“We Almost Killed Ourselves with Rage”: Working-Class Lives in Recent American Writing
Posted by unavitavagabonda
- Bakopoulos, Dean. Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon: A Novel. New York: Harcourt, Inc.
- Faderman, Lillian. Naked in the Promised Land: A Memoir. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Rechy, John. Beneath the Skin: The Collected Essays of John Rechy. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers.
- Williams, Stanley Tookie. Blue Rage, Black Redemption: A Memoir. Pleasant Hill, CA: Damamli Publishing Company.
Questions of definition and genre are inevitable in conversations about literature, and perhaps no more so than when those conversations take place in formal or academic settings. We write and speak spontaneously, not to say carelessly, about “southern writers,” “the Black Mountain school,” “science fiction,” “the Harlem Renaissance,” or “Romanticism,” for example, even when we know full well that such terms are necessarily more pregnant with confluence and diffraction than they appear. And yet that odd sensation—one that is either postmodern or simply Lewis Carrollingian—of trying to make a simple term mean multiple things at once, of striving to indicate without interdicting, harrows the study of literature.
This is, fortunately, precisely as it should be.
A comparative newcomer to the vexed taxonomies of American literary study, the term “working-class literature” is certainly no less hydra-headed than its companions “women’s literature,” “lesbian and gay literature,” or “African American literature,” to name only a few of the Balkan states; and, like those useful, often approximate subheadings, working-class literature runs the constant risk of falling in with literary scholars who, still deep in amnesiac love with the “subaltern,” have forgotten that American literature is by its very nature “subaltern.” Or let’s put it another way: It is precisely because most of American literature is working-class literature, is women’s literature, is lesbian and gay literature, is “ethnic” literature that it is, in the widest angle of our looking glass, also American literature.
The issue of class, paradoxically, is more a matter of style than of substance in John Rechy’s Beneath the Skin, a collection that spans some forty-five years of the author’s reviews, essays, commentaries, and reportage. Rechy, in fact, the author of the seminal City of Night (1963) and more than a dozen other nonfiction books and novels, is well known as both a Chicano writer and as a gay writer, but is less frequently identified, at least by critics and scholars, as a working-class writer. Rechy, for his part, has never tried to distance himself from his roots, and the heroes and heroines of his novels are frequently working-class characters. In Numbers, for example (1967), John Rechy’s nearly eponymous anti-hero, Johnny Rio, recalls his upbringing: “[Laredo, Texas] has unpleasant memories for him (a dreary fatherless Mexican Catholic childhood; poor, poor years and after-school jobs in a laundry call-office, a department-store stockroom, and on a newspaper as a copy boy)” (22). The exaggerated, class-inflected masculinity that Rio constructs and flaunts both distances him from the “queens” who desire him sexually and serves his voracious need to experience himself as beautiful and powerful. Not surprisingly, the sensibility that created Johnny Rio is already evident in “El Paso del Norte,” the 1958 essay that opens Beneath the Skin. Rechy describes with evident passion and unstinting candor his upbringing as the child of poor Chicano parents in an El Paso, Texas, that he remembers as much for the “beautiful and horrifying” physical landscape and for the comfort of community rituals as he does for the movie theatre where the seats on the left side were reserved for “spiks.”
But if Rechy’s working-class aesthetic is, arguably, placed more directly in evidence in his fiction than in the content of his essays, it bodies forth extravagantly in the writer’s personality he deploys in Beneath the Skin: Rechy is pugilistic, defensive, cocksure, sometimes overly self-congratulatory, self-consciously highbrow. His posture—his stance—is instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up in the vicinity of an American working-class father: part posturing, part braggadocio, and part fear that others will never fully appreciate his insights, his talent, his sacrifices, and his hard work. (Rechy was, for example, briefly involved in controversy in February 2004 when a programming error at the amazon.com website revealed that Rechy was the author of a glowing online review of his then-most-recent novel; Rechy justified his actions by noting, accurately, that amazon provides no mechanism for authors to respond to grossly inaccurate reviews or to ad hominem attacks, but he might just as well have said that he was following in the footsteps of another author afraid for his reputation, Walt Whitman, who likewise had no qualms about publishing a positive, unsigned review of his own Leaves of Grass in 1855.)
