Long ago, having had to write more book reviews than I wanted, I decided that I would rather have pile surgery by an ocelot than write another. Then I got an advance copy of Deer Hunting with Jesus, by Joe Bageant, and realized that I had to come out of retirement. It’s, you know, like noblesse oblige. Here goes.
Bageant is a redneck, and his book is about rednecks, who are a huge, sprawling class of people found everywhere but mostly invisible. They aren’t what people think they are. (Though, given that a strange mixture of folk read this column, I’d better be careful with generalizations.) They actually have lives, and problems, and stories. They can be amusing, admirable, exasperating, and pathetic. Mostly nobody cares. If you truly are interested in how America works, in what’s out there down the side roads, shell out the lousy $16.50 and read the sucker.
Now, quickly before I lose all my readers: Two things Deer Hunting isn’t. First, although Bageant has a sense of humor, and doesn’t hide it well, the book is not — is not at all — the sort of cutesy-phony redneck wit that floats around the internet (“You know you are a redneck if you have a ’54 Merc on blocks outside your trailer….”) True, a certain folk wisdom shines through in parts. ("Things I have learned at Burt’s Tavern: (1) Never shack up with a divorced woman who is two house payments behind, and swears you are the best sex she ever had. (2) Never eat cocktail weenies out of the urinal, no matter how big the bet gets.") But this is salad dressing. The book is dead serious.
Second, it certainly is not academic sociology, which reads like a truss ad but without the insight and grace. The guy is very sharp and well read and he’s been around. He spent the Vietnam years throwing airplanes off an aircraft carrier, and later edited Military History magazine. Further, he is an authority on bars, hunting, lousy jobs, and misery. He has been there.
Now, politics. Bageant is in favor of universal health care, which to conservatives is worse than finding half a bull roach in your egg-burger. We’ve all heard the tales of welfare queens and exploitation of the dread entitlements by shiftless parasites who breed like Renaissance popes at public expense. Some of that exists, chiefly in cities. Food stamps regularly get turned into drug-and-booze money. All sorts of swindles exist, chiefly in cities.
But the people Bageant writes about don’t fit this story. They are folk who worked all their lives, worked hard for s__t wages at stultifying jobs and always showed up. And now, at the ends of their lives, they’ve got nothing. Well, they’ve got diabetes, which I guess is something. And maybe congestive heart failure and a pittance of social security. Know what pharmaceuticals cost? The choice comes to pills or heating oil.
It ain’t right.
Mostly he writes about Winchester, Virginia, where he grew up and now lives again. But Winchester is pretty much anywhere and everywhere. You just don’t see it. Drive a few miles south of DC on Route 301 in Maryland and you come to Waldorf. There, in the Wigwam, a down-demographic girly bar, you see (or did see; it’s been years) the dump truck drivers with baseball hats on backwards and triceps flapping like water balloons. Except very few see them. Rednecks. They hoot and holler and chaff with the girls and probably aren’t who your mother wanted you to play with.
You don’t see that these guys work as “independent contractors,” meaning no retirement or benefits, at sorry wages, and live a paycheck or two away from nothing, in crumbling fifth-rate modular homes or trailers that lose value instead of gaining it. When they’re thirty and healthy, it’s not bad. It’s at the end that things get rough, or when someone gets sick.
Rednecks, as Bageant explains in detail, are dumber than dirt. They’re not bad people. You can heist a brew with them and talk about NASCAR and gobble wings and, with a little effort, come away liking them. But they don’t know squat. They are easily suckered by real-estate scammers and corporate con artists. The level of genuine illiteracy in America is much higher than most think. Add people who can barely read, and therefore don’t, and have never read a book in their lives, and you get a disconcerting number. In thousands of Winchesters, this is the norm.
Everything comes from television, mostly Fox News, and from Rush Limbaugh. They don’t have passports, may not know what one is, and seldom leave the county where they were born.
Bageant knows what he is talking about. I know he does because I grew up mostly in small Southern towns and half-empty counties, including King George County, Virginia, a few hours from Winchester. Same people. I dated the girls and got drunk with the boys and saw how they lived. Those people worked. My best girlfriend in high school got up at four in the morning to help her father pull crab pots on the Potomac. She was pretty as any picture could hope to be, even with lots of imagination and on acid, but she could have thrown a Volkswagen over a four-storey building. They worked.
The thing is that people who went to college mostly don’t know about rednecks, or how many there are, or why they do what they do. What they think they know is usually wrong. I once talked to a psychologist from some semi-Ivy school and the subject of guns came up. She immediately launched into gunsaretokillpeoplegunsaretokillpeople, essentially pre-recorded. “Why else would anyone want guns, except to kill people?”
I mentioned hunting, and it bounced off. No response, just didn’t register. She was intelligent and not mean-spirited, but didn’t know that to Bageant’s people, to my high-school classmates, a hundred pounds of dressed deer meat meant eating decently. She thought guns were to kill people because in cities, all she knew, that’s what the urban savages used them for. Fact is, redneckdom is heavily armed and neither Bageant nor I can remember anyone being shot, purposefully or accidentally. She wouldn’t have believed it. Guns are to kill people.
And my god, the born-again evangelical Christians who are waiting to be sucked up by the Rapture as if by a god-powered Hoovermatic vacuum cleaner. They are serious as melanoma and could give any Muslim sect known a run for its extremism money. I’m running out of space, but Bageant knows them by their first names, grew up with them, and doesn’t chrome-plate them to make them seem shinier than they are. The country a lot of people live in isn’t the one they think they live in.
Worth a read. Funny, thought-provoking and, though it creeps up on you, profound. Cheap, too.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. Visit his blog.