Fear and Loathing in Middle America

Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War by Joe Bageant (Crown, 288 pages)

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Every so often, you pick up a book and two pages in your nose is glued to it. Not necessarily because of the subject matter per se -- though good subject matter certainly helps -- but because the prose is so damned electric.

Usually, I've found, when it comes to reportage like this, the book's author has a single name: Hunter S. Thompson. Recently, though, I've added another name to my stuck-nose lexicon, having been utterly ensnared by Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting With Jesus.

Bageant grew up in a fundamentalist Christian, ultra-working-class family in a claustrophobic little Virginia town named Winchester. Then, in his own terminology, he made his escape. He moved west and made a pretty decent career for himself in the world of journalism. A few years ago, though, he felt a craving for his childhood home and, now deep into middle-age, decided to relocate once more.

So the self-proclaimed socialist, atheist, heavy-drinking, three-times-married Joe returned home, to a landscape dominated by rabid, demon-battling fundamentalists (including his younger brother, a fire-and-brimstone preacher); NASCAR; overpriced mobile homes; greasy food; depressing, dead-end, anti-union workplaces; and gung-ho patriots whose pick-up trucks boast bumper stickers such as "Kick their ass. Take their gas."

Lucky for us, Bageant didn't hop on the next plane back west, and didn't chalk it all up to a terrible, misconstrued nostalgia. Instead, he stuck to his guns -- literally -- and tried to understand why people in his part of the country, people he genuinely loves despite his utter detestation of their politics, are so dyed-in-the-wool conservative that it'd take the Apocalypse to prize them away from supporting George W. Bush.

"In the days before the spine of the labor movement was crushed, back when you could be a gun owner and a liberal without any conflict, members of the political left supported these workers, stood on the lines taking beatings at the plant gates alongside them," he argues. "Now there is practically no labor movement, and large numbers on the left are comfortably ensconced in the true middle class... From that vantage point, liberals currently view working whites as angry, warmongering bigots, happy pawns of the American empire -- which begs the questions of how they came to be that way, if they truly are."

Deer Hunting With Jesus gets down-and-dirty with Bageant's friends, acquaintances, beer buddies, family members. He tells stories of jobs lost, of health catastrophes brought on by lifetimes of overwork and under-privilege, of huckster subprime mortgage brokers preying on near-illiterate clientele, of grown men chasing nickel-an-hour pay raises and people a paycheck away from bankruptcy swearing blind everyone can make it rich in America. He reports on karaoke nights, fundamentalist church gatherings, civil war re-enactors, and premillenialists longing for a foreign policy that can nudge nearer a nuclear apocalypse and the onset of End Times.

A common theme throughout his book is fraud, and the peculiar vulnerability to fraud of closed-in, under-invested-in communities such as Winchester: religious charlatans pushing dodgy theories into the heart of the political process; wealthy, educated men and women deliberately curtailing the educational opportunities of the poor, giving them just enough schooling to know how to dream the American Dream, but not nearly enough to ever be able to challenge their poverty and make that dream a reality; workers "encouraged" by companies like Wal-Mart to be hostile to the "special interests" represented by trade unions.

Bageant finds it tragic that the good citizens of Winchester lap all of this up, yet he clearly also relishes it as the stuff of great human drama. Life, after all, is at least [in] part an ongoing saga of pathos.

Throughout the past century, extreme insecurity and poverty has tended to pull societies in one of two directions: either toward a radical critique of the existing social order, a move toward, say, communism; or, if revolutionary organizations and philosophies are absent, toward an evermore conservative, hostile-to-outsiders, embrace of a romanticized national image -- a quasi-fascist retreat into a world of paranoia and fear and conspiracy theories.

In many ways, Bageant's description of Winchester, a place of endemic white poverty in a country whose pundit classes tend to assume modern-day hardship has almost exclusively a brown or black face, fits into the latter category.

"The working class here in what they are now calling the 'heartland,' (all the stuff between the big cities)" he writes, "exists on a continuum ranging from complete insecurity to the not-quite-complete insecurity of having a decent but endangered job. It is a continuum extending from the apathy of the poorest to the hard-edged anger of those with more to lose. Which ain't a lot, brother, when your household income hovers around $30,000 or $35,000 with both people working... Until those with power and access decide that it's beneficial to truly educate people, and make it possible to get an education without going into crushing debt, then the mutt people here in the heartland will keep on electing dangerous dimwits in cowboy boots."

Part ethnography, part sociology, part just good, old-fashioned storytelling, Deer Hunting With Jesus uses an insider's perspective to explain, generally successfully, why parts of rural America, especially in the South, are so conservative, so suspicious of "big city liberals," and so willing to cast their lot with right-wing politicians who swiftly turn around and bite these working class supporters in their collective ass.

Imagine a cross between Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, Hunter S. Thompson's booze-and-dope fueled meditations on Nixon's political potency, and C. Wright Mills' understanding of the durability of the power elite... put 'em all into the hopper, mix them around at high speed, and you end up somewhere about where Bageant did. In other words, it's informative, infuriating, terrifying, scintillating, and, at the end of the day, when HST's ghost finally emerges triumphant, it's just downright fun.

Unlike Frank, Bageant is unapologetically the product of redneck America. As a result, in the same way as I can get away with Jewish jokes, so Bageant can get away with redneck jokes that probably shouldn't be told by a man not of the "Borderers" tribe -- the conservative descendants of the Ulster Scots -- that he so vividly describes.

"After a night of political discussion at Royal Lunch [his local greasy spoon diner-cum-tavern]," Joe recounts deadpan, "a British relative, a distant continental member of the Bageant clan, called our gang of locals 'the most intellectually squalid people I have ever met' -- and he had chewed qat with Ugandan strongman Idi Amin's bodyguards."

No single book will ever be able to fully explain why so much of impoverished America so consistently votes against its own economic self-interest. Likewise, no single book will ever fully explain the unique confluence of historical and cultural forces that created and continues to bulge the Bible Belt. But Bageant, a newcomer to the world of book writing, takes a pretty good stab at it. And he does so in a way that's accessible, raucous and unapologetically foul-mouthed. It's fun reading, and, given his depressing subject matter, that's quite a feat.

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