Down and Out in 1950s America

For some reason, I find books about extreme poverty in the past compelling. Not because I enjoy them, exactly, but because they give insight into a world that is very different from that of everyday life for most people. I wouldn’t read a book about modern-day poverty because it would depress me, but if a few decades have passed, I like them a lot.

Now, Sara Harris isn’t Orwell, not by a long stretch of the imagination, so her book can’t be the literary masterpiece that is Down and Out in Paris and London, but she does have a journalist’s eye (ear?) for the human angle that will bring a point across to the reader, and she uses that gift very effectively in Skid Row USA.

This one is a paperback that I picked up somewhere (probably at a flea market in the church around the corner) with another few old paperbacks, and I just couldn’t pass it up. Garish, and aimed at thrill readers, it is both an interesting look at a past era and a psychological analysis of the dynamics of extreme poverty that sound like they’d still be relevant today.

I read this more as a history book, akin to this one, than as what it was meant to be, which is a sociologically-driven admonishment to the society of the fifties that extreme poverty is not a crime but a psychological and, when combined with alcoholism, medical problem.

It’s much more interesting as an insight into a different world. Hell, we’ve all seen the fifties. Huge tailfins, drive-ins with waitresses on roller skates, early rock and roll, the birth of the suburban ideal and the culmination of the American Dream. This book takes us out of the suburbs and small towns and into the lives and circumstances of the urban poor to whom suburbia is a legendary place outside their scope.

Of course, as a writer, this is all grist for the mill. Not all my stories take place in space, and not all of my characters are dashingly handsome aristocrats. Having this book both in my head and on my shelves means that a character from Skid Row will be a lot more believable.

But even non-writers should find this one an interesting, quick read. There’s even some hope at the end (although I have no clue if the programs described in this 1950’s book ever came to fruition).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most socially-conscious work is probably the science fiction novel Outside, which addresses the current problems of technology addiction and the incapacity of humans on one side of an issue to behave in a civilized manner to those on the other. You can buy a copy here.

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