For years I read novels whose titles appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers list. I also read the Times Literary Supplement in which books were reviewed that didn’t make the Best Sellers list, and I read them, too. These had to be the best novels in the country, I thought, and many of them were written by long-famous authors, people I had heard of back when I was a college undergraduate majoring in English. The problem was that I never enjoyed any of them, although, Lord knows, I tried. I came to realize that most of those novels were written by, for, and about upper-middle and upper class professionals (not the world in which I grew up) and that not only did the plots occur within the realm of genteel characters but these authors’ styles shared a certain gentility. Even when they wrote about tragedy, violence, or heartache, these writers exhibited an emphasis on refinement that revealed their distance from the hardships that working class people face daily. Worse, as my literary interests grew more informed, I considered most of those high-profile authors (“HPAs” from here on out) just flat-out bad writers. I concluded that we had neither latter-day counterparts to early 20th-century authors Steinbeck, Dreiser, and Dos Passos who celebrate working people, nor literary critics unafraid to call out those best-selling literati for their lack of vision and talent.
I found that I was wrong when I discovered the novels and criticism of Eric Miles Williamson. Williamson grew up in Oakland, not the glamorous Manhattan or Martha’s Vineyard or Kennebunkport of so many HPAs. His was a dysfunctional but hard-working family, rarely more than a step away from poverty or prison, not one whose chief worry is a silverware-pilfering maid. He could have taken the route of authors who flee their rough childhoods and write about imaginary homes in which husbands do not beat wives and pass out drunk on the hood of the broken-down Impala, and mothers do not parade assorted “uncles” in and out of her bedroom while father is out losing his paycheck playing craps behind the abandoned gas station. Instead, Williamson saw the all-but-beaten-down inhabitants of his Oakland as deserving as much literary attention as the money-hungry rich of Wall Street.
He brought these characters to us with a style as muscular as the wrench-wielding mechanics and concrete-slinging gunite men who populate his novels. His first, East Bay Grease, introduces us to T-Bird Murphy, a school kid trying to navigate the crime-ridden streets in the impoverished part of Oakland and a broken home with a mother who spends more time with her biker gang boyfriends than with her son. The novel has become an underground classic, not only because of Williamson’s subtle but distinctive style that reminds one of a composer slowly layering leitmotifs until all the instruments are singing in an inevitable but unforeseeable wave of sound like rolling thunder, but also because he does not shy away from passages that are at once savage and piercingly meaningful. Take this passage, for example, in which T-Bird speaks of his mother’s sense of discipline:
One time she caught me eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich between meals, and just to show her friends she knew how to discipline me, she made me put my hand on the ironing board and she ironed it. . . . Another time, she caught me having a spit-fight with Stephano, and she put me in a corner with a tin pot and made me spit and spit until the pot was full, then made me drink the spit while all her boyfriends watched. Fat Fred said, “Aren’t you being a little harsh?” and my mother told him, “If I don’t teach the boy some manners he’ll end up like all of you.”
In Welcome to Oakland, an older T-Bird tries to overcome the hardships of his past and start anew as an adult, only to find that grown-up life comes with a wider and more perilous onslaught of challenges. More immediate perils face the construction crew of Two-Up. On-the-job deaths are so frequent for these laborers that they see little point in learning a newcomer’s name. A moment of carelessness and a concrete mixer can sever a hand; one misplaced step and a man may suffocate under a crushing mound of gunite.
While Williamson’s fiction is not for the squeamish, perhaps more brutal, and brutally truthful, is his treatment of HPAs in his criticism, much of it collected in Say It Hot and Say It Hot Volume II. Williamson heaps praise on writers living and dead (of whom his knowledge is vast—is there any American writer he hasn’t read?) whom he considers truly talented, but he argues that bookstore fiction shelves groan and gag under the ever-increasing weight of novels from the untalented HPAs. The same fearlessness he exhibits when describing violence and fear in his fiction he displays when taking down overrated writers. Concerning Joyce Carol Oates, he says: She’s a worse literary offender than that avalanche of mediocrity, John Updike [whom he skewers in a separate essay]. . . . Her offhanded disregard for the niceties of having an attention span extends beyond the miasma of her writing. . . . Having written no single great book, her works will go out of print, library copies will turn to dust, and she will vanish from human memory. He calls Charles Frazier’s descriptions of lush mountain scenery bloated travel brochures and his dialogue stiff and rendered with a wooden ear. He is no fan of Toni Morrison and her lachrymose characters, her predictable subject matter . . . the in-your-face ad miseracordiam whine and whimper that runs through her oeuvre. His view of what plagues American literature is best stated in an essay entitled “Because He Wasted My Time, I’d Like to Bitch-Slap F. Scott Fitzgerald and Take His Lunch Money”: Fitzgerald’s goal as a writer was to make it big, to be rich and famous. It was a goal he achieved. Here in America, cliché sells. . . . If this garbage [The Great Gatsby] . . . is what passed as a model in this country, then I am even more ashamed to be an American than I’d thought. . . . The book is a festering swamp of bad writing.
Williamson is more than a gutsy writer of the working class and a bold, frank critic; he is also a dedicated supporter of writers with similar values. An editor of several journals and a long-time board member of the National Book Critics Circle, he has spent decades tirelessly seeking out talented writers and launching their literary careers. Those writers tend to resemble Williamson in terms of lower class background and gritty style, and he jokingly (even lovingly) refers to them as his Redneck Mafia. His unflagging devotion to that mafia (along with some features of his personal life) has kept him so far under the literary radar of late that he hasn’t written a novel in nine years. But joy of joys, readers—rumor has it that Williamson is back in the saddle and working on a new novel, and his fans all a-fidget! Stay tuned.
If you’ve had enough of the HPAs and are looking for bare-all fiction about the struggles of hard-working and damaged people or a critic who is fed up with the pabulum that too often passes for quality literature, then read Eric Miles Williamson. But beware: your ideas of literature will change. You’ve been warned, yet encouraged.