I’ve heard it said that you should judge a society on the way it treats its most vulnerable members. Susan Nussbaum, whose first novel has won the PEN/Bellwether prize for Socially Engaged Fiction (championed by Barbara Kingsolver) certainly has one or two things to say about a section of society that has probably never had a book devoted to it in the whole history of fiction. Nussbaum was a drama student in her twenties when she was knocked down by a car. Now nearing sixty, she has spent her adult life in a wheelchair with partial function in her arms, working as a playwright and a disability activist. Good Kings, Bad Kings is her first novel and it achieves the wholly admirable feat of giving a memorable voice to some forgotten members of society.
Good Kings, Bad Kings takes place in a nursing home for adolescents with disabilities, a grim institution run by the coyly named Mrs Phoebe, where kids who act up are bundled into a smelly time-out room and forgotten, and where very little in the way of education or nurture takes place. Though supposed to be state run, the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Centre has been farmed out to a health-care solutions firm, determined to do what all good businesses should – cut every possible corner and reduce every possible cost.
The narrative is shared between seven distinctive voices. There are three adolescents: Yessie – a sassy Puerto Rican who uses parts of her wheelchair to even out the odds in a fight, Teddy, a young man longing to live independently and care for his girlfriend, Mia, a vulnerable girl with cerebral palsy who has also suffered sexual abuse in her past. And there are three employees at the nursing home who are on the side of the angels: Joanne, whose wheelchair and ‘gimpy hand’ are actually advantageous in getting her the job of a data entry clerk, Ricky who drives the nursing home bus and can’t help but take over the care of the kids he thinks are suffering and Jimmie, recently homeless herself and glad to have a job. Piggy in the middle is Michelle, whose job is to fill beds in the nursing house by hanging around hospitals and identifying parents who aren’t coping well.
The real grace of the novel lies in these voices, which are immediate, authentic and often funny; they counteract the often deeply disturbing content of the narrative, which does not flinch from portraying the extent of neglect and even abuse that can occur in places where the pay is bad, the hours too long and the inmates restless, troublesome and bored. Yessie is probably the standout, a streetfighter whose strong spirit is carrying her through the loss of her beloved tía Nene. As the problems escalate at the nursing home, it’s Yessie who decides that even ‘crips’ can take their future into their own hands.
So much fiction is for comfort or escapism, so much is created with pleasing and appeasing the reader in mind, that you have to love a book that has the courage to tackle a really difficult subject. The kids in the nursing home know that no one wants them; their treatment indicates that they are not considered full members of society in any genuine way, their feelings and desires are tiptoed around with a pseudo-respect that grates, while the real problems they face are ignored. There is much about this book that will infuriate and horrify you, and that’s exactly as it should be. It is a polemic, let’s not mistake that, and its message is simple: people with disabilities want to live independent and full lives the same as anyone else, and with the right training and equipment, they are perfectly capable of doing so. It’s not even as if the training would be hard:
These are kids who have never had more than a few dollars in their pocket in their whole lives. They’ve never owned a checkbook, purchased anything more expensive than a Mr. Frosty, they don’t have the first clue about banks or monthly statements or buying groceries. Mrs. Phoebe won’t even let the kids take the bus alone because she says it’s a liability issue. Everything is a liability issue… Kids like this are trained to stay helpless. So they have to stay institutionalized. There’s no other way to explain it.’
I admit I read the first chapter of this and hesitated: did I really want to read a book that I perceived would be depressing and so far out of my own experience? Well, the answer was: yes, I’m really glad I did. This is not a ‘hard’ read, in the sense people might think. The voices are wonderful and carry you through, though what happens is upsetting. I did wonder whether the portrayal should have covered more dimensions, for instance, how exhausting it really is to be a carer for troubled adolescents, how expensive proper facilities might be. But if Nussbaum had done that, how easy then for readers to shake their heads and say ‘Yes, it’s a dreadful problem, but what’s to be done?’ Books should raise our awareness of the vulnerable and forgotten, we ought to be jolted out of our comfort zones sometimes. It’s one of the things we rely on writers to do, when most of us lack the courage.