An Eye-Opener

good-kings-bad-kings3I’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.


19 thoughts on “An Eye-Opener

  1. Sounds a wonderful book and I think you make a very good point at the end regarding whether a more balanced look, including economic realities would have made it too easy for reader to brush aside the essential needs of those in the situation of these young people.

    • I thought about it a lot – because it is clear that this is a polemic, and we tend to think of literature as asking questions rather than pushing for answers. But I did think it was right in the end. It’s a very good book – I hope lots of people will read it.

  2. This sounds like a good read. Something it would never occur to me to pick up. I think I’ll recommend it to my mom as well.

    • You know, I think you’d really like this. I can see you appreciating some of the voices! I’d love for you to read it and let me know what you think – your mum, too!

      • Perhaps I can get her to the library (finds are devastatingly tight right now). Hopefully Phoenix library has it. AZ was up to no good and banning books lately.

  3. An anti “comfort reading” book – excellent! Don’t please me, challenge, excite, scare, arouse me surely should be the aim of a writer who wants to reach the peak of their ability. There should be a large sign on many novels saying “Danger ! Comfort Zone Ahead”

    • It’s a brave writer who goes for that effect, but as they say, fortune favours the brave! I love the fact that literature can DO this – can bring us into a whole other world, and one that gets hidden away and misunderstood. I loved teaching it for that very reason.

  4. Sounds interesting and sad. I have read many a book about the awfulness of institutional life, and I find them oddly spellbinding. Did you ever see — probably not, it’s from a while ago — the BBC did this series called “Takin’ over the Asylum,” about a radio station at a mental institution. I’m sentimentally fond of it for its general optimism, but at the same time, it really does not paint a rosy picture of life in an institution. There’s a lot of casual brutality toward the people who live there by the people who staff the place.

    • I didn’t see that – it sounds really intriguing. And ‘casual brutality’ is a brilliant way of expressing what happens, and how outrageous that is. This is definitely a book to add to your shelf on awful institutions, and definitely a book that has a hypnotic appeal. Once I was into it, I couldn’t put it down.

  5. Just learned about Shiny New Books and can’t wait for the first issue so I can read more pithy reviews like this one! Not sure if this book would be for me, but Litlove I can always count on your reviews to give me balanced insight into a book.

  6. My father always said, as cautionary advice about my knees, “you don’t want to be wheelchair-bound at the end of your life.” It really is amazing how a physical disability will make people think you also have a mental one. This novel takes those kind of worries a lot farther, but it sounds like it conveys the same basic message, which is the message of much science fiction in which humans from earth meet sentient beings from elsewhere– just because they don’t look like you doesn’t mean they don’t have the same kinds of thoughts and desires.

    • You are so right – that’s something explicitly tackled in the novel, this mixing up of mental and physical disability. You hit the nail on the head, too, in the message being one of fundamental similarity. That’s exactly what the book’s all about.

  7. Dealing with uncomfortable subjects is one of the remarkable ways books can enrich our lives and understanding of the world. The subject of this novel is certainly not anything I’ve come across anywhere else in fiction. The cover strikes me as odd choice though. Almost comic in one respect and then a bit sinister.

    • I must say the cover is the part of the book I like the least, though in fact, a mix of comic and sinister isn’t too bad a description of the novel! I couldn’t agree with you more about literature and uncomfortable subjects. Long may the two work in productive harmony.

  8. When the homes for the disabled shut down, we hear about them in the newspapers, but we never get an inside look at them in their ordinary days. This looks like a book that is needed just to remind people, hey, we exist. Thanks so much for the review. I’ll check to see if my library has it. I think it sounds interesting. I also have a personal interest now, as my nephew at some point may end up in a home for the disabled and challenged, something that our family is worried about ; he’s a young man now. My hope, and everyone’s hope, is that there are really good ones out there too. I wonder what a story about that would be like? Uplifting, I think.

    • I hope you’ll find the ending of this uplifting, Susan, and in fact there is some useful information given through the story for anyone who finds themselves in this situation. I would love to know what you make of it if you read it – do let me know if you review it, won’t you? I’ll link to the review here. It’s a subject that is so worthy of attention.

  9. Pingback: Stepping — or being dragged — beyond your comfort zone | Broadside

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