Cancer, our dreaded acquaintance, has been paying frequent calls this past year. On Saturday, it came for a man we briefly knew, America’s leading redneck socialist, a writer named Joe Bageant. Although Joe was long known among America’s cadre of radical underground journalists, he labored in obscurity for much of his career. He downsized to live on a Third World income, spending six months a year in Belize and Mexico with his wife.
Success came for him later in life, especially with the publication of his 2007 book, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War. Part memoir, part reportage, part polemic, his book recounted his humble upbringing in the Appalachian community of Winchester, Va. It endeavored to understand the alienation of rural white Americans, so often caricatured as cretinous red staters, trailer trash, Jesus freaks and NASCAR fans. In Joe, this underclass found a sensitive, incisive and self-critical chronicler.
In his book, which made Joe famous in Europe and Australia but caused scarcely a ripple here, he sketched sensitive, profanely funny portraits of his neighbors, many of whom he met in dingy watering holes. Particularly unforgettable was the black woman who toted her oxygen tank into Winchester bars to sing the songs of her childhood friend and fellow Winchester untouchable, Patsy Cline. Joe’s redneck radicalism had few journalistic peers; his sociopolitical terrain tends to be inhabited by musicians like Merle Haggard, Steve Earle and Iris Dement.
Excoriating liberals for their obsession with gun control, Joe argued that such a position made any lefty rapprochement with rural and working-class whites even more difficult. His book’s most lyrical passages evoke wintry scenes of hunting deer with his father and kinfolk. He defended unpopular people, as in a powerful chapter called “The Ballad of Lynndie England.” The grinning poster child of Abu Ghraib, she chose the Army over a life pulling out chicken guts at a West Virginia poultry plant.
Joe was skeptical of the liberal bourgeois groundswell under Barack Obama. His readers weren’t surprised when health care reform turned out to be a bill written by the insurance industry. Ditto for Obama condoning the unconscionable abuse of the young gay soldier who supplied WikiLeaks with documents.
Joe and his wife, Barbara, were my house-guests in October 2008. He had allowed me and my lady, the local actress and director Katja Hill, to adapt Deer Hunting With Jesus into a theater piece, which received a staged reading at Manbites Dog Theater. Joe presented his trademark fishing vest to the actor who portrayed him, and he stayed up with the cast and our friends, drinking and ranting and lamenting late into the night. Now, I find myself wishing only that those nights had lasted longer.