Rechy takes pointless potshots at President George W. Bush in “He Hugged Moms and Dads” and at the sexual hypocrisy of the hierarchy of the Catholic church in “Sins of the Fathers,” covering ground by now worn to brick-like consistency by the passing of so many writers; he snipes at Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots & Leaves), in whose book he claims to have found grammar and punctuation errors that no one else noticed; he singles out for criticism the “stumbles” and “loose writing” in the prose of Joyce Carol Oates and John Phillip Santos, unmindful of the utter incoherence of his piece on Hollywood film depictions of Los Angeles (“From Sunset Boulevard to Mulholland Drive”) or of his own ability to write perfectly goony sentences (the tortured and regrettable opening line of his novel, The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez, for example); he dings Bob Paris, the gay bodybuilding champion, for the narcissism in Paris’s autobiography, Gorilla Suit, oblivious to the way his bragging about his own amateur bodybuilding efforts constitutes an irksome refrain in Beneath the Skin—so much so, in fact, that Rigoberto González, reviewing the collection for the El Paso Times, got off the enviable line, “Rechy will be remembered for his body of work, not necessarily for the work of his body.”
Rechy tilts at windmills and mows down straw men nearly as often as he takes aim at more worthy adversaries, and it is in that indiscriminate use of his powers that one sees him most clearly as the wounded and venerable working-class lion—formidable, honorable, and yet frequently exasperating and occasionally even downright embarrassing (such as when Rechy takes pains to drop the names of the writers and celebrities whose sexual advances he has rejected; like Johnny Rio, Rechy wants to be wanted).
That said, Beneath the Skin contains its share of gems. Rechy’s piece on the 1968 murder of Hollywood silent-film idol, Ramon Navarro is particularly poignant (“I knew the world the two hustlers [who killed Navarro] came from,” Rechy writes, “[because I] had experienced it”), as are his reflections on the life and legacy of nearly forgotten Forever Amber author, Kathleen Winsor. His savaging of Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde is well aimed and nicely leavened by Rechy’s obvious compassion for Marilyn Monroe, the subject he shared with Oates in his 1988 novel, Marilyn’s Daughter. Generally speaking, however, the best pieces in Beneath the Skin are the earlier ones—a 1971 exposé of brutal conditions in the El Paso Juvenile Detention Home, a 1966 article on American soldiers hounded and punished by the U.S. government for participating in anti-Vietnam-war protests, a 1988 defense of Carson McCullers—perhaps because the passing of time has rinsed the older essays of the odor of cant or perhaps because Rechy was, once, a writer who said things that no one else was saying.
All memoirs, in their broadest sense, tell the same story: How I got from there to here. What makes one more worthwhile than another, then, is the distance of that travel or the landscape along the way. On both counts, Lillian Faderman’s Naked in the Promised Land is a remarkable memoir. Faderman lived her early childhood in a state less of peace than of periodic cease-fire between her emotionally ravaged mother (a Jewish immigrant draper who spent her long work days standing before a mannequin in a Bronx garment-district sweatshop—sitting was prohibited—tortured in the New York summers by the live steam from the pressers’ station next to hers) and her minuscule aunt, who stayed home with Lillian, sewing piecework and singing Yiddish lullabies to her plump and precocious niece. (Faderman’s father had long since disappeared from the scene.) Returned from work, Faderman’s mother would collapse in exhaustion, importuning her daughter to “Save me from the shop, Lilly…. Become a movie star.” When Faderman’s mother and aunt moved the family to East Los Angeles in 1950, that’s just what Faderman, barely ten years old, set her heart on doing.
Faderman’s aim was slightly off. Far from ending up in Hollywood films, she embarked instead (at age fifteen) on a career as a pinup girl and later (when she had moved north to attend the University of California at Berkeley) a burlesque star in San Francisco’s infamous North Beach strip clubs. Leap ahead a few light years, and Faderman has a PhD, a position as chair of the English Department at California State University at Fresno, and a growing shelf of scholarly books.
Naked in the Promised Land, in that sense, is a story of rags to riches—rags, almost literally, and, if not strictly material riches, then at least enviable achievement as a feminist scholar and historian, teacher, writer, and university administrator. It is, at the same time, the story of the familiar guilt and unhealable sadness of the successful offspring of immigrant parents; of the resourceful child who identifies education as a means of escape, jumps at the first chance she gets, and then, far from the mythology of the working-class social climber who “never looks back,” looks back obsessively. Finally, Naked in the Promised Land is a plainspoken and respectful description of Faderman’s coming out among the “odd girls and twilight lovers” (the title of her landmark 1991 study) that was the world of working-class lesbians in the 1950s and 1960s.
