Years on from the passing of US author Joe Bageant, his writing looks as insightful and portentous as ever
Three years ago, a quick sideways glance at the title sticking out from my library’s bottom shelf was enough to lure me. ‘Deer Hunting with Jesus” yodelled the red lettering. A flash of my Calvinistic Christian childhood waved a banner. The sub-heading ‘Dispatches from America’s working class‘ grabbed me further thanks to a long-held (and largely inexplicable) fascination with American southern culture. And when I saw the author Joe Bageant had included a ‘Foreword for Australian Readers’ in my edition, paying tribute to his fondness for Australia and the parallels he saw between our working class character and that of the United States, the deal was sealed. Who could resist such an evangelical call-to-arms?
So I lugged that book around for the next two weeks, read snippets at the public swimming pool, the Scouts pick-up wait, the barber while I waited for my sons to emerge from their mops of holiday hair. It earned me some curious glances, mostly from men doubtlessly more attracted by its deer hunting overtones than any christian connection. My parents, flicking through it on a visit, thought it was an anthology of devotional readings.
|Deer Hunting with Jesus cover image|
In Deer Hunting, and in a score of essays he posted online and with magazines such as La Cuadra (there is a whole goldmine of Bageant writings at http://www.joebageant.com/) Bageant lines his sights at the ‘great American hologram’, the Oz-style manufactured illusion of a white, middle-class America that is the shared projection of poor and wealthy, rural and urban. The reality, Bageant says, is the economic, intellectual, social, and spiritual marginalisation of millions of hard-working Americans who have earned exactly enough to subsist until the US third-world medical and welfare system can knock them off. These are people whose weekly wage after rent/utilities of $60 gives them a fine choice of: a) buy medicine to stave off the effects of their chronic illnesses; or b) buy crappy food to contribute to their chronic illnesses. If you had to walk in the shoes of some of the subjects Bageant writes about- real-life acquaintances and neighbours he introduces while swilling a few at his local bar, the Royal Lunch – you’d pray for the illness to carry you off to greener pastures quickly. That this impoverishment is conditioned (by the profiteering industry captains, and the forces that support them) to be almost consensual by a huge group of people that Bageant labels as ‘dumber than owl shit’ is even more harrowing.
When I Googled ‘Joe Bageant’ to grab his essays and other works, maybe send a email asking what he would make of an ‘Australian underclass’, I read that Bageant had died earlier that year, March 2011, after a short struggle with cancer. The eulogy from Martin Tallon, Editor-in-Chief at La Cuadra, paid a faultless salute to a man who ‘brought balm and big love to the weaker thans and the world-forgotten’. I felt robbed to think I’d missed years of this guy’s writing while that book was presumably sitting on the bottom shelf of my public library all the time.
Bageant can take such shots at the working-class because was born and raised working-class, of Appalachian, West Viriginia mountain stock (he describes his childhood in more elegiac and vivid prose in his memoir Rainbow Pie). He is the self-described black sheep of his family who acquired a literary education, survived service in Vietnam, and emerged in anti-war and social activism and counterculture writing and journalism. Deer Hunting gets its girth because Bageant uses his return to his old stomping ground of Winchester to launch an attach on the ignorant misery he witnesses in the lives of his poor community.
The health system gets a royal blasting, as does the corporatisation of the education system by wealthy Christian fundamentalists. As an ‘old leftie’, you’d think Bageant would have a soft spot for the Democrats, but he squeezes off a few shots at their largely ineffectual urban pontificating. Republican rhetoric cops the heaviest fire. Curiously, gun ownership gets off lightly. But Bageant grew up in a community where guns were heritage and heirlooms and spoke of craftsmanship, kinship and male rite of passage (check out Rainbow Pie for an evocative chapter on the Bageant family guns and their hunting activities). The guns that matter to these communities are not the guns that turn up in urban crime centre, he argues. Certainly – and ironically given the waves of devastating gun tragedies that have crashed on American communities – 9000 gun-related deaths a year!) he downplayed gun ownership compared to the more crushing and immediate tyrannies of industry, globalisation, national politicking and religious bigotry.
The real salt in Bageant’s wound is that working-class America helped perpetuate the hologram by voting en-force for George W Bush in 2000 and in 2004 because Bush said things that ‘sounded like they would be true’, effectively mouthed conservative epitaphs that the working-class could understand: God, guns, glory and fealty to country etc etc. By contrast, the Democrats rhetoric sounded hollow (no matter how well-meaning – note that at the time of writing Deer Hunting, Obama was an upcoming figure on the political horizon). Bageant argues that both parties’ policies serve- with the blind acquiescence of the class they subdue – to keep millions of hard-working, tax-paying Americans from the right to a sound public education, affordable housing, and a health system concerned with people over profits. The lack of these rights had contributed to a passive, dumb and proud populace only too willing to hug their ignorance close to their chests and keep voting in the status quo. Bageant claims the dissatisfied working-class needs a voice of revolution from within, a voice that shakes mute mulishness into action.
After re-reading Deer Hunting, I felt that voice might sound like Bageant’s. Sincere, indignant, unpretentious, crude in some places (he has a salty vocabulary and habits), compassionate in many, hilarious in others. But it’s aimed true, and clear and hard as a bullet. So true and clear that after you’re punched in the guts, the aftershock is invigorating. He made me laugh aloud because this guy looks right down the barrel at himself, his community, and his country, and loves and hates it all.
So yes, Bageant’s Deer Hunting, and his later Rainbow Pie, are devotionals of sorts. A reviewer proclaimed Deer Hunting ‘…profane love song to the great American redneck.’ This book introduced me to an author who was a paradox of profanity and poetry. Even years on from his death, I find increasing numbers of friends (obviously more resourceful than I) who’ve read Bageant, and, love or loathe him, recognise his is a singular voice that breaks the silent and stupid resentfulness of his working class.