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A novel about poverty in America, about poverty programs, about the New Left, about Welfare, about the Lower East Side—my neighborhood, or as much of a neighborhood as I’ve ever had—The Bag, the novel that prophesied the Columbia uprising. And the bearded guy on the back cover looks East Side. We go into the Welfare center and I can see right away he knows what he’s talking about, he’s been there. You can see that in the details. He knows how the people talk, the workers, the clients; in fact the details keep accumulating—and accumulating, and accumulating. What is this, Zola? Dreiser? This is evidently a book that assumes nothing, not even the obvious.
Meanwhile there’s something else to contend with: a thick impasto of words muddying the realistic detail, an overlay of Joycean word-jamming and Faulknerian run-on. If you want to write a naturalistic novel, it might be better to stick to naturalistic style. This impression grows stronger as the novel recurringly seems to consist of a subject draped in language. But at last in a scene where a big black woman, a client, flips in the Welfare center, and is beaten to a pulp by the cops in front of her terrified children, the book explodes into life.
Now The Bag is rolling in high gear: a humorous, vicious mother-ranking contest between two black half-brothers; and then a strikingly truthful scene about a poor writer at a literary lunch with his agent and an editor—the temptations of the luxe restaurant, the writer’s misery, his inability to say the right thing, finding it impossible to eat and getting a little too loaded.
We move into the Lower East Side: the slumlord, and his Puerto Rican, ex-juvenile-delinquent pusher agent—Faust and Ismael, Faust the concentration camp escapee, a slumlord who undergoes a conversion and conceives a poverty project that will salvage the slums of the country, Ismael the pusher, the embittered loner, waiting to lead us all into the apocalypse. Here the symbolism gets a bit heavy, the characters unconvincing, the writing flabby. There are vaguely surreal scenes, unconvincing revolutionary dialogue, and here and there the writing breaks into prose-poetry—some of which comes off and some of which does not. So much is stylistically sloppy that I begin to wonder whether I can trust what the man says. This is a social worker’s East Side, or a journalist’s—a freak scene, a panic scene, all catastrophe and violence and rock-bottom squalor: unlivable. It isn’t the East Side I know, and not only because I’m white.
It occurs to me that The Bag is a rather hysterical book—still, this is, after all, the hysteria we live with now, the hysteria of people who fear and hate one another singly, in groups, and in complicated, nightmarish coalitions. But hysteria heaped on hysteria—who needs it? Unless of course you’ve got an itch for the apocalypse, and …
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