Reviewing a book like Naked in the Promised Land provokes the nearly irresistible temptation to retell anecdote after fascinating anecdote, because Faderman furnishes them by the fistful. She is, to be sure, no slouch as a raconteur; and if Naked in the Promised Land is unsatisfying in any particular, it is precisely that the skein of dramatic and colorful anecdotes sometimes crowds out a deeper psychological analysis or the chance to explore a wider sociocultural context. On the other hand, Faderman handles the (many) moments of real pathos and genuine tragedy in her life with a kind of wry irony and artful humor that is reminiscent of Carolyn See’s equally wonderful memoir, California Dreaming, and which is, not to put too fine a point on things, perhaps itself a working-class trait. Sometimes, as my own mother used to say, you have to laugh—if only to keep from crying.
But perhaps one episode from Faderman’s life—just one. When Faderman moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1959 to attend the University of California at Berkeley, she did so in large part to follow the woman she had fallen in love with, the aptly self-named D’Or (née Shirley Anne Goldstein). The story of the three years they spent together—during which D’Or was employed for precisely one month—is a textbook description of the perils that sometimes harry cross-class relationships. When Faderman worries that changing her major from psychology to English will leave her unable to earn a living, D’Or lectures her that “there’s more to life than earning a living…. What’s important in life [is] beauty. Subtlety. Nuance—the things of art…. The rest is … unworthy of the artist’s sensibility.”
Though Faderman argues that the artist’s sensibility is a luxury they can’t afford, D’Or is ready with a response: “The artist is always classless.” Why, D’Or wonders out loud, can’t Faderman simply be “a natural aristocrat,” just as she is. When it becomes clear that the bills won’t get paid in any other way, Faderman accepts work as a stripper at Big Al’s Hotsy Totsy Club, though D’Or pronounces the employment “tawdry.” Later, reconciled to the inevitable, D’Or exhorts Faderman (then going by the stage name of Gigi Frost) to dance with “balletic insinuations,” to “be classy!” Faderman promises she will.
As Faderman nears her own graduation date, she discovers that D’Or, a college dropout, is actually no more than a few credits shy of finishing her degree, and she encourages D’Or to return to get her diploma. D’Or is too overwhelmed by the prospect of actually studying to consider the possibility; so Faderman writes D’Or’s term papers and even impersonates her in French class so that D’Or can earn the “B” she needs to graduate.
How is it, then, that someone of Faderman’s great intelligence and enormous pragmatism could stay with a partner who was so clearly disdainful of Faderman’s social class, who unabashedly exploited her? Faderman was in love, of course—staring into D’Or’s “beautiful gray eyes” helped her “forget, for a while, how she made me feel ugly and common.” But that explanation only leads us inexorably back to the original question. Perhaps there was something in their relationship of the strange attraction of the working class to those “natural aristocrats” whose lives seem so unconstricted and unencumbered, so open and full of possibility. Faderman treads lightly on the question of her motivations, but she must surely have made the connection between her mother and D’Or, between the woman she couldn’t save and the one she might have. Her determination to carry out repeated rescue missions in the mined terrain of D’Or’s life, in any case, is both heartbreaking and familiar.
What looms over Faderman’s memoir, in fact, is her sense of responsibility, disappointment and—why not say it?—guilt over that ten-year-old’s unfulfilled promise to “save her mother from the shop.” The more Faderman excels, the farther she seems to travel, without meaning or wanting to, from her mother’s unredeemed existence:
[My mother’s] life has been frozen, and I can’t escape seeing it…. She sits in the little living room and watches television…. She shakes her head in commiseration with some other poor woman’s troubles. ‘American children, what do they care about the aggravation they give?’ she says…. She’s had an aborted life, my poor mother. Nothing worked out for her. Not even me.
That “not even me” is the blow upon a bruise for the successful, the educated, the queer offspring of working-class parents—the terrible realization that what the child considers good fortune, freedom, self-realization, growth, even happiness, may be seen by the parent as disrespect, even outright betrayal. For those, like Faderman, who are caught in the knot of that paradox, the promised land is a place where every blessing is mixed.
At roughly the time when Faderman was leaving Los Angeles for UC Berkeley, Stanley Tookie Williams’ mother was moving her six-year-old son across country, from New Orleans to South Central Los Angeles, hoping to head off his “incorrigible behavior” and to save them both from the racism of the Jim Crow South. Her effort, as Williams reports in his memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, met with little success. “If [my mother] could have foreseen the path I would follow,” Williams writes of their arrival at the Los Angeles Greyhound terminal, “no doubt we would have quickly reboarded the bus to return to New Orleans.” Sadly for both of them, they did not.
