The other memoir that blew me away this past month, along with Patti Smith's spectacular Just Kids, was Joe Bageant's Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir. I have, count them, no fewer than seven bookmarks stuck in this one, waiting to remind me of some of the most interesting bits.
I spoke about Bageant a while back, when he died at the untimely age of 64. He was the author of the nonfiction title Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War, in which he explored the issues of what he calls the "white underclass," and, more broadly, class issues in America in general.
This book is more a mix of personal memoir and an extended (and sometimes very angry) diatribe about class issues in this country, particularly as they apply to poor white people. Bageant should know--he grew up in a working class family that became steadily a poor working class family due to lack of jobs, health issues, and other setbacks. One cannot read Bageant without being constantly aware of the conflict in his life: this is a man who loved his grandparents' home farm, who believes people should know something about how to fix and make things in their lives, and yet also left his home region for work, travel, and, as he did from little on, to read and learn.*
The difficult fact of the matter is that I think everyone should read this book, and any book group worth their salt should discuss it. But I honestly don't know if I can tell you to do that. For one thing, there is a part early on about Bageant's Uncle Nelson, born with birth defects that affected his development and left him (as Bageant describes) childlike his entire life, that is difficult to read and accept. (I'm not going to tell you what it is because if you DO choose to read this book, I think you have to read it in context.) Secondly, Bageant does sometimes use the "n" word (in regards to race), although he only uses it when discussing its use in his surroundings while he was growing up. Personally I feel the word here is not abused, and that we're really never going to get anywhere talking about race issues until people can be honest about where and how such words are or were used--but that is a personal feeling and I know that many people can't abide the word in print AT ALL. If you're one of these people, this is not the book for you.
There: I got the tough bits out of the way first. More on what I found interesting in a future post.
*As I type this I realize how sad it is that those things are often felt in "conflict." Why isn't it possible to stay where you grew up, know how do do some work with your hands, read a bit, and still be able to make a living?