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Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent Paperback – April 25, 2014
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About the Author
Peter Van Buren is a former Foreign Service officer at the Department of State. He is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His commentary has been featured in the Guardian, HuffingtonPost.com, Mother Jones, the New York Times, and Salon.com, among other publications. He is currently collaborating with Academy Award–nominated documentary filmmaker James Spione on a film about federal whistleblowers. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia.
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I see lesser Tom Joads, real people, not ghosts, a couple of times a week. Tom Joad was the principal character in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Driven off his farm in Oklahoma, by the dust bowl, and bankers, he took famous Route 66 west to California, and in the process passed through Albuquerque, NM. Joad still retained some hope of a better life, out there in California, when he passed through. The ones that I see appear to be devoid of hope, just so much “industrial waste,” which is the title to one of Van Buren’s chapters. And they haunt. All too many have that hole in their arm where all the money goes, another aspect of the “new economy.”
Van Buren has written a brilliant and scathing novel on the detritus left behind by the de-industrialization of America. And we did it to ourselves; no foreign power imposed its will on us. As Van Buren states: “Somehow we got from there to here, where cars are made by foreign companies and Detroit looks like Dresden after WW II and Dresden looks like Detroit before WW II. Still, if our state could give the Germans enough of our tax money as an incentive, and enough work visas for their most skilled workers and managers to come over from Germany, they’d build cars to sell us here in Ohio and we’d have some more jobs that the Germans didn’t get, which was a lot like stealing tips.”
And our political leadership?: “Same there, as it was four years ago and four years before that. Every four years the president comes back into western Pennsylvania like a dog looking for a place to pee. He reminds us that his wife’s cousin is from some town near to ours, gets photographed at the diner if it’s still in business, and then makes those promises to us while winking at the big business donors who feed him bribes they call campaign contributions. I’m tempted to cut out the middle man and just write in ‘Goldman Sachs’ on my ballot next election.” And that “elite media”?: “Meanwhile the coast reporters will write another story about the ‘heartland’ and then get out as fast as they can, acting as if something might stick to them if they stood still too long.”
Small town Reeves, southeastern Ohio. The school and the factory, where everyone knew each other. Not a perfect world, by far, but a “bargain,” between the factory owners and workers, with each side cheating a bit. The big hope was to get that football scholarship to Ohio State, but if that didn’t work, the factory was the safety net, before some folks in Dubai, or was it Korea, bought it, and started downsizing. Van Buren says that it was in 1973 when Patient Zero of the “new economy,” the first steelworker, got laid off. Springsteen’s “The River” contained that evocative line of first love: “Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir.” Always possible for last love too. In the novel, Earl’s first love is Angie, and he quips: “Our version of an STD was poison ivy.” So I was not alone!
Earl’s dad, Ray was in the Korean War. Not the mad dash north part, but rather guarding some hill known by its meters, for a year. And brings back a haunting memory, much akin to one of the first foreign movies I saw: Sundays and Cybèle.
Van Buren packed in his novel more gut-wrenching social critiques than Steinbeck did in more than double the space. Van Buren takes us into one of the massage parlors that now populate virtually every strip mall in ABQ (and elsewhere). We learn what it is like to work at “Bullseye,” a stand-in for various big box stores that never quite allow you to work full time, and try to squeeze every ounce of work out of you, with nary a benefit. The slide into homelessness and drugs is fully there too, including the police who cover up for this growth business. Remember the four trillion dollars? So few do today, the bailout of 2008-09. Van Buren remembers, and asks how many jobs Reeves received out of it.
I marked virtually every page: a sign of an excellent book. Here are just a few more choice quotes:
“Plenty of people willing to slap my back because I was a soldier but nobody gave me a job.”
“… a good portion of our labor force is focused on protection rather than production.”
“One third of all working Americans are ‘contingent.’ “I allow companies to be flexible and nimble over my dead body.”
Van Buren SEES so well, and writes so well. I find it incongruous that somehow he worked at the State Department for 24 years. Yet he did, and no surprise, got into a bit of trouble for again SEEING, and writing about what the United States did wrong in Iraq. His book: We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (American Empire Project) is now on my “must read” list.
In my idiosyncratic rating system, I have given only two 6-star, pluses, for: "Hearts and Minds" and Where Pigeons Don't Fly. Van Buren’s brilliant cri de Coeur from the heartland is the third.
I found myself completely engrossed in the personalities and situations in this book, and I'm afraid I must totally disagree with a previous reviewer about the dialogue, which I thought was authentically in the voice of the characters. And to say that this story is an ode to capitalism is to completely misunderstand and oversimplify it. I, for one, couldn't put this book down. This is *literature.*
Read it, though Ghost of Tom Joad is not an easy read. The portrait it paints is depressing. This is a hard reality to face. And Peter Van Buren doesn’t make it any easier by writing it partly as lived experience and partly as a political statement on America. There are moments of great descriptive writing and then there are whole racks of statistics that break the narrative flow.
But none of this can take away from the importance of this book. It is a compassionate look at the American Dream since 1973 through the eyes of someone whose experience has been more nightmare than dream-like. It is also a cautionary tale - recognize the path that brought us to this pass in order to find a way out of the morass. The references to Grapes of Wrath are well woven into the story and remind us of the need for constant vigilance to prevent exploitation.
But this is not just a political commentary. Van Buren has written a very human story about a man’s life, his expectations and disappointments. It is the story about his decisions, the results that ensue, his limited room to maneuver because of a system that he doesn’t fully understand until it’s too late. It is also a story about the people who inhabit his world and their efforts to survive, against all odds. Heartbreaking, yet familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the heartland of America over the past thirty years.
Every American should read this book. And the wider world as well to understand what makes – and unmakes - the American Dream.