Blue Rage, Black Redemption, then, is the story of Williams’ life with the “Crips,” the murderous and autogenocidal Los Angeles-based street gang he co-founded in 1971 (when he was seventeen years old); of the scant decade he spent as its leader; of the twenty-four years he has passed since then on death-row at California’s San Quentin prison; and, in particular, of the personal and spiritual transformation that led him to be nominated, in 2002, for a Nobel Prize as a result of his efforts to create “Peace Protocols” and to broker détente between warring street gangs across the country.
Blue Rage, Black Redemption is a frustrating book to read and, reading it, one senses that it must have been a difficult book to write. A life lived as Williams lived his begs a single, overarching question, and the memoirist is more or less obliged to respond to it: What was it that caused a sweet-faced Louisiana youngster whose mother (“hard-working, serious, tough, soft-spoken, and [with] the swiftness of a cheetah”) adored and doted on him to become, in the space of a few years, a violent, sociopathic, cold-blooded, drug-addicted thug?
The reader of Blue Rage, Black Redemption might be forgiven for looking to Williams to illuminate such issues, not least because Williams, having lived both sides of the question, is positioned to provide insights that few others could. The trouble is that it isn’t at all apparent from Blue Rage that he has a clear answer to give. Perhaps no one does.
The analysis that Williams does provide, however, is exasperatingly vague: “We couldn’t afford a television, so the streets became my TV set,” he writes; his mother was “in thrall to some handed-down Black rendition of a Euro-American parenting philosophy which was in total conflict with the environment I saw around me”; Williams “lack[ed] any real knowledge of African culture”; there were no “privilege-bound” associations (such as Rotary Clubs or Yacht Clubs) in his crime-ridden, violent Los Angeles neighborhood; he received “abnormal, impaired, and diseased” knowledge from his public-school teachers and thus chose to befriend “the miscreants, the aggressors, the loners, the defiant ones”; because he was not “challenged” at school, he “acted out” against the “insipid” teachers and “boring” subject matter; school counselors couldn’t reach him because there was no “valid psychoanalytic model designed to address … the Black experience”; street gangs festered in his neighborhood because of “no employment opportunities for youth, lack of youth programs, [and] broken family units”; Williams’ “rage was nourished by the hate I saw and felt from mainstream society and White people, a hate based on my Black skin and my historical place at the nadir of America’s social caste.”
Well, at least in Williams’ adolescence, it seems fair to say, the hatred he and his fellow gang members felt directed toward them might at least occasionally have been based on the fact that they were violent, predatory criminals who terrorized people. But Blue Rage, Black Redemption abounds in this sort of broad-brush sociology.
None of what Williams writes regarding the wellsprings of his dysfunction, disillusionment, and despair, I hasten to add, sounds even the remotest note of falseness or disingenuousness. Very much to the contrary, in fact. But it does seem somehow incomplete. Indeed, what remains as a vast, uncharted absence at the center of Blue Rage is Williams’ lack of analysis of his personal attraction to the life he led, of his personal affinity for home-grown mayhem and drive-by terrorism, of his personal choice to exacerbate and then live in a state of armed siege.
Had Williams attended more to this inward sort of exploration, he may have had some useful speculations with which to answer the question that criminologist Lewis Yablonsky poses on the back cover of Blue Rage: “Why do young black men, most of whom come from dysfunctional families living in poverty, constantly attempt—with too-frequent success—to kill one another?” Alternatively, he might have shed light on a question that is no less crucial: Why is it that so many young black men from poor, dysfunctional families do not?
Indeed, though the social conditions that Williams indicts may be necessary to the ruination of the lives of young men before they’ve even begun to shave regularly, they are clearly not sufficient. Not every boy or girl who grew up like Williams is a gang banger; not every child of poverty who is raised without access to a handy Rotary Club becomes a criminal. And, although Williams is vivid on the vicious and invidious effects of racism-cum-poverty, particularly as they tend to be lived today in physical and televised proximity to the precincts of American consumer capitalism (“I believed my quest for money and drugs was the only way but failed to realize that my poverty transcended the physical,” he writes, and “I bought into the rhetoric about survival being based on the principles of accumulated wealth, force and violence. This was the American way!”), the troubling undercurrent in Williams’ memoir is the notion that poverty breeds criminality, a short step from suggesting that the poor are a criminal class. Though Williams would surely disavow such an interpretation, it is implicit in what he has written.
