A Book that Made Me Less Stupid

Posted by on September 26th, 2010 at 9:12 AM

Union Dues by John Sayles came out a third of a century ago and is no longer in print. When I was 18 and 19, it was my favorite novel. Runaways, radicals, policemen, union officials, crooked developers, prep school kids, Italian immigrants doing factory work — the book had everything. And there I was in my room, wondering how to catch the bus to the local movie theater.

I just took a look at the book again. Verdict: still a good novel, but definitely lighter than I thought. Sayles wrote Union Dues a little before he became a film maker, and you can see the movieness in it: not just the plentiful dialog and the scene jumps, but the heavy use of audience buttons and a certain overtidiness of character definition. Sayles knew about seeing from all sides, and as a kid I admired him for it. But whatever side he looked from, he didn’t go too far below the surface.

Back then I didn’t notice or didn’t care. Reading the book now, I feel that Schenk, the hard-nosed Leninist radical, doesn’t have much to say for himself except that he’s a hard-nosed Leninist radical; that the two cops, Vinny and Dom, spend much of their on-air time demonstrating that they are two cops and converse as such; that the two Jewish kids who have an argument are there to show us what Jewish left-wing kids sound like when they’re disagreeing about Israel. And so on. The dialog sounds like real people talking and doing so in ways specific to Black Panthers, West Virginia miners or whatever other group. But the people, though real sounding, are not always that individual (I need cues to tell Vinny and Dom apart), and the realness often comes with a bit of gloss, the extra zip you find in the lines from a decent movie.

Like growing up a little. None of the above keeps the book from being worthwhile. Pausing to note one outright clinker (the opening words to a chapter from the point of view of a prostitute: “Get-down time in the Combat Zone”), I’ll say that I’m much less embarrassed about liking this book than I am about liking My Life as a Man and The Professor of Desire when I was in high school. Whatever Roth was doing in his novels, I read the books because they were about smart-mouthed fellows who got laid. Union Dues represented a step up in maturity for me. It wasn’t about explaining yourself; it was about understanding others, one viewpoint after another. And it downplayed the fantasy side of sex. The hero became a bit of a stud by the book’s end, but that was offstage. What we saw onstage was the dumbness people bring to sex, the silly things they use it for. It wasn’t at the center of horrendous and involved psychic dilemmas, as with Roth. It was just a prop used for simple games, little dodges transparent to everyone but the people involved in them; meanwhile, the more important business of life continued. Yet sex felt good and you had to have it and everyone wanted it, which was why it came in so handy as a tool for self-deception. All of which sounded about right to me.

Grant Parke’s song. I mentioned that the characters in Union Dues tend to have snappy dialog. Sayles is, or was, a bit of a wise guy, somebody who gets a laugh from seeing thru authority’s lies and the baby-ism of the middle-class left (Sayles himself being a working-class leftist). But he’s serious about the underlying matters at hand: justice, poverty, the need for self-respect. Most of his characters have smart-mouth tendencies, but the full-time wise guys are all missing a gear from their psyches. They don’t know how to care, so everything is a joke to them.

The chief wise guy in Union Dues is Grant Parke, an ex-preppy slumming at a radical commune. Like E. K. Hornbeck of Inherit the Wind, he comes in for some pity from the author; you could say, in ’50s talk, that he wasn’t “sincere.” But a Sayles wise guy can count on good lines, and Park gets to deliver a premier chunk of the light verse Sayles generated back then. Here it is, to the tune of “The Wabash Cannonball”:

Whether you’re staring at the walls in New York City,
Or crying out at night in Tennessee,
Take a little Jesus Christ and you’ll feel better,
And you don’t need no purscription cause He’s free.

He is better than pineapple juice and Sterno.
He is better than a fat and sleepy whore.
You can spread him with our clever new dispenser,
And you’ll find Him at your nearest grocery store.

Take a double dose of Jesus if you’re lonely.
Rub your aching life with Christ when you are sad.
Shoot the Savior in your arm when you feel empty,
He’s the cheapest high the world has ever had.

He is every barren woman’s smiling baby.
He is every lifelong virgin’s loving son.
He’s a pal who never asks to borrow money,
And the fiance of every blushing nun.

You can feed him to the minds of starving children,
Or pour Him down the souls of dying men.
If you wear Him on your heart He’ll stop the bullets,
He will keep you safe through every lion’s den.

You don’t have to have no dusty Gideon Bible.
You don’t have to search for days or travel far.
If you say His name with faith the Lord will love you,
He’s a snake oil that’s too big for any jar.

Take a double dose of Jesus if you’re lonely.
Rub your aching life with Christ when you are sad.
Shoot the Savior in your arm when you feel empty,
He’s the cheapest high the world has ever had!

You get the point, right? The song is called “Religion Is the Opium of the People,” and Grant introduces it by referring to “the old pea-picker himself, Cowboy Karl Marx.” That pleased me greatly when I was 18. The implication was that we had all heard this stuff before, and back then I liked that implication when considering intellectual matters.

Daily proverb. Teeth may gnash and tears may flow, but only fingers will untie the knot!

James Bond is back in Deadly Hand of Kung Fu #12! … The War of the Worlds goes on — in Amazing Adventures #19! Now on sale!

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2 Responses to “A Book that Made Me Less Stupid”

  1. DavidAlex says:

    I have a similar fondness for Sayles’ “Pride of the Bimbos” which I read in high school or early College (after Limbo, in any event). I haven’t gone back to it, but I suspect it would still hold up okay as well.

    Do you think Sayles ever broke free from “whatever side he looked from, he didn’t go too far below the surface.” in any of his later work (movies/ or maybe the later novel – Los Gusanos, which I haven’t read – would be something to look into)? I guess I’m thinking of Limbo as his most “psychological” movie but it’s been a while. I was a big fan of his work in high school/early college.

  2. Tom Crippen says:

    I remember Bimbos. Yeah, it was good — that poor kid out there throwing oranges at crates, or whatever it was. Come to think of it, the characters in Bimbos may have been a bit more individual and better imagined than the ones in Union Dues.

    I’ve been meaning to read Los Gusanos since it came out, which is a long time now. I cooled off on Sayles after his first couple of movies. Maybe they’ve been good, maybe not, I just haven’t followed them. The ones I saw early on had his glibness, which I don’t mind really. The ones I looked at from later seemed turgid. But they’re there at the video store and I can check them out.