on April 5, 2011
Let me be upfront about things: I want you to buy this book. I want you to buy it not because I have any financial interest in it; I don't. I want you to buy this book because it is a magnificent memorial both by and to one of the best American writers of the waning of the 20th and dawning of the 21st centuries. I want you to buy this book because, as the line from "Death of a Salesman" notes, "Attention must be paid." In this case, the attention is to a gone America, an America that was systematically dismantled and shipped both out of state and overseas. "Rainbow Pie" chronicles an America that became intolerable to the Corporate Giants who needed to wring every last drop of money out of the blood, bones and sweat of what was, at the time, a largely rural population. Only in paying attention and remembering do we have any hope of retaining any of the values that attended those gone generations.
Joe Bageant is now part of those gone generations. It was like a kick in the gut when I learned of his death, too early, at 64, from a brain cancer. In a moment of grace from the universe, however, Joe lived to see this final work published and knew that he had done his part to preserve at least the memory of a bygone lifeway, but also to make one last attempt to help one part of America see another part of which it knows largely nothing: the mostly unmentionable white underclass.
That "Rainbow Pie," is a personal memoir is certainly true. It is also, however, a panegyric to a culture very much unused to and probably uncomfortable with such treatment. Economically, it is an examination of a system that actually worked, and as such was driven to ground by a competing global system that had to crush it, regardless of the effect on the culture it displaced. Socially, it explains the nature of a people as logically deriving from a past that has been hard as long as those people have had a past. Just because I use the word "economically" and "socially," however, don't expect deadly dull, dessicated prose. Joe couldn't do that on his worst day. This redneck rememberance, this hillbilly history vibrates with the music of the language as Joe Bageant grew up with it. His forebears return briefly to life, albeit "through a glass, darkly," and those of us with similar heritage see our own reflected in that smoky glass.
For those unfamiliar with bygone redneck culture, "Rainbow Pie" will seem almost like a National Geographic travelogue. For those familiar with it, however, it will evoke quiet declarations of "Yes!" and "Of course," and "Sho' nuff!" And that's the point, too: don't be fooled into thinking this book is culture-specific. All the peoples who have had their lives, their history, their culture laid upon Corporate America's Golden Altar dedicated to the Holy Profit will see something of their own in Joe's storytelling, of the undeniable majesty of the words with which Joe closed his correspondences, of the essential values of "art and labor."
Ultimately, that's the magic of Joe's last work: in telling a specific, highly personal story, he connects us with stories that we, in our millions, have running around in our own souls. In so doing, he plants the seeds of our own rememberance and our own willingness to peel back the layers and examine why we are where we are.