Peter Van Buren really hits his stride in the second half of his book GHOSTS OF TOM JOAD. So much so, I was often reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich’s NICKEL AND DIMED.
The name Tom Joad is an intentional reference to Steinbeck’s GRAPES OF WRATH. Here, the protagonist Earl is seen as a young man riding the bus in Reeve, Ohio, but can be substituted by Anywhere, USA. Having myself come from small-town Ohio, I can relate to the relinquished fun of climbing the local water tower. Yes, just like Dicaprio in WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE. Van Buren continues to nail down the idiosyncrasies of the area, especially after an economic decline when the salary-paying factories leave town.
Like GRAPES OF WRATH, the future is bleak. In the author’s deft hands, the ways of the modern working poor are made clear: pay day loans, rent-to-own, working for healthcare coverage, SNAP benefits barely covering grocery expenses, and minimum wage. The bleakness doesn’t stop there. Van Buren demonstrates through personal story the reasons people seek prostitution, gambling, drinking, and even meth. The lives of the homeless are on full display, as they hide in their cars, are spurned from local parks, and are often victim of assault.
In the spirit of an honest review, I’m still unclear on the story. A boy, dead via bullet, riding along the bus throughout town. I kind of get that part. But then he strikes conversations with various people of the town, including family and friends, both living and dead. The stories are rich with detail and narrative—they could stand on their own—so the “story” of the ghost boy isn’t too distracting from the true nature of this book.
The first part of the book is choppy and even repeats itself (McJob mentioned twice, as well as saying God needs to issue an apology repeated thrice), but hang in there for the real treat of the book, which takes off after fifty-percent. Many profound statements are made throughout, such as “I learned you could rob someone with a pen as easily as a gun” and “Work earns you money, but a job creates some value in yourself.”
Having personally experienced both sides of the proverbial fence, I can testify to the trueness of Van Buren’s writing. These lives, though fiction, are real and living among us. These “ghosts” are our neighbors in need of salvation. And for that attention, Van Buren has accomplished much.
Thanks to JKS Communications and Luminis Books for providing an electronic review copy of this book.