Unable to sleep one night, Bruce Springsteen plucked Dale Maharidge’s Journey to Nowhere from his bookshelf and devoured it with Nabokovian energy in one session. This autopsy of the American Dream resembled Springsteen’s work in multiple ways and in one specific geography: the closing steel mills of the Midwest and the consequent destruction of the culture built around them. The book inspired him to write a pair of songs for his 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad.
Maharidge’s latest work, Fucked at Birth, is another up-all-night book targeting an American disease: income inequality, only deepened by bad tax policy and COVID-19. At 160 pages with photos taken by the author, it’s short enough to finish by sunrise. But despite its brevity, the book convincingly articulates a vision of accelerated decline in small towns, suburbs, and cities. These are places shut out of the American Dream — places where home prices, health care, higher education, and opportunities for advancement are out of reach for millions and where the chance to retire from a thankless job after years of dedication is an illusion. Far too many of these geographies, Maharidge says, lack the resources necessary to alter trajectories that are preordained by circumstance.
Maharidge has walked this road before, and he has plenty of company. From Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed to Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion, from Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth to David K. Shipler’s The Working Poor and John Iceland’s Poverty in America, the superabundance of books exploring indigence is a literary genre unto itself. Perhaps it is so voluminous because these urgent stories are the ones right in front of us that we refuse to see. With his work steeped in the moment, Maharidge seeks them out for us, listening to the stories of people whose lives fell off the cliff, often with little warning.
Maharidge describes meeting a middle-aged married couple in New York. “I never thought I’d go through trash cans for money,” a man named Rudy tells him. “But you got to eat.” Married for 37 years, Rudy and Christina do not resemble the visibly down-and-out people Maharidge has grown accustomed to interviewing. They’re too clean cut, and embarrassed when the author discovers them digging through the trash. The husband worked as a landscaper until the pandemic put him out of work:
Rudy and his wife Christina faced a choice while they waited for the unemployment benefits that were slow in coming: keep money from it when it arrived to eventually catch up the rent, which had been suspended […] or make the car payment. They chose the car, which was now their home.
Rudy and Christina’s story makes sense to me because their desperation matches a world I witnessed. I grew up in sunny San Bernardino, and I watched a steel mill sputter to collapse after the citrus industry had already withered. Then a military base closed, the local government failed to respond, and the city fell apart, rotting from within. The loss of industry spread quickly as jobs evaporated, and newly shuttered businesses covered their windows with plywood. San Bernardino declared bankruptcy in 2012.
Every few years, I return to visit family, and I’m momentarily stupefied by the encroaching squalor and degradation, the economic carnage, the hopeless look in the eyes of people I see wandering across 40th Street. My hometown became a black hole. Once a promising place to raise a family, San Bernardino became the most dangerous city in California. Fleeing the ruins, I relocated to Seattle, a city experiencing its own traumas with displacement and homelessness. These problems have become louder as tent cities flourish under freeways, spreading into local parks and neighborhoods. People pretend not to see it. Maharidge calls this “the problem of the two Americas,” a phenomenon he started covering for the Sacramento Bee in 1981 and continues in his role as a professor at Columbia University’s journalism school.
The provocative title comes from a moment he experienced at an abandoned service station in Southern California with the words “Fucked at birth” spray-painted across a sheet of plywood over a window. These words, and his experience with Rudy and Christina, inform the book’s message that a stable democracy cannot withstand class division or an opportunity drought:
There are the demonstrably fucked at birth: those born to mothers addicted to opioids, or with fetal alcohol syndrome. Those born into poverty. Those fucked at birth because of the color of their skin. There are the unwitting fucked at birth: They believed their job would always be there because it was there for their parents and grandparents; and then the corporation announces the jobs are going to China or Mexico, and if they are on the other side of forty-five and only have a high school diploma, there is no level of retraining that will save them. There are those fucked at birth only due to the timing of their arrival into this life. I was born in an era when the son of a blue-collar steelworker could fuck up as much as I did, such as not finishing college, and still pull off leaping up in class. I bought my first house, a three-bedroom ranch on almost a half-acre in one of the best suburbs at the age of twenty-four in 1982 for $70,000, about three times my annual newspaperman’s salary.
He also reflects on Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 novel of interlinked short stories, Winesburg, Ohio. Maharidge locates commonalities between Anderson’s fictionalized characters — their self-blame, regret, self-doubt — and the real-life examples of Fucked at Birth. If Winesburg, Ohio, was a literature of revolt against the illusion of American optimism and puerile sentimentality, Fucked at Birth is a continuation of this sobering truth and the prospect that the United States is anything but the place where all are created with equal precision and care. Sherwood Anderson was a seminal influence on the writing of Edmund Wilson, whose Memoirs of Hecate County provides counterargument to Fucked at Birth’s search for answers as he listens to the stories of the people who’ve seen things we can’t afford to ignore.
Though the writing is occasionally hurried and spare, the strength of Fucked at Birth is its immediacy — from COVID-19 to Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, soup kitchens, mass evictions, and domestic terrorism. These are problems unexamined in the books mentioned earlier because Maharidge’s subjects exist in the precise now. Fucked at Birth reads like a waking nightmare, a dark illumination of our most immediate crises.
I spent two years scrimping and saving to afford to go to grad school. Giving up my paycheck, my wife and I relocated to Southern California, and I joined the creative writing program at Chapman University. Astonishingly, when the university reverted to strictly online coursework in response to COVID-19, my classes’ costs increased even while the pandemic severed my access to campus. I pursued a master’s degree because I wanted to join a community of writers, form lasting relationships, and create connections — not because I lacked an excuse to stare into the flickering emptiness of my laptop, conversations with professors and colleagues splintered by bandwidth irregularities. Will academia become the next Youngstown?
Because Maharidge also sees Youngstown when he visits Flagstaff, Moab, and Aurora. He writes that the problem is closer than we realize. As a journalist, Maharidge prides himself on running toward an explosion rather than away, confronting issues, ignoring the enduring effect that his journalism has on his psyche. He tries to shrug off PTSD after suffering a series of breakdowns. But a lifetime of documenting collapse reminds Maharidge of his mortality, even as his body of work joins those of his heroes, like Sherwood Anderson, George Orwell, and James Agee. How would Nabokov have squared Fucked at Birth with Hecate County? Especially without Bruce Springsteen to distill it in song?
Jason M. Thornberry’s work appears in The Stranger, Route 7 Review, Entropy, Adirondack Review, OC Weekly, and elsewhere. An MFA candidate at Chapman University, Jason taught creative writing at Seattle Pacific University.