I fell in love with literature when I read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The backwoods Bundren family—some hard-working and honorable, some shiftless and depraved, and all dirt poor—were my people. I had never imagined that penniless and often clueless clodhoppers could be proper subjects for respectable art. I found that such characters surfaced in the work of other, usually Southern, authors, like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Erskine Caldwell. The fictive world occupied by O’Connor’s and Welty’s characters were familiar to me, but they were not the destitute and often violent milieu of Faulkner and especially Caldwell. These authors all understood something about poor people, although only Caldwell seemed especially to care for them. In the years after being awakened to literature by Faulkner, I discovered many writers I admired, but I wondered why nearly all of them wrote only about socio-economically privileged characters.
A year and a half ago we lost one of my literary idols, Harry Crews. A long-time creative writing professor at the University of Florida, Crews developed a reputation as a whiskey-steeped barroom brawler in his gonzo-styled articles in the 70s for magazines such as Playboy and Esquire. His students have pocketfuls of stories about their uncouth instructor—Crews of the Mohawk haircut, Crews the bane of administrators, Crews the drunken lurker of halls. I had nearly given up on finding a favorite writer who championed the desperate, the derelict, and the down-trodden. Then I read Crews’s A Feast of Snakes, and the experience was much as I’d had with first reading Faulkner. Here was an author who got it! Here was an author who’d been to the depths himself and knew that poor, underclass folks led lives as complex as those of champagne sippers complaining about stock margins in a Manhattan bistro. Despite his cult following and the respect he received from other writers, Crews would never see any of his books on the New York Times bestseller list, a list commonly composed of books whose northeastern characters’ principal worry is whether they’ll run out of Xanax today.
Only after I began publishing my fiction and came into contact with other writers did I discover that a new generation of authors, strewn across the American literary and geographical landscapes, share my penchant for characters at the bottom of the food chain and the edge of despair as well as my distaste for the gentile pabulum sported in the posters plastered on Barnes & Noble windows. If you prefer stories about laid-off sheet metal workers driven to sell weed to pay rent on their roach-infested shotgun shacks, bankrupt farmers trying to figure out how to commit suicide yet have their families still collect double indemnity life insurance, and out-of-work grocery store clerks living out of their cars and who convince themselves they’re really not whores as they blow another stranger for the price of a shot of cheap liquor, rather than another NYT best seller about Hartford suburbanites swapping neuroses, you now have choices. But, with few exceptions, you won’t find these books from the big publishing houses or see their authors propped up on a couch beside Oprah.
Consider Eric Miles Williamson, whose novels like Two Up and Welcome to Oakland have made him a celebrity in France but are published by a small, independent press here. His protagonists come from broken, alcoholic homes, work the most backbreaking jobs (when the work is there), and fill their desolate hours with cheap booze and cheaper sex. He’s a leader for those of us whom the French magazine Transfuge dubbed “white trash” writers. This movement, if it can be called that, includes authors from around the country. Then there’s Larry Fondation, whose characters in Unintended Consequences and other story collections crawl about the underside of his Los Angeles having long given up on a way out. In his From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet, Patrick Michael Finn chronicles bleak accounts of the working (or at least trying to be among the working) class of Joliet (where he’s from) and other industrial regions of northern Illinois. Joseph Haske’s North Dixie Highway moves from rural Michigan (Haske’s home) to the drug-war-torn Texas border, places hope seems to have abandoned. George Williams’ Garden of Earthly Delights paints as bizarre a picture as the Hieronymus Bosch work from which it derives its name in tragicomedies set from Virginia (whence Williams hails) to Paris. Such literary sentiments are not restricted to fiction. Take a look at Steve Davenport’s poems in Overpass, where the southern Illinois floodplain (that produced Davenport) rests on “dirt cursed with industry and blood.” I consider those authors among the best writers in America, yet they’ll never rob any sales from literati darlings like Janet Evanovich or Jonathan Franzen.
To be sure, some who write about the hapless lives of the down and out enjoy wider audiences and with top publishers. Ron Rash is one of my favorite writers, and his novels, short stories, and poems are most often about the struggles of the salt-of-the-earth folk of the sweat- and tear-soaked North Carolina mountains. Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time is a brutal, shocking story about the demented and the corrupt in rural Ohio and one of the best novels I’ve read in years. Daniel Woodrell, who made the big time when his Winter’s Bone was adapted for the big screen and was a hit, calls his stories about the Ozarks “country noir.” Chris Offutt’s books like Kentucky Straight fit Woodrell’s description, and Offutt has translated some of that style to the small screen, writing episodes for TV series such as Weeds. And, of course, the early works of our best living writer, Cormac McCarthy, are as grim and savage as anything you could ever read. For every one of these who receive well-deserved recognition, however, five or ten other immensely talented writers quietly produce some of the most exquisitely crafted and harshly honest work around.
Unfortunately for these underappreciated writers, the best-seller stuff is written by and for the privileged of American society. Those books tend to be self-indulgent for a self-indulgent class of people. Their characters worry about inheritances; my characters worry about hookworm. Their authors are concerned with the foibles of the well-off; those authors I praised above worry about the fate of the marginalized. Larry Fondation has said that “the most dangerous people are those who do not admit their dark sides.” I wonder if the same can be said of a nation whose popular literature fails in that admission. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, musician Tom Waits, and a few others belong to a whimsical, secret club called the Sons of Lee Marvin. Those of us who think of ourselves as forming a Sons of Harry Crews brotherhood not only admit our nation’s dark side, we think it’s the heart of the American literary body.