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Tuesday, October 23, 2018
NOMADLAND: SURVIVING AMERICA IN THE 21ST CENTURY
$16.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 3.5* of five
The Publisher Says: From the beet fields of North Dakota to the wilderness campgrounds of California to an Amazon warehouse in Texas, people who once might have kicked back to enjoy their sunset years are hard at work. Underwater on mortgages or finding that Social Security comes up short, they're hitting the road in astonishing numbers, forming a new community of nomads: RV and van-dwelling migrant laborers, or "workampers." Building on her groundbreaking Harper's cover story, "The End of Retirement," which brought attention to these formerly settled members of the middle class, Jessica Bruder follows one such RVer, Linda, between physically taxing seasonal jobs and reunions of her new van-dweller family, or "vanily." Bruder tells a compelling, eye-opening tale of both the economy's dark underbelly and the extraordinary resilience, creativity, and hope of these hardworking, quintessential Americans—many of them single women—who have traded rootedness for the dream of a better life.
My Review: I'm not sure how this happened: A talented writer with a well-regarded agent sells a book to an established and deeply experienced editor at a very good publishing house; the net result is a series of magazine articles, good ones mind you, strung into chapters with some basic tarting-up transitions stuffed in the cracks.
The subject is the source of my upthrusting the earned three-star rating. I'm amazed and appalled that "the world is such a cruel place for the US middle class" needs shouting about. Yet it does. I read Methland not so long ago; its tale of towns being eaten alive by the desperate need to Make It even if it means going against the law of the land like Lori Arnold (sister of Tom Arnold, ex-husband of loudmouth Roseanne the Racist) did seems almost quaint. Making It isn't a viable option for the unemployed older worker. Keeping up a house has been replaced in the older homeowner's worrywarting with plain old keeping the house they scrimped and saved to buy. Pensions are no more; 401(k) plans are flattened; Social Security is under attack from greedyass politicos and banksters. What in the hell does someone who can't make her (most likely medical) bills going to do?
That medical-bill thing is an underplayed thread constant throughout the narrative Author Bruder spins. Person after person, story after story, has its starting point with the medical issues that beset all of us and are particularly prevalent among us oldsters. Author Bruder never fails to elucidate the nature of the medical issues. She's letting you know without doing the teller and the told the insulting condescension of saying outright, "this is due to the insane US medical system, and yes these are people with genuine conditions and diseases who need treatment not shirkers." The mostly older workampers (a word coined by the owners of Workamper dot com in 1987 for the growing legions of mobile, seasonal workers) do jobs that stress their already taxed and aging bodies; then they go "home" to a space most of y'all would sneer at. But it's their own. And so they remain houseless but not homeless.
The people houseless after the 2008 implosion are, in significant numbers, taking to the road. They've traded real estate for wheel estate. They have no choice. It's a simple truth that women are the major sufferers, since they've historically earned less than men and now, in older years, are in line to receive lower Social Security payouts. And the hiring bias for permanent, professional jobs (that we're told doesn't exist) discriminates against women and then, insult to injury, against older workers. Takin' it to the streets has changed meaning in the forty-plus years since the Doobie Brothers sang it. (That was only partially ironic.)
The unbearable whiteness of the mobile homeless is another sad commentary on how the inequality of the US system plays out. People of Color don't follow the nomadic way. Why? When one is at risk of DEATH in a goddamned traffic stop why do you even ask the fucking question?! So the meager assistance and illusory control offered to whites as they take to the road is denied to darker-skinned citizens.
I'm seriously irked by the disjointed nature of the book. Many things are excellent. Author Bruder is a quality storyteller. I'm a smidge uncomfortable about the smacks-of-disaster-tourism nature of a three-year research project into a subject that has no real relevance to the life of a Boerum Hill-dwelling Columbia University professor. I'm willing to skip past that for the light her work shines on those of us thrown away by our sacred US system...absent timely and generous help from friends, this story could be my very own...but then I smack into the disorganization problem.
I don't doubt that there is an organizing principle at work here. The author's a journalist. The editor's an experienced pro. But I can't follow it in any kind of satisfying, narrative-building way. My failing? Permaybehaps...but from the first chapter I got the idea that a narrative would unfold that included two people as my focus. That didn't happen because one person, Linda, whose story really is the backbone of the tale, disappears and reappears at different times doing different things at various stages of her life, while Silvianne vanishes for the length of a Bible before sprouting back into view near the end, and what I assumed was a close friendship kinda wasn't but there's another closer friend who doesn't appear that much in Linda's narrative. I'm left wondering if the reason might not be that LaVonne (the aforementioned friend) called out Author Bruder's motives early on (which we're not told early on, another chronological lapse).
Whatever my quibbles about structure, the information in the piece is grounded in solid reporting. You'll have to look at the endnotes to know this. There are a few footnotes, but these are parenthetical asides. The absence of inline citations is, in my view, not a good decision. Howsomever I can at least see the point of it: Inline citations in a popular social history will scare off the punters, and the slenderness of the proffered analysis of a section of the homelessness epidemic will cause derisory snortings and contemptuous pooh-poohings from Academia.
I hope this book achieves a wide readership among those most in need of its blend of qualities: The comfortable and clueless six-figurers who infest our gentrifying coastal cities. It can happen to you, kids, and it becomes a very great deal more likely to the less likely you are to vote in November 2018.