Friday, March 04, 2005

by Dale Maharidge, photographs by Michael Williamson
Seven Stories Press

review by William S. Kowinski

There are so many books, too many good ones get lost. That's my excuse for not knowing about Dale Maharidge, and his previous collaborations with photographer Michael Williamson, obsessively chronicling the losers of this American society, most of them innocent of anything but being born in the wrong place and time, and maybe being unlucky and vulnerably flawed, and believing the wrong people.

On the other hand, the major machinery of this culture would naturally work towards obscuring the existence of these books, and only obsession can really account for them even being written. However, these guys were noticed enough to win a Pulitzer Prize, and get Bruce Springsteen's attention. He wrote and recorded a couple of songs based on people they wrote about.

It took their appearance on C-Span to bring them into my life. I heard Maharidge talk about the new secret poverty in America, of not the unemployed but the working poor, in many cases the overemployed (working two or three jobs) but severely underpaid. These are the people who show up at work every day in their nice clean clothes, and sleep in their cars. Or they go home to their well-kept houses on a modest nice street, but there is absolutely no food in the refrigerator or furniture in the house. This scandal, and the outrage it is not inspiring in America, is where the horror begins.

He talked also about the rage among them, but not rage at the rich and the corporate elite. Rage at immigrants and people of other races. And now, after 9/11, rage at anybody who looks Arab or doesn't adore G.W. Bush and the flag on his lapel.

With a friendly intensity, he made some provocative and interesting observations at that bookstore on C-Span, and made some stimulating connections, as between a man's racist rage and his woefully inadequate health insurance, and the hospital bills that have dug him into a ditch of debt he will likely never even see the rim of.

All of that is in this book, but so is some riveting, absorbing writing. This book's effectiveness owes at least as much to literary skill and a mix of adept styles and tones, as to the selection of subjects. The result is a singular reading experience.

The basic focus of "'>Homeland" is post-9/11 so-called patriotism run wild, and the accelerated pungency it braids into the hot fears and cold prejudices that runs through the paradox of the lower middle class. (Mostly.) This is not entirely foreign territory to me; I grew up in western Pennsylvania, the grandson of a coal miner and an immigrant tailor, and I went to college with a lot of kids from Chicago and its suburbs. But this is definitely a scary picture. Maharidge sees a land of barely suppressed hate and open rage, of racism that's changed only in becoming too media sophisticated to ever let on that it is racism. The paradox is everywhere: ordinary people on the skids, blaming people who are often even worse off than they are.

"All these things," he quotes a priest saying. "And we don't grow up. We just don't grow up."

The first part of "Homeland" is a gripping, full-speed-ahead narrative about Katie, a high school student in West Virginia ostracized for her "radical" political views, post-9/11. The rest of the book is more fragmented in its narrative as Maharidge journeys out farther into other uncomfortable corners of America, and inward to try to make sense of it all.

This book quivers with life, its wild tangles of feeling, the everydayness of plodding but easily flaring, near-psychotic possession, and the heroic stands some make to oppose this insanely normal morass of misguided rage, by lone figures who know they will be mowed down for the smallest symbolic gesture and usually are, to the notice of almost no one. That continues to be the great political weakness of the left. While the rightists talk individualism but support each other, the leftists caw about solidarity, and fail to get past their personal fog to lift a finger for anyone. Still, at least Katie got some help from the American Civil Liberties Union.

It's carefully described and reported, but full of feeling and it gets personal, too. Maharidge writes about his father in World War II, and the painful break with an old friend over some of these issues. The book ends with a Thoreau-style manifesto against the Iraq war, from the woods of Humboldt County. Hey, I live in Humboldt County. He's got a sentence in there about a guy who lives down my street. And I had to meet Maharidge on C-Span? It's a strange world.

Maharidge teaches students to practice "Star Trek journalism," to go where nobody has gone before. He certainly walks the walk, nobody's gone where he has since the Depression anyway, and he is remarkably patient and open (much more than I could see myself being), as well as a writer of skill and feeling.

He comes away with some ideas about why we're trembling on the brink of savage chaos. In a conversation with a Civil Liberties attorney, they talk about this "blanket of conformity that had settled over America" in terms of nationalism, and a comfort with authoritarian rule that comes from feeling economically stressed and insecure.

The next review to appear here will be of a book that tries to explain some of this historically, and such explanations are certainly keenly needed: for if the 2000 election showed how divided we are into blue and red mental states, the 2004 election revealed it's more than personality preferences and lifestyle. We awoke in November to how little we know about what goes on in each others' heads or hearts. But theories aren't likely to tell us as much about this country at this moment as this book does, through the sights and the voices Maharidge brings us (and Williamson's portfolio of harrowing photos) and the responses from his head and heart he so honestly and eloquently presents.

Homeland is published in hardback by Seven Stories Press. Their paperback edition is scheduled for August 1.

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