Deer Hunting With Jesus

4 Sep

This is something I’ve come to realise about reviewing books: choosing what to review is not as straightforward as you might think. The suggestion that a good book you enjoyed reading will be sufficient for a review is sadly incorrect. There are various reasons why this is tricky: a book can be enjoyable to read but unremarkable upon finishing, for instance. To review such a book would be like suggesting  your friends eat at a restaurant you got food poisoning from citing the logic: ‘the meal was fine whilst I was eating it, it wasn’t till after that there was eventually a great emptiness.”
Or if a book is filled with beautiful poise but nothing to hold on to, then it’s slick but unhelpful: A book has to have handles to be ultimately rewarding to review (in my minor opinion). It has to have grit, there has to be something in there that exists outside of the story, something you can dismantle and hold up to the readers so  they become inspired to discover it themselves. Weekly, I hunt for books that fit this bill. Frequently I’m dissatisfied in my attempts but more often than not I’m rewarded with an object of perfect review.

Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s class war by Joe Bageant is one such book. Indeed there may not be many books around with as much grit as this. From the introduction to the newer edition where Bageant is talking to his kin about the book’s reception in Australia & he recalls a conversation with an Aussie who concludes he’s glad ‘we got all the criminals and you got all the puritans.’ To the book shifting continents, landing in Winchester, Virginia (where Bageant was born, raised and ultimately died this year in March after an exceptionally unrelenting cancer took his life in 2 months), the destination of the so-called puritans, where a local bar hound Pooty wears a T Shirt declaring “THOUSANDS OF BATTERED WOMAN IN THIS COUNTRY AND I’VE BEEN EATING MINE PLAIN”  Bageant  points out that such a  sentiment is ordinary fare round here, which tells you much of what you need to know about these people.
But not everything; in fact it only reinforces the tired (yet often true) stereotypes we hold regarding the working underclass of most Western Countries. Our own included. And this is the reviewers handle, hell this is where the book pretty much stretches out its arm of homely written Americanisms and pulls you into a world of political and social observations rich for a reviewer to dwell on without ruining a plot.

Bageant was in a privileged position, not in any ordinary sense as his upbringing was as devoid of reward as many, but from the point of view that he chose to educate himself – was motivated from some place of spirit or destiny or good tactical sense – and so was able to be both a ‘dumb red neck’ by birth and a political and philosophical observer by nature. Bageant moved back to Winchester after years of leftist, socially thoughtful and progressive blogging, freelance journalism and editorial work, to see what his home town had become. Unsurprisingly to the more farsighted it had predictably become an embattled hell for the majority of its inhabitants. What Bageant could always see through (the high interest Mortgage scams, corporate companies profiteering off the back of hard working but desperate people, the cluttering of spiritual arteries with stuff and more stuff), was/is destroying the people he was raised amongst. Like the folks who work in rubber making factories for minimum wage and no job security, forever terrified that their job will be given to a wetback; to the sick and the dying and the demented who cannot afford the care they deserve as so called ‘equal’ citizens. Somehow the collective obsession with owning things but not wanting to pay much for them, for having things at any cost and no longer wondering about worth, has forced the poorest people into a bargain with the devil. Which reminds me of a woman in the book; a local fixture at the bar who has to suck every few minutes on an oxygen tank, who lives in a residential care facility that would make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, but who can sing like a bird and who belts out karaoke between oxygen intakes for the punters – but mainly for herself.
These people think that buying is living and no one helps out after they’ve spent all their earning power, used all their good health on making cheap products for Wal Mart and face an end that’s worse and more lonely than their imagined hell because this one is definitely real. Though that said one has a lot more sympathy for imaginary paradises when you begin to comprehend what ordinary living for these dreamers is like.

Written in 2006 Bageant’s foresight is provable whilst reading the book during the current second wave of recession destroying the working underclass who were the lifeblood of the scam, the meat for the bacteria to eat, but who were so poorly educated & so exhausted from working 11 hour days that they had no way of knowing they were digging their own grave.

Deer Hunting with Jesus is rich with the kind of understanding that can only come from within, from a journalist who is truly imbedded, not just in the place but in the people. Bageant is like a mother admonishing her child, there is a real warning here but underneath the chide there’s only love. And besides, Bageant knows who is really to blame for the instigation at least of such an inhumane system as unrelenting capitalism. And it isn’t the working class; they only ever wanted for the small privileges that made their hard work bearable. It wasn’t them that upsold, upsized and underpaid their own best efforts.
The real message in this book, the one that can be suggested in review, is the reality, backed up by watching this crippled world keep grasping for crutches, that we are sick and there is no recovery that will succeed in healing us if it has even an ounce of the same thing in it that’s killing us.

The concept of talking on the outskirts of a book for the purpose of reviewing is best described in Anthony Lane’s book Nobody’s Perfect an extremely good title wherein the body of Lane’s extensive work as the New Yorker film and book reviewer is compiled.  In the introduction he speaks to how a review ought to describe a feeling, not explain a set of situations. He defers in explaining this to Ms Kael’s description of the task of the critic as being responsible for “the recreation of texture.”
Deer Hunting with Jesus is a burlap sack, the ride on a horse through a field stirring freedom in your chest, the sense of impending doom abraded only by the knowledge that if you work hard enough you might just escape, a bubbling joy that there are people who see through the hologram that’s got the rest of us selling and buying ourselves into an apathetic unrewarding grave.

That’s the texture of this book, one man’s life work illuminating who we are and what our choices create without a smidgeon of condescension.  That’s the way this book feels but I implore you to pick up a copy yourself because it’s clear that if even a smattering more of us were able to see through the shit, there might be less chance that the shit will keep sticking.


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