Thursday, December 2, 2021

Abundance, by Jakob Guanzon: Devastating Depiction of American Poverty

I remember reading an article awhile back in which people who had grown up poor discussed things that, to them, made other people seem rich. One that was really eye-opening to me is that "rich" people don't know exactly how much money they have at any given time. Jakob Guanzon's devastating novel, Abundance, really hammers that point home, as he each chapter in this novel is literally titled with the precise amount of money our protagonist Henry has.

But as jolting as that idea is to explain the difference between the haves and have-nots, Guanzon provides one that's even more profound. As Henry is working a difficult job at a rich person's house, Henry's coworker disdainfully says: "Imagine having enough money to trust people." That line, too, just blew my mind. Imagine. 

So this is a novel about the failing American dream, poverty and lost dignity, about drug addiction, and about compounding bad circumstances with even worse decisions.

The story here is about a young man named Henry, whose parents have died, left him with a mountain of debt, and he has no real opportunities to make his life better. He's spent time in a drug rehab facility as a teenager, where he meets Michelle, the eventual mother of his child, Junior. Henry and Michelle reconnect after rehab and fall in love. But struggle. And Henry gets mixed up in a drug scheme with a shady guy named Al, which eventually results in jail time. When he gets out, nothing is the same. His son doesn't recognize him and his wife hates him. 

This is all told in flashback chapters. In real-time, Michelle has left, and Henry and Junior are living in his truck. But today, it's Junior's birthday and Henry has a few bucks in his pocket which he's going to use to splurge on a hotel room for the night. And he has a scheduled job interview the next day. Things might be looking up. But will Henry finally be able to pull it together? Will he be able to regain his dignity and the respect of his son? 

Henry is certainly not the heart-of-gold, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps protagonist you want him to be (he's certainly not Chris in The Pursuit of Happyness). But you still root for him, if for no other reason than how badly you feel for his young son. None of this is Junior's fault, and yet he's expected to maintain his stiff upper lip, live in a truck, go to school, and hope everything will eventually be okay. 

I loved this novel, even with an ending that didn't quite land right. Still, the writing here is true and clever and authentic. What a book. I'm glad the NBA longlist rescued this book from relative obscurity. Every American should read this novel. 

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