BAD JOBS AND POOR DECISIONS Dispatches from the Working Class, a memoir by J.R. Helton, reviewed by Robert Sorrell

BAD JOBS AND POOR DECISIONS
Dispatches from the Working Class
by J.R. Helton
Liveright Publishing Corporation, 259 Pages

reviewed by Robert Sorrell

The jacket of J.R. Helton’s memoir, Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions: Dispatches from the Working Class, shows an assortment of loose black-and-white sketches: a marijuana leaf, a packet of cigarettes, a typewriter, crumpled beer cans, lines of (presumably) cocaine, a gun, a cockroach. Among them, figures emerge: A man’s face covered in huge beads of sweat, a woman with long dark hair shown from the shoulders up, a pole dancer. These images appear regularly in each of the seven long anecdotes that make up Bad Jobs, working as signifiers of a place, time, and social class. The place is Austin, Texas and the time is when the tail end of the 1970s met the Reagan 1980s. The class setting is a bit more complicated, but I’ll get to that later.

When we meet J.R. Helton—or Jake, as his character is known in the book—he’s a 20-year-old writer who’s just dropped out of the University of Texas in Austin to write full time after winning a small literary prize. “I thought, Man, this is gonna be easy,” Helton writes, and quickly finds himself broke and in need of a job.

Austin, Texas’s capital and where Jake lives for the majority of Bad Jobs, is undergoing growing pains, along with much of the Sunbelt in the 1980s. “The city was booming then,” Helton writes, “and the skies were filled with steel cranes, the streets suddenly lined with many more men and women in suits. I enjoyed watching the big-haired young women who seemed free and attractive and windblown downtown, all of them dressed in different colors, walking alone or in pairs,” observes Jake, who figures himself a sort of Texan flaneur.

Yet Helton’s descriptions hint at a key characteristic of Jake’s personality. He is a watcher and as such, most of the book focuses not on things that Jake himself is doing, but things that he observes: coworkers he watches on job sites, neighbors, corporate types and politicians wandering downtown Austin. He commands a very male position, one he doesn’t think to complicate or comment upon.

J.R. Helton

The book’s first section, “Other People,” gives the reader a quick background on Jake’s upbringing and adolescence in a small town, Cypress, outside of Austin in the Hill Country. We’re told that he grew up in a working-class family, but his seemingly unhappy family life is given little attention minus allusions to a father who works much of the time. Most of the flashback serves instead to introduce us to Jake’s girlfriend, later wife, Susan, and her family. Her mother Betty Sue is an actress and her father, Dean, was a football player who quit after several injuries to become a successful writer. “More than anything,” Helton writes, “I was deeply impressed by Dean Hampton, a real writer. It felt good to have this intelligent, tough, sarcastic, and funny man take such a genuine interest in me.” Dean encourages Jake to write, and it’s not much of a reach to say that his fascination with Dean may have encouraged or reinforced his desire to date Susan.

Dean, however, is far from perfect. He suffers terribly from NFL injuries, including a twice-broken back, which makes him irritable, and he abuses substances constantly. It doesn’t take much for this big, tough man who shoots rifles to relieve stress and stays up all night writing, high on codeine and cocaine, to turn from father figure to monster. He terrorizes Susan and her mother, and after he’s kicked out of the house, he sometimes calls Jake demanding to know where Susan and her mother are.

For Helton, “working class” refers mostly to a certain set of lifestyle traits (often abusive ones) and certain cultural markers like alcohol, addiction, guns, cigarettes, and old cars, and less about actual class structure or economic opportunity.

Anyone skeptical of the way Helton deploys the term “working class” to describe his life may look at this relationship for some clarity. For Helton, “working class” refers mostly to a certain set of lifestyle traits (often abusive ones) and certain cultural markers like alcohol, addiction, guns, cigarettes, and old cars, and less about actual class structure or economic opportunity. Jake’s connections to folks in the upper middle class and in certain industries, like the color of his skin and his gender, seem to bypass economic class lines without causing any sort of ethical quandary for Helton the way they do in, say, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. In his memoir, Vance is always hedging and explaining his privileges, sometimes stressing his connection to poverty, addiction, violence, and instability, and at other times admitting that he was lucky enough to have enjoyed stability and resources at key points in his life. Helton is not interested in such investigations, whatever their intention.

The deceitfulness of this exclusion is further evidenced when Jake drops out of college. He makes this decision not because he can’t afford to keep going to school, needs to support parents or a family, or is having mental or physical health problems, but because he wins a small literary prize and wants to write full time. And it is here, when Jake intentionally leaves an institution of the middle and upper classes, that he begins his life in the “working class.”

