Deer Hunting with Jesus

bageant1A couple of years ago liberal New York journalist Joe Bageant returned to his working-class Virginia town and wrote Deer Hunting with Jesus, a savage journey through the lives of the American working poor. In this book Bagent visits Virginia’s bars, factories, diners and gas stations, chatting with the characters and casualties of his youth, and weaves their personal stories into a series of compulsive essays on the losing side of the American Dream.

Like Thomas Frank, whose What’s The Matter with Kansas explored the backlash politics that turned his home state from a land of abolitionist radicals into a province that returned the GOP in every election, Joe Bageant writes of the doomed pride and integrity that leads the US working class – like the British working class – to ‘use the voting booth as an instrument of self-flagellation.’ At some places the book is heartbreaking: these are people to whom the words ‘land of the free’ have become laughably, appallingly irrelevant.

There’s also essays on the shocking state of what passes for America’s healthcare system, a prophetic account of the rise of predatory lenders setting up exploitative loans for people who can’t possibly pay the money back, and a chapter on gun control so thoughtful and well written that it actually changed my opinion on gun control.

Indeed, Bageant’s strength is his writing. He has been compared to Hunter S Thompson, and he lives up to it – not the manic, flailing HST of the Gonzo years, but the tight and careful prose of Thompson’s early journalism. At some points, Bageant’s writing transcends journalism altogether: it becomes Faulknerian, something Truman Capote would write if he’d been born at a lower station in life. Or the book Thompson tried to write but never managed: The Death of the American Dream.

Deer Hunting with Jesus seems to have barely made a blip on the radar of American letters and that is unjust. I’d recommend the book unconditionally, and there is an excerpt here:

It’s going to be a tough fight for progressives. We are going to have to pick up this piece of roadkill with our bare hands. We are going to have to explain everything about progressivism to the people at Burt’s because their working-poor lives have always been successfully contained in cultural ghettos such as Winchester by a combination of God rhetoric, money, cronyism, and the corporate state. It will take a huge effort, because they understand being approximately poor and definitely uneducated and in many respects accept it as their lot. Right down to being sneered at by the Social Security lady. Malcolm X had it straight when he said the first step in revolution is massive education of the people. Without education nothing can change. What my people really need is for someone to say out loud: ‘Now lookee here, dammit! We are dumber than a sack of hair and should’a got an education so we would have half a notion of what’s going on in the world.’ Someone once told me that and, along with the advice never to mix Mad Dog 20/20 with whiskey, it is the best advice I ever received. But no one in America is about to say such a thing out loud because it sounds elitist. It sounds un-American and undemocratic. It also might get your nose broken in certain venues. In an ersatz democracy maintaining the popular national fiction that everyone is equal, it is impermissible to say that, although we may all have equal constitutional rights, we are not actually equal. It takes genuine education and at least some effort toward self-improvement just to get to the starting line of socioeconomic equality.

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