But human lives, as the saying goes, are lived forward and understood backwards, and what is inspiring about Blue Rage, Black Redemption is Williams’ Peace Protocol itself, included as an appendix at the end of the memoir. It is the clearest exposition of Williams’ intention to live forward, and is remarkable, among other things, for his plainspoken articulation of the uselessness of anti-crime or anti-violence campaigns that are conducted in isolation from what Williams calls a “social agenda.” Urban peace, in other words, cannot survive in the absence of education, political consciousness-raising, meaningful employment training and placement, community cleanups (Williams means a literal block-by-block “purging” of graffiti and garbage from blighted neighborhoods as a way to combat psychological indifference), and the establishment of socioeconomic commissions to encourage and sustain entrepreneurship and investment at a grassroots level. The ideas are simple (Williams articulates them in some ten pages); their execution is the work of a lifetime.
Williams dedicates Blue Rage, Black Redemption to “poor people, slaves, and the disenfranchised everywhere,” insisting that “you can bend the most oppressive circumstances to your will.” He should know. Williams’ faith, even behind bars and a short walk from the death chamber, is enormous, touching, and enviable.*
But it is fiction, paradoxically, that sometimes lacerates even more deeply than reality, and Dean Bakopoulos’s Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon may be one of the saddest novels ever written. It is certainly one of the most intensely realized, and it belongs without question among the ranks of those relatively few works of fiction—Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Frankie Hucklenbroich’s A Crystal Diary, Dagoberto Gilb’s The Magic of Blood, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, and John Gilgun’s Music I Never Dreamed Of come to mind—whose organic relationship to poverty-class and working-class realities can scarcely be described by a verb in English. These books neither represent, nor transmit, nor even depict the ethos of working-class lives. In some nearly magical way, they simply dwell within them, coterminous and concomitant.
The plot of Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon is deceptively simple. “When I was sixteen,” explain Bakopoulos’s narrator, Michael “Mikey” Smolij, “my father went to the moon.” Over the course of several months, in fact, all of the men of his father’s age disappear from the working-class suburb of Maple Rock, an immigrant neighborhood made up of second- and third-generation Poles, Italians, Greeks, Ukrainians, and other post-World War II immigrants. Some of the men go on fishing trips from which they never return and some are seen driving away, but the majority simply disappear, quietly and often without a trace. “I’m going to the moon,” writes one husband and father in a hasty goodbye note, and that seems, to those left behind, as reasonable an explanation as any.
But life demands to be lived, and so the abandoned families of Maple Rock find ways to carry on: “If we (boys) became men,” Bakopoulos writes, our mothers did, too. They took jobs. Those who already had jobs took second jobs. Sometimes a few of the mothers came to the Black Lantern [bar] and drank with us. They arm-wrestled and hollered and broke bottles for emphasis when making speeches. They were working ten, twelve, sixteen hours a day…. So what if [these strong women] acted a little out of character…? Their husbands were on the moon. Who could deny them some happiness?”
Who, indeed? But the pain of the boys and not of their mothers is the mortar with which Bakopoulos constructs the houses in Maple Rock. Indeed, what makes Please Don’t Come Back both unique and devastating is Bakopoulos’s firm insistence on holding his male characters, and particularly Mikey, inside their sadness and betrayal, their sense of abandonment and their anger. (“Don’t think for a moment that because we were good strong boys, we could handle all this,” Mikey says. “[W]e couldn’t. We almost killed ourselves with rage.”).
They are not maudlin, however, Bakopoulos’s sad and angry boys; though they love each other fiercely, they speak to each other cryptically, they neglect one another, they sit alone in their separate cars or stand in their separate yards on nights when the moon is full, and they wonder whether their fathers miss them:
Sometimes when we drank too much…, we threw stones and bottles at the moon, and we imagined that we were tearing the hearts from our chests, sending them hurtling through heaven where our fathers could see them and know this: we, their sons, were below them, bleeding.”
Later, when the boys have turned into adult men who haunt the same bars their fathers once did, drinking as their fathers did, Mikey has occasion to reflect, “When I think about you, the disappeared men of Maple Rock, I sometimes wonder if you are capable or incapable of love these days. For the record, if you are now capable of love, we consider that unfair.”
