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Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent (novel)

It is a sober reflection on the United States economy and how it has transformed over the past decades. Through the main character of Earl, readers are given a glimpse at how a person can so easily sink into a life where they are struggling just to maintain a poor and pitiful existence.

The reality that Earl, his family, friends and residents of Reeve, Ohio, face is not of their own making. They have very little power in this town, which has become a human sacrifice zone. They are bearing the brunt of global capitalism, where it is cheaper to use sweat shops in Thailand or prison labor for manufacturing. They are suffering the shift into a retail or service-based economy where Big Box stores are the most likely employers.

No salvation in being employed this way exists. There is no dignity for employees; unions are a scourge and a decent wage, breaks, sick days, etc., are all luxuries these corporations refuse to grant their workers. People work because they have to in order to get by, recognizing they are lucky to have any job they can get.

There’s a “story truth” to what Van Buren writes that is similar to the “story truth” in the classic work of fiction, The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. For example, Earl gets a job at a Big Box store called Bullseye:

…My job at Bullseye was to take big boxes of things off the truck and do the break down. It was called officially by Bullseye in the associate handbook, “Inbound Event Processing.” What happened is that a computer at the Bullseye headquarters called a computer at a warehouse, which notified a computer in New Jersey to send off a buy order ultimately to a factory computer in Thailand to make some more headache pills to replace the ones we had ordered for our store. They came in a big carton of say 144 smaller boxes. I tore a pick sheet off the printer, which told me to count out thirty-six of them boxes into a plastic tub labeled PHARMACY, then count out say twenty-four more and put them into a tub labeled GROCERY, and so forth. Somebody else would come into the back room from each of those departments and take their tub. Because of me and my counting, the Bullseye store could order a big cheap box of 144 and I’d divide them up right. A computer could not do that and so almost reluctantly I had a job…

The experience of Earl may be fictional, but it feels true. When Earl’s figuring out how to use pay day loans to get by and having difficulty getting a credit card, when he is sleeping in his car and discovering what it means to be homeless, and when he is facing down all the drug addiction in his hometown, it has an emotional punch to it.

Van Buren himself experienced some of what is in the book when he had to take a minimum wage job after being forced out of the State Department for blowing the whistle on corruption stemming from Iraq “reconstruction” projects.

He also traveled to parts of the country and set up situations so he could experience what it is like to be jobless or homeless, such as how to sleep in your parked car without the cops bothering you.

One of the cities he visited was Weirton, West Virginia. It used to have a steel mill. It used be a place where residents had jobs.

The mill no longer operates so now what do people do? They spend time in diners. They sit at bars. They drink alcohol all day to dull the sadness from being so poor and hopeless.

Toward the end of the book, we meet a preacher, Casey, who works at a shelter. Casey talks to Earl and others who are going on about who has it worse.

Look, until we understand at a gut level we are all in this together, if we keep thinking black and white and never see the whole 99 percent of us are dirty gray, we’ll never get anywhere. We need to think leveling up, not leveling down to create an economy, hell, a society, that is sustainable. That’s the word—sustainable—because what we are doing now is gonna kill us all.

There’s an unyielding bleakness to the story in Ghosts of Tom Joad, but it is our story. It is America’s story. It is the story of failure that Van Buren has experienced, that friends and family of Van Buren have experienced, that people who know Van Buren and know of Van Buren have experienced, and that everyone participating in this Book Salon chat has probably experienced to some degree.

Anyone who has not endured the story told in Ghosts of Tom Joad is privileged, overwhelmingly. But they likely live with the fear that at any moment they could be in Earl’s shoes. And that is why we have to face it down because we all recognize the system is dehumanizing and really could destroy us all.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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