Sunday, April 13, 2008

Introduction for Bryan Johnson's thesis

Joe Mackall, whose memoir The Last Street Before Cleveland details growing up working class, once told me the difference between a blue collar worker and a white collar worker can be found in their bathing habits. “White collar showers in the morning,” he said. “Blue collar when they get home from work.”

Hoss Schumacher, the protagonist of Bryan Johnson’s novel
Appleknockers is a man who goes to work clean but comes home dirty. With this book, Johnson enters the tradition of working class literature. Early American novels in this genre – The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells or McTeague by Frank Norris are distant kin while Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool and Russell Banks’ Continental Drift are more contemporary cousins. In each of these works, an average guy of average intelligence is in pursuit of the American dream: money, yes, and the things that money can buy, but also respect, security, dignity. In each of these works, that average guy is knocked down. Dignity is something he wants, but outside forces suggest dignity is not something he deserves.

But Johnson grants his characters dignity by telling their tales with care and compassion; he is never didactic, but he is frequently very funny. In prose that is clear and clean, Johnson interweaves four stories: there’s Hoss, an unemployed construction worker who thinks setting up a meth lab will be the solution to all of his problems ; there’s his wife Tegan, smart and quiet, lonely and obese; there’s Burnett, only nineteen but already aware of his life’s limitations; Shelly, whose poetic pseudo-intellectualism serves to hide her own insecurities.

It’s no accident that the events of this novel take place over the Fourth of July as each character struggles for independence from demeaning fathers, from humiliating jobs, from drinking too much, daydreaming too much, eating too much, from spending too much time dwelling on the past. Johnson’s book poses questions about the American Dream: does it even exist? Did it ever exist?


Bryan said...

Thank you for this introduction, Diana.

Diana said...

You're velcome, Bryan.