What is gut-wrenching about Please Don’t Come Back is the silence of this anguish, the interiority of it: Mikey speaks to the reader and, in a series of second-person apostrophes, to his father and the other absent men, but he and his friends say almost nothing to one another about their mutual grief. No stranger driving through Maple Rock would sense their terrible suffering, but then we often drive through communities riven by loss, poverty, suicide, hopelessness, and cannot tell that anything is wrong. So many human wounds, Bakopoulos reminds us, are invisible.
From the opening pages of Please Don’t Come Back, of course, it is clear that Bakopoulos is too honest a storyteller to give his novel a falsely hopeful, never mind happy, ending. Indeed, he cannot betray the lives and struggles of the characters he seems to care for so deeply, and so he must tell their truth: the invariability and repetitiveness and frustration of working-class lives in small American towns (“When I am thirteen,” Mikey recalls, “my father tells me that I should prepare myself for disappointment. ‘This is the way our lives turn out, Mikey,’ he says. ‘Disappointing.’”); the inhuman effort required to ignore what your insides insist is a true and accurate reflection of the entire extent of your possibilities, the complete inventory of your capabilities; the improbability of escape—unless, of course, it is the preternatural escape that comes from the moon itself, from being plucked suddenly from the surface of the earth and borne clean away.
But Mikey and his friends seemed destined to stay where they are, with all that implies: they grow up, work at jobs they don’t particularly like, dream revolutionary dreams and abandon them in favor of tending to practical matters, fall in and out of love, get married or not, have children—and they worry, as Mikey’s friend, Nick, puts it, that the moon will eventually “get them.”
Mikey, for his part, becomes a worker, a husband, a father; he drinks too much; he is inexplicably angry and suddenly sad. But family obligations and domestic life aren’t what “rattle” him, Mikey says. “Instead, I felt a profound and relentless doubt…. I believed, sooner or later, that I would destroy all of it.”
In other words, to risk the cliché, Bakopoulos’s teenage boys grow up and become their fathers. Unlike those men, however, who may have found themselves simply unprepared to resist the sudden and implacable call of the moon, the men of Mikey’s generation understand the damage they have the power to cause, and if they have stopped staring at the moon, wistfully, innocently, wondering whether it is too late for their fathers to return, it is only because they no longer entirely want them to. The bark of their lives has grown thick around the place of loss, and forgiveness is beside the point. That sostenuto note of resigned survival pierces Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon.
One night, near the end of the novel, Mikey lies in bed, his wife in his arms. They watch their baby daughter as she sleeps in the adjacent crib, and Mikey finds it “almost impossible to imagine the feeling that my father or [the other men] had in their hearts the nights they slipped away.” In other words, happiness is still to be found in Maple Rock. And yet, as Mikey says in his final speech to the men who have left their sons and wives behind, even happiness “doesn’t change everything.”
Still, as Rechy, Faderman, Williams, and Bakopoulos would perhaps agree, neither does everything remain the same. The literature of the working class in contemporary America is written, as it must necessarily be, in the language of flux and of intersection, a dynamism that renders working-class writing as vigorous as it is difficult to pin down. At the same time, the frankness of the working-class writer’s gaze is an acuity to which attention must be paid. Here is Bakopoulos: “I was old enough to know a few things,” Mikey Smolij thinks to himself when his mother encourages him to continue with his writing, “and one of them was this: The Best American Short Stories weren’t written by people like me”; and this is Faderman: “In 1957 poor girls like us could seldom traverse the enormous distance to college.” Perhaps what is remarkable about such observations is that they are made in the first place, because they admit of knowledge that is more often hidden than revealed. Moreover, they illustrate what Janet Zandy describes, in her seminal “In the Skin of a Worker,” as the “foregrounded subjective landscape of working-class characters’ voices as they interact with others inside or outside their own class” (92)—in other words, the lived consciousness of class oppression that is a defining characteristic of working-class writing. Consciousness doesn’t change everything, though it is the only thing that might.
González, Rigoberto. “Rechy Retrospective – Novelist’s Vision is Loud and Clear in Collection of Essays.” El Paso Times 15 May 2005: 2F.
Rechy, John. Numbers. 1967. New York: Grove Press, 1984.
Zandy, Janet. “In the Skin of a Worker; or, What Makes a Text Working Class?” Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work. Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004. 84-93.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Western American Literature 40(4), Winter 2006, 449-461.
*This article was in press when the State of California executed Stanley “Tookie” Williams at San Quentin prison on December 13, 2005.