Thursday, June 11, 2009

That Secret Code: Working Class Literature


I pulled these interviews by Orman Day from the site of Third Coast several months ago meaning to add to my collection of links on or related to Larry Brown. While I wouldn't call his portion revelatory, exactly, Brown's story resonates even more when compared with the other interviews: Dan Chaon, John McNally, Susan Straight. You only get out of the working-class mindset by isolating yourself, changing social class entirely, pretending to forget what your past is like, becoming an 'other.' To remember what you left is to induce the gut-crunching homesick everyone who leaves feels: you might alienate your family, lose your bone-deep familiarity with your surroundings, and end by apathy your other relationships within that class, but you'll always have that guilt.

I'm posting the introductory portion and a few questions. For the full Monty, visit the Third Coast link in my first paragraph.

Larry Brown, Dan Chaon, John McNally, and Susan Straight tell what working-class literature means to them—how and why they individualize the experiences they do, what they hope to leave behind, and the pleasure they feel when they get a ‘laugh of recognition.’


by Orman Day


Their childhood homes didn’t have shelves lined with leather-bound classics, but they made fervid use of their library cards. Their parents didn’t have the money to take them on European tours of museums and ancient architecture, but they learned that books would let them hike through the elephant grass of Hemingway’s Africa or study the wind-riffled waters of Loch Ness for signs of a huge, hoary snout, and a whip-like tail.

For the four of them, youth was a time when money was tight, but their imaginations were fertile. As early as five, one of them—bored with TV and his stash of books—started to create his own stories in secret.

In their twenties, they couldn’t rely on trust funds to finance garret flats in Paris or Brooklyn or San Francisco. Instead, they needed to work to buy their groceries, ink, and reams of paper. One of them joined the Marines and then became a firefighter.

Although the details and geography vary, these four rose out of the working class to win literary plaudits:

Larry Brown—who died of a heart attack at age 53 in November 2004—was a Mississippi native and master of “grit lit” whose work includes the non-fictional On Fire, short story collections Facing the Music and Big Bad Love, and novels Fay, Joe, Father and Son, Dirty Work, and The Rabbit Factory.

Dan Chaon is a Nebraska native who teaches at Oberlin College in Ohio and whose books include the novel, You Remind Me of Me, and the short story collections, Among the Missing and Fitting Ends.

John McNally is an Illinois native who teaches at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and is the author of The Book of Ralph, a fiction, and Troublemakers, a short story collection, and has edited anthologies.

Susan Straight is a California native who teaches at U.C. Riverside and is the author of Aquaboogie, I Been In Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights, The Gettin Place, and Highwire Moon. She was a National Book Awards judge in 2004.

Here are their observations about their lives and literature in response to questions sent them by email in 2004. Answers from Brown—who interrupted work on a new book to participate—arrived by snail mail just months before his death in November.


What kind of work did your parents do?

Brown: My mother worked at Camp Electric Company in Memphis when I was a kid, next to Sun Studios. Jerry Lee Lewis used to come in there and get cigarettes from the machine. Later she worked at Katz Drugstore, over on Lamar. Much later, when we moved back to Mississippi, she worked at Sears for a long time, then the North Mississippi Retardation Center, running the switchboard. My father took us away from Mississippi in 1954 because he couldn’t make it sharecropping. He worked at Fruehauf Trailer Company for a long time. Then he painted houses some, and worked at the Mid-South Fair. When we moved back here, he worked at a stove factory in Oxford until he died suddenly early one morning in 1968.

Chaon: My father was a construction worker—a journeyman electrician. My mother was a stay-at-home mom or (as she said) a “housewife.” My dad traveled a lot and during the summers we would sometimes live in a rented trailer house near where he worked. The most memorable of these was an enormous worker camp, a huge trailer encampment outside of Gillette, Wyoming.

McNally: My father was a roofer for thirty-something years, but for about five or so years he tried to run his own wall-washing and rug cleaning business. He bought two machines and put ads in papers, and I’d occasionally go with him to help out. I was probably between six and ten years old. He wasn’t making as much money as he did roofing, which is why he went back, but he always wanted to run his own business. He hated working for someone. My mother worked in a factory until she had to go on disability leave for health problems. It killed her not to be working. (This is where we used to part ways: she always thought I should have a job, that it would be good for my character; I hated working and would resist looking for a job as long as I could.) She was from a large sharecropping family in Tennessee, and she started picking cotton when she was three. At thirteen, she left home, moved to Memphis, and got a job in a nursing home, working there for about six years before moving to Illinois with her mother and two sisters.

Straight: My mother was born in Switzerland, lost her own mother at age ten, and her family emigrated to Canada and then the US. She left her home in Fontana at age seventeen and began working as a secretary, and she worked for insurance companies and banks for my entire life, except for ten years when she stayed home and raised foster children with her own (five total). My stepfather has had many jobs: he owned a series of laundromats and repair facilities, and when I was in college, he got a great marketing job for a linen company. He is retired.


Was money a major concern?

Brown: Yes. Always. We were very poor.

Chaon: My dad wasn’t very good with money. I remember times when he seemed pretty flush, and other times when it seemed that we were broke. My parents were always buying things and then having to sell them, or having them repossessed.

McNally: Money was always a concern. I tend to think that every argument my mother and father had was about money—and they argued a lot. My father, always looking for some way to make it on his own, would spend what little money we had on, say, “stock” for the flea market; my mother, on the other hand, was the one who had to buy the groceries, etc., so she always knew how much money we had or didn’t have. We used to move from one apartment building to the next—I went to five different grade schools—and the one thing my mother always wanted was a house. Once we finally moved into a house (my sophomore year of high school), my mother feared we were going to lose it, and my father always complained about how much it cost. The house ratcheted up the stress-level for the few years we lived there. After my mother died, my father (burdened with medical bills) filed for bankruptcy and let the bank take the house.

Straight: Money was always a concern. Every minute, until I was in college. We wore homemade and used clothing, we ate inexpensive food, and there were lots of kids. But as the clich├ęs go, we had a great time playing ball in the park, running the streets of our neighborhood and the foothills (we loved dirt surfing down the barren hillsides!) and not until I went to high school did I realize how much money and clothes and haircuts mattered.

Remaining interview here, in case you missed it above.

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