’s as easily as it could be the main character’s reality. Wishes turn humble. As readers, we are not allowed a vantage point to assess poor decision-making but are placed into this world as active participant, as if it could be our own fate.
Middle America, often called the heartland, grounds these stories, and family is often squarely centered in this heartbeat. Campbell treads the familiar terrain of the domestic in her fiction, but without degrading it or valorizing it. Her portraits draw us into both the loving and the fallible in characters and their relationships to each other. Most of the characters’ foibles manifest as a result of their poverty, their existences eked out at the margins, striving for but missing the stability of the middle class. Like in Pancake, hard work is a given in many of Campbell’s stories, jobs at box stores or as truckers, even in health care, where the promise of good jobs has been decimated by cost-cutting measures. Marika, the protagonist of “Blood Work, 1999” supplements her income as a phlebotomist with the free meals she gets serving at the Good Works Kitchen, where she observes, “Though most of the patrons were men, a few tables were reserved for families.”
One of the hallmarks of Mothers, Tell Your Daughters is Campbell’s use of humor, often dark humor. She begins the title story with a wry narrator, whose voice teeters between funny and sad:
Used to be a doctor would wrap a woman up tight to hold body and soul together, but when I fell last week trying to get to the kitchen to pour myself a drink, they just untangled my tubes, picked me up like I was a child, and put me back in this awful bed. Told me I’d had a stroke.
The irony of this narrator is that she cannot actually speak; only the reader is privy to this character’s thoughts. She only hopes her daughter can somehow intuit her dramatic monologue. “You ought to get us some elderberry wine from the root cellar so we can sit together, you lifting the jelly jar to my lips. You remember the good old days, when I could drink and smoke all night, when I could feed more kids than any woman alive and love a man better.” Roughhewn though she may be, this woman calls out to have her stories heard, to expose not only her own bravado but the harrowing moments, such as when she “saw my own mama die in the Kalamazoo Asylum for the Insane.”
Many of this narrator’s stories are rooted in her work as a mother, longing for her lost domesticity. “Strange to think, watching you wash my dishes, I’ll never stand there at that sink again, never put my old hands in the warm soapy water.” She continues in this vein, proud of the hardships overcome:
Haven’t had a clothes dryer since mine broke in 1972, so I’ve hung my clothes on the line in all seasons. In winter they freeze dried, and in spring they smelled of pond thaw, and sometimes in summer I’d find them streaked with bird shit. When this farm was thriving, when I was thriving, I used to dress out chickens, used to wire their feet to the clothesline and slit their throats. You used to think me hardhearted, but you ate the meat, same as your brothers.
In this, and other stories in the collection, the build-up of the narrative is towards danger. In “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” as the narrator conjures up her memories, in her hardened way she also discloses her sorrows. In her silent-to-her-daughter-but-not-silent-to-us acknowledgement of how one of her lovers molested this daughter, she extends an anger-laced and thin apology. “And if we’ve all got to spill our ugly feelings in this life, you ought to know I was mad as hell about it. What did you, a kid, have to offer a man? I had steak to cook for him.” Daughters in peril, toughened mothers unable to help them, and the two in twisted competition are shown as regular after-effects of the hardscrabble lives throughout Mothers, Tell Your Daughters. Campbell, much like Pancake, doesn’t judge, but exposes, and in these revelations we see all aspects of survival instincts — from decent to ugly, and too often, necessary and urgent.
“I dream someday that my son and daughter and I will have our own home, a comfortable, well-lit place nobody can take away from us, where each of us has our own room and closet and where our kitchen cupboards are stocked with nutritious goodies.” This desire from the narrator of “To You, as a Woman” feels simple. And yet, given the struggles this character and others in both Campbell and Pancake, invoking the stability and security of decent shelter and healthy food feels monumental. Sherry, the protagonist of Campbell’s “Somewhere Warm” takes a fulltime cashier job working at Meijer, a giant box store and grocery chain in the Upper Midwest, when her children are young and her stable family life disintegrates. It’s all she can do to make it work. Pancake’s Calvin Bergdoll, a retired social worker, considers if he can continue to eat sausage biscuits at McDonald’s when the price is raised from ninety-nine cents to a dollar twenty nine in “Sugar’s Up.” In both, economic conditions shape who these characters are and how they come to live the lives they do.
Both authors, through careful and thoughtful renditions don’t hit us over the head with the realities of their characters, but do us a far greater service by drawing them out in such a way that makes us care about them, and care about their distinctive corners of Appalachian or the Upper Midwest. In the patchwork of American topography, perhaps we’d like to turn a blind eye to what these soiled sections, but neither Pancake nor Campbell let us look away or let us see only what’s been damaged. In both we feel the alienation and deterioration left by corporate greed and box store indifference. And yet, in both, we are afforded the greatest luxury of all. Hope.
Renée K. Nicholson is the author of the poetry collection Roundabout Directions to Lincoln Center and Assistant Professor in the Multidisciplinary Studies Program at West Virginia University. A frequent book reviewer for Los Angeles Review, her work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Poets & Writers, Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.reneenicholson.com.