Not long after he leaves school, Susan and Jake get married and find themselves, “one sad cold day, in the real world of adults.” So, in between getting drunk and doing various drugs, Susan gets a “grim job in a cubicle” and Jake decides to try painting houses and offices because he thought it would be “much less noisy than some of the other industrial trades and seemed like the least work for the most money.” Amid all this “grimness”—which, to be honest, isn’t really all that grim except in the heads of the not-ready-to-grow-up main characters—there are a few moments of joy or warmth, like when Jake takes Susan to her first day at a new job and they end up sitting in the parking lot talking for half an hour before she heads inside. But by and large their relationship takes a backseat in Bad Jobs, and Helton dips into it sparingly. The conversation in the car doesn’t even get its own scene: it’s done in summary. This approach may be related to the way that Jake comes across as an almost stereotypically bad partner. He dislikes and distrusts any new friends Susan makes. He’s cranky and surly, non-communicative. He comes home from work angry and tired and leaves the next morning in much the same way, often hungover. Before too long, Jake’s behavior backfires. They spend much of the book separated.

Once Helton has tied up this short foray into Jake’s earlier life and the beginnings of his relationships with Susan, he begins the focus of the book, the “dispatches from the working class,” a series of long anecdotes centering around particular jobs he held down for a few months or years and the people he interacted with daily. His first job is at Austin Paint and Spray, a do-it-all paint company that marks Jake’s entry into a string of terrible paint jobs where he is often forced to work with caustic chemicals without a respirator, and where the workers usually smoke a few joints or snort some lines before they open up the paint cans.

In the room where they wait for assignments, Helton writes, “All of us smoked, so the room was usually hazy and smelled of tobacco and paint thinner. I usually read the paper, the front page, first section, and sat in the corner trying not to talk to anybody.” The anybodys, though, were less interested in sitting quietly in the corner. Despite trying to remain aloof, Jake is almost always drawn into the complicated lives of his coworkers. A typical case is Tyler, “a tall curly-headed guy from West Texas. He was missing his two front teeth and covered in scars and tattoos, Bugs Bunny on his left forearm and the Tasmanian Devil on the right, flipping you the bird.” Each morning Tyler regales Jake with the lurid and often disturbing stories of his sexual exploits. Tyler is one example of a stock character in Bad Jobs, a Texan with over the top physical characteristics and strange, often violent, stories.

Jake’s habit of being an observer, as well as his constant attempts to avoid his co-workers despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to really have any friends, hint at the fact that there is a separation between him and the other men on these jobs (they are exclusively men). He is a part of the work crew, but at the same time always separate, like a reporter embedded in a platoon. This separation becomes especially clear when Jake joins his brother in a gig picking up discarded railroads ties in Kansas. Surprisingly, the ties are worth quite a bit of money, and as Jake’s brother is the boss, Jake is guaranteed a job and high salary. The rest of the work crew, largely made up of undocumented workers, is treated and paid horribly. At one point they are forced to huddle in the back of a moving pickup truck for hundreds of miles between Texas and Kansas in the dead of winter. Once they arrive, things aren’t much better. Jake describes their daily routine: “At lunch, we left them huddled together out on the tracks with their cold tortillas and water and went into Cassoday to have a lunch of steak and potatoes on the company’s tab. When we returned, full of beer and food, the men were already back at work.”

In these moments, Bad Jobs reminds me of another memoir about work in a very different context: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Both books feature a rotating cast of working-class guys (again, mainly guys) with drug problems and disturbing stories. Both contain an excess of sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice (usually coming in dialogue from the mouths of others, but it’s still in there nonetheless). Both are founded on a particular kind of American white masculinity. And when I read them, I got the feeling they were both using characters and stories for purposes of shock and awe.

Bourdain’s and Helton’s stories of sexual harassment in the kitchen or hazardous work conditions for industrial painters are not told for purposes of solidarity, education, criticism, or even entertainment. Their anecdotes are designed, rather, to amaze and impress. Their writing is the literary equivalent of rolling up a sleeve to show off a nasty scar or a giant tattoo. The main problem is that the scars and tattoos usually belong to someone else.

Bourdain’s and Helton’s stories of sexual harassment in the kitchen or hazardous work conditions for industrial painters are not told for purposes of solidarity, education, criticism, or even entertainment. Their anecdotes are designed, rather, to amaze and impress. Their writing is the literary equivalent of rolling up a sleeve to show off a nasty scar or a giant tattoo. The main problem is that the scars and tattoos usually belong to someone else.


robert-sorrellRobert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.

Comments are closed.