After thirty years spent scratching together a middle-class life out of a "dirt-poor" childhood, Joe Bageant moved back to his hometown of Winchester, Virginia, where he realized that his family and neighbors were the very people who carried George W. Bush to victory. That was ironic, because Winchester, like countless American small towns, is fast becoming the bedrock of a permanent underclass. Two in five of the people in his old neighborhood do not have high school diplomas. Nearly everyone over fifty has serious health problems, and many have no health care. Credit ratings are low or nonexistent, and alcohol, overeating, and Jesus are the preferred avenues of escape.
A raucous mix of storytelling and political commentary, Deer Hunting with Jesus is Bageant's report on what he learned by coming home. He writes of his childhood friends who work at factory jobs that are constantly on the verge of being outsourced; the mortgage and credit card rackets that saddle the working poor with debt, i.e., "white trashonomics"; the ubiquitous gun culture--and why the left doesn't get it; Scots Irish culture and how it played out in the young life of Lynddie England; and the blinkered "magical thinking" of the Christian right. (Bageant's brother is a Baptist pastor who casts out demons.) What it adds up to, he asserts, is an unacknowledged class war. By turns brutal, tender, incendiary, and seriously funny, this book is a call to arms for fellow progressives with little real understanding of "the great beery, NASCAR-loving, church-going, gun-owning America that has never set foot in a Starbucks."
Deer Hunting with Jesus is a potent antidote to what Bageant dubs "the American hologram"--the televised, corporatized virtual reality that distracts us from the insidious realities of American life.
In this trenchant, aggravating, humorous, and heartbreaking book, Bageant, whose blog, www.joebageant.com, has a bit of a cult following, uses a combination of political commentary, reporting, and storytelling to explore what he describes as an unacknowledged class war in the United States. Returning after 30 years to the "dirt-poor" neighborhoods of his native Winchester, VA, Bageant examines the lives of the working poor using the stories of his friends and neighbors. Through these bleak tales, he paints a picture of a permanent underclass exploited by the Right and forgotten or even disdained, by the Left. Bageant explores, among other things, gun culture, Christian fundamentalism, predatory mortgage lending, illiteracy, outsourcing, and the decline of the American healthcare system. Written as a wake-up and rallying call for progressives, the work is decidedly partisan. Bageant's writing is witty, bilious, tender, and cruel by turns. Though his style often engages, it also alienates. His perspective is so fresh and his message so important that it is frustrating that many readers may be put off by his approach. The book would have benefited from closer editing; it is a slim volume but could stand to be leaner still. Recommended for collections with a current affairs focus, especially those in public libraries.-Rachel Bridgewater, Washington State Univ. Lib., Vancouver Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
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June 22, 2008
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Excerpt from Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant
Inside the white ghetto of the working poor
"73 virgins in arab heaven and not a dam one in this bar!"
--Men's room wall, Burt's Tavern
Faced with working-class life in towns such as Winchester, see only one solution: beer. So I sit here at Burt's Tavern watching fat Pootie in a T-shirt that reads: one million battered women in this country and i've been eating mine plain! That this is not considered especially offensive says all you need to know about cultural and gender sensitivity around here. And the fact that Pootie votes, owns guns, and is allowed to purchase hard liquor is something we should all probably be afraid to contemplate. Thankfully, even cheap American beer is a palliative for anxious thought tonight.
Then too, beer is educational and stimulates contemplation. I call it my "learning through drinking" program. Here are some things I have learned at Burt's Tavern:
1. Never shack up with a divorced woman who is two house payments behind and swears you are the best sex she ever had.
2. Never eat cocktail weenies out of the urinal, no matter how big the bet gets.
As you can see, learning through drinking is never dull. But when karaoke came to American bars, my hopsy approach to social studies got downright entertaining, especially here where some participants get gussied up for their three weekly minutes of stardom.
Take Dink Lamp over there in the corner, presently dressed like a stubble-faced Waylon Jennings. At age fifty-six, Dink's undying claim to fame in this town is not his Waylon imitation, however, which sucks (as do his Keith Whitley and his Travis Tritt). It is that he beat up the boxing chimpanzee at the carnival in 1963. This is a damned hard thing to do because chimpanzees are several times stronger than humans and capable of enough rage that the pugilistic primate wore a steel muzzle. Every good old boy in this place swears Dink pounded that chimpanzee so hard it climbed up the cage bars and refused to come back down and that Dink won a hundred dollars. I don't know. I wasn't there to see it because my good Christian family did not approve of attending such spectacles. One thing is for sure, though: Dink is tough enough to have done it. (To readers who wonder whether people really have names such as Dink and Pootie: Hell, yes! Not only do we have a Dink and a Pootie in Winchester, the town that stars in this book, we also have folks named Gator, Fido, Snooky, and Tumbug--whom we simply call Bug.)
Anyway, with this older crowd of karaoksters from America's busted-up laboring lumpen, you can count on at least one version of "Good-Hearted Woman" or a rendition of "Coal Miner's Daughter," performed with little skill but a lot of beery heart and feeling. And when it comes to heart and feeling, the best in town is a woman named Dottie. Dot is fifty-nine years old, weighs almost three hundred pounds, and sings Patsy Cline nearly as well as Patsy sang Patsy. Dot can sing "Crazy" and any other Patsy song ever recorded and a few that went unrecorded. She knows Patsy's unrecorded songs because she knew Patsy personally, as did many other people still living here in Winchester, where Patsy Cline grew up. We know things such as the way she was treated by the town's establishment, was called a drunken whore and worse, was snubbed and reviled during her life at every opportunity, and is still sniffed at by the town's business and political classes. But Patsy, who took shit from no one and knew cuss words that would make a Comanche blush and, well, she was one of us. Tough and profane. (Cussing is a form of punctuation to us.) Patsy grew up on our side of the tracks and suffered all the insults life still inflicts on working people here. Hers was a hard life.
Dot's life has been every bit as hard as Patsy's. Harder really, because Dot has lived twice as long as Patsy Cline managed to, and she looks it. By the time my people hit sixty we look like a bunch of hypertensive red-faced toads in a phlegm-coughing contest. Fact is, we are even unhealthier than we look. Doctors tell us that we have blood in our cholesterol, and the cops tell us there is alcohol in that blood. True to our class, Dottie is disabled by heart trouble, diabetes, and several other diseases. Her blood pressure is so high the doctor thought the pressure device was broken. And she is slowly going blind to boot.
Trouble is, insurance costs her as much as rent. Her old man makes $8 an hour washing cars at a dealership, and if everything goes just right they have about $55 a week left for groceries, gas, and everything else. But if an extra expense as small as $30 comes in, they compensate by not filling one of Dot's prescriptions--or two or three of them--in which case she gets sicker and sicker until they can afford the co-pay to refill the prescriptions again. At fifty-nine, these repeated lapses into vessel-popping high blood pressure and diabetic surges pretty much guarantee that she won't collect Social Security for long after she reaches sixty-three, if she reaches sixty-three.