The Psychology of Poor (Piedmont region of North Carolina; contemporary): How’s this for a shocking statistic. In just eleven years (2001-2012), some 63,000 manufacturing plants vanished from America’s towns. Ordinary livelihoods and identities attached to them also shuttered. For the “ordinary poor” in the poorest of towns where “not much happens here except the same, same” these causalities are a deathblow. No One Is Coming To Save Us – even the lyrical title tugs at us – takes us inside the psyche and broken hearts of black characters hard-hit in one of these communities.
Pinetown is located in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, not far from the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains, but not much feels lovely there today. Although “people didn’t experience joy” in the olden days, at least they experienced “the immediacy of the life they were living” and were “young enough to believe in happy endings.”
Stephanie Powell Watts, award-winning professor of African American literature at Lehigh University, writes wonderfully long, winding, rhythmic sentences that often fill up one paragraph on the page, sentences that swing to and fro meshing past and present together, creating a dream-like narrative with a sense of entanglement. In fact, Pinetown characters are tangled up in a maze perilously searching for a way out. If only they’d chosen a different path, things might be different they think.
Beyond its searing literary value, Watts’ novel is a sociological and psychological study of what that blow means to black characters who’ve lived their entire lives in this town and don’t have much else, if anything, to fall back on. This is the essence and culture the novel feeds on.
Zooming in on how many broken lives came from furniture plant closings in the Piedmont area, the so-called “Furniture Capital of the World,” the figure reaches close to half. We see the aftermath, bumped up against the past, realizations that “life has amounted to too little.” When everything “screamed cheap, cheap, cheap and worse than that – desperate,” what does that do to your sense of worth? Relationships? Desire, strength to change?
It may be surprising to learn that this beautiful coastal and mountainous State has some of the worst poverty in the nation, especially rural counties like Pinewood. The deserted town reminds us of the collapse of white West Virginia coal country, or white, blue-collar Rust Belt communities, lives torn apart as result of free trade and globalization. Places that have been getting attention of late – Trump country. If my googling is right, the Piedmont area also voted overwhelmingly for Trump. The author, then, does us a service by zooming in on another section of America cast aside.
Billed as “The Great Gatsby brilliantly recast in the contemporary South” (quoted from the back cover) because an evocatively named character Jay – formerly J. J. Ferguson, a foster child who grew up in Pinetown, somehow made it out but now’s returned after seventeen years – seems to have “made it” big. The novel opens when Jay’s building a palatial home overlooking the foothills in “a section where the people are rich and their lives are so far from yours you almost expect them to speak another tongue.” Hoping to revive and reinvent the past with Ava, his childhood friend and once sweetheart, bringing whiffs of Daisy Buchanan.
While the novel is brilliant – prose that sings a song of such sadness – a different genre of book comes to mind: J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Ellegy: A Memoir of a Family in Crisis, which skyrocketed to national fame to grasp what drove poor white people in droves to vote for Trump. Watts has done the same for poor black people in this area of the South.
Much is told through the third-person, omniscient voice, allowing the author to delve perceptively, knowingly into the “drag of poverty.” Washington Post reporter, Michelle Singletary, recently denounced people who “talk about the poor, especially people who haven’t experienced poverty, [yet] it’s often without context or compassion.” Definitely not the case here. Watts hails from around this geography, so her writing rings authoritative, authentic, and raw emotionally.
The range and nature of these feelings – chronic strain, disappointments, regrets, anger, hurts, betrayals, and concerns of characters who feel very real – also comes from first-person dialogue that jumps out fast and furious.
Two of the most resounding voices dramatize the novel’s other profound theme – motherhood. A mother and daughter pair. They’re also connected to Jay’s past, so they’re also the most stirred by his reappearance.
Heavyhearted Sylvia is approaching seventy having “spent her whole life tensed and waiting for the worst to happen.” Fears she’ll end up miserably unhappy and lonely like her mother appear to have come true. Ava is almost forty, a wicked age for someone desperate to be a mother. Sylvia walks on eggshells around her, doesn’t know how to ease her pain or why her daughter is so distressed. Ava has a good job and dresses the part, working as a loan officer at a bank. Yet Ava’s all-consumed with her failures of trying to conceive and the constant praying she will. For Ava childlessness is a burden equivalent to a “moral mistake.” Ava laments “maybe in heaven you get back all the time you lost hoping.”
Mother and daughter have “sorry husbands,” even sorrier marriages. Both men expendables of the factory shutdowns. Depressed and lost, that doesn’t excuse their weak behaviors. Be it the drip, drip, drip or the sucker punch of their absences – physical and emotional – Watts gets us inside the heads of these women as to why it’s brick hard for them to let go of their pasts. “The hardest thing you’ll do is keep moving forward,” Sylvia prods Ava.
Both are jolted by Jay’s arrival, breaking the pattern of nothing ever happening. He causes mother and daughter to examine what’s become of their lives. He too can’t get beyond the past.
Another unusual event is announced on page eight. An outsider, Marcus, has been mysteriously calling Sylvia from the county jail. Black, twenty-five, he reminds Sylvia of her son, Devon, whose presence hovers but we don’t find out what’s up with him until we’re almost three-fourths through. His begging Sylvia for help speaks to someplace deep within her she keeps hidden. To underscore her “heaviness,” Watts imagines her as fat, adding more weight to her self-reproach and feelings of disregard.
Imagine how bad things have turned out when a “segregation-era chic” restaurant named Simmy’s near one of the closed factories stands as a dark reminder of when blacks couldn’t even enter the front door, yet the two husbands (and others) still hang out here.
It’s not just furniture jobs that have gone by the wayside. Gone are extended families and extended gatherings when hours of cooking special foods “meant celebration.”
Now the best anyone can do is just get by. Except for the promise of Jay.
And the one colorful character we must celebrate. Lana, Sylvia’s glass-nearly-full sister, who takes great pride in her beauty salon and cares about her downtrodden sister. She brings “brightness, her humor, her unmuddied outlook of the world.” Lana’s someone who has successfully reinvented herself.
Naturally, we wish others could do the same. We too can’t help but want happy endings.