This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books
Book: The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats
Author: Jim Goad
Type of Book: Non-fiction, Sociology
Why I Consider This Book Odd: Truly, this may not be a wholly odd book. But Goad himself, while not full-bore odd, is in my little odd book, and since I reviewed his book Shit Magnet on this site, I figured I should keep all my Goad reviews together. Also, since I plan to give my two cents on the ANSWER Me! collection over here, and that is a decidedly odd experience, it seems like a good plan to keep my Goad grouped. In other words, my site, my flexible criteria.
Availability: Published in 1998, Simon & Schuster still have it in print. You can get a copy here:
Comments: This is a verbose and highly personal reaction to a book. Don’t send me any e-mails complaining TL;DR. If reading long-form is not your thing, just save yourself some time and hie yourself on over to Twitter and find out what someone ate for breakfast or what they think of the newest electronic whatever, okay?
I read this book a while back and reread it recently. Damnation, did it make me think hard this go around. I initially read it because I walk an uneasy line between two worlds and wanted a take on being white trash that did not demonize it. I got a college education, I seem sort of middle class, but the fact is, deep in my heart, I am still the little white trash girl I was when I was born. My daddy was poor white trash, and mean with it, a Coors-clutching racist who genuinely thought black welfare queens were the reason he could not get ahead in life.
My mama was poor white (though not trash, certainly nuts and willing to put up with a mean, mean man for many, many years), and though we lived in the suburbs of Dallas in a relatively affluent area, I was always acutely aware I was the other. The crappy rental house where I dealt with bad plumbing, crumbling walls, roaches and even on a few occasions, rats, still haunts me to this day and is likely one of the reasons I am a clean freak. My clothes were not up to snuff until I started working and getting my own money to buy them. My hygiene, while not bad, was not as aggressive as my squeaky clean counterparts in elementary school and I recall a nurse calling me dirty one day. Other kids heard it, and she only said things like that to the black kids and the trash kids like me. I bathed twice a day from that comment on, but was still on occasion teased for my greasy haired past. The resonance of being less than middle class is still with me. I had to work hard to appear normalish and developed a knee-jerk, extreme left-wing persona to cover up my trashy roots. I spoke of white privilege as if I had been a recipient of uninterrupted societal largesse from the day I was born and it should be noted that the people who espoused that line of thinking were invariably white age peers who had enjoyed far nicer upbringings than mine.
I cringe when I think about my childhood. I cringe thinking about my father. Being white trash and super-intelligent resulted in someone who became crazy and mean, a loser at the end of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The taint of his shame clung to me like the odor of a rotting soul. I overcompensated. A lot. Pretentious and tiresome. I may cringe when I think about him but I also cringe when I think about who I was until about age 25.
I can also tell you, in my own dogpatch way, that I been white trash and I been middle class. Middle class is better. But you can be both at the same time, and it would appear that I am. (I also note that Obama created a Commission on the Middle Class, or some such shit. Don’t you be fooled, you tenuous middle class. If anyone needs a commission to understand why it’s so hard to be middle class, they’re a moron. As Mr. Oddbook said, if Obama looked to the left, then to the right at every Cabinet meeting, he’d know why being middle class is so damned hard in this country.)
I had just finished rereading The Redneck Manifesto this month when I followed it with a book called Pearl by the author Mary Gordon. I have another site where I review “norm” books and I wrote about it in excruciating depth over there, but the fact is, I was shocked that a Barnard professor and such an acclaimed writer could produce such mind-numbing drek (because, you know, people the critics love never, ever, never turn out crap). Then I followed Pearl with Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan and I loved it. It was not until I thought of Goad’s book again after I reviewed Pearl that I understood some of the reasons for my tastes and distastes.
In Pearl, no one works, or if they do, it is the sort of work that does not bear mentioning in any detail. The characters are rich, highly educated. These are the sorts of people who can afford to send a daughter to Ireland for a year so she can study language without thinking twice about cost. They travel. And when they worry, they worry about how they missed their calling in life, not whether or not they can pay the bills. Pearl, a young girl, decides to starve herself to death over the “will to harm.” She never missed a meal until that point in her life. Nor had she a job, if I remember correctly.
Last Night at the Lobster is a working class novel. Everyone is working. Busting ass. Worrying over tips. Doing hard work for too little money, but for the most part doing it well. The manager of a closing Red Lobster, named Manny, agonizes over who to take with him when the restaurant is closed by the head office and only five people can go to the Olive Garden. He does not want anyone, even his worst employee, to lose his or her job.
Pearl was not written for someone like me, and it was sort of a shock to realize that. Yeah, I got an education and have a veneer of the middle class about me, but the book alienated me. The privileged world of her characters was nothing but a high-minded moral struggle, playing out choices no one without a trust fund would ever have to worry about. I have no idea what Gordon’s background is, but her books are not for the likes of me, a girl who has been a maid, worked retail, waiting on people and literally cleaning up their shit. All the moral dithering. Who has that kind of time in the real world (and yes, as a person who runs two review sites where I pontificate over books, I sort of see the hilarity in that statement)?
Last Night at the Lobster reminded me of the camaraderie I have felt at my scraping-by jobs. People may look at my husband and me and think we are middle class but we are hanging by a thread, like everyone else in the middle class, it seems. As I recently learned, I could go from white collar to blue in a heart beat. I related to the work, to the need to do the job well even when the rewards were so minimal. I understood Manny. I got it.
Pearl was like a lecture on high-brow literary theory. Lobster was like a letter from an old friend.
And I remembered, no matter what, you get raised white trash, you stay that way. And it doesn’t matter how many “good” jobs I have had or how much money my husband makes. My sympathies will always be with people who work and people for whom life has not been a monied cake walk. It took me a long time to understand this, that my world does not break down the way the world does for a rich, white woman. Class means more to me than race, and frankly, the only reason I can say this is because I am, indeed, white. Being poor and Hispanic or black is not something I can discuss nor should I even try because being white has advantages and I have no business speaking for anyone else. No one sane will deny that being white in the USA carries privilege. All I am talking about here is my own life, my own reaction, and how class made me feel inferior and as if I had to hide, lie and act my way into a way of life that promised advancement even though the color of my skin made it seem as if such struggles were not anything I would have to worry about.
There’s a lot to Goad’s book and I hope the historical and social punch in the face it offers does not get lost in my reaction. While there is likely no one on the planet who agrees with everything Goad says, myself included, I agreed with far more of what he had to say this go around than when I first read the book. The book is interestingly researched, with source cites that run from Edward Abbey to Howard Zinn. The first third reads as an alternative history lesson, one that made perfect sense when I read it, but the implications of which probably didn’t stay with me when I initially learned it because extreme leftism embraces a notion of continuous, uninterrupted white privilege that is heresy to deny. The middle third was a look at the contemporary mores of the working class/white trash culture and the last third was a sociological look at how, in America where we all wanna be rich or die trying, no one seems to get the fact that we at the bottom benefit the powers that keep us here each time we snap at each other’s neck.