Several years ago, a Portland lawyer caused a bit of a stir when he wrote an op-ed piece for The Oregonian titled “I want to pay more taxes.” It began like this:
“Thirty years ago, I was pumping gas at a Mobil station for minimum wage. Then our government gave me grants and loans for college. When I got into law school, our government gave me more grants and loans. Now I’m fortunate to be a successful lawyer. My kids go to private schools. We live in a large home. I can afford to pay more taxes so others can benefit like I did.”
The author went on to criticize the U.S. tax code, saying it divides our country into haves and have-nots because it favors wealth over work and limits economic mobility by concentrating that wealth in so few people. He concluded with a call to generate more revenue for our troops, for seniors and children — and a plea to raise taxes on people like him who can afford to pay more.
I was the Sunday Opinion editor who published that provocative piece in April 2009. And though we exchanged emails, I hadn’t met Jim McDermott until last week.
On Thursday night, a standing-room only audience of more than 60 people crammed into Annie Bloom’s Books in Southwest Portland to hear Jim discuss his debut novel, “Bitter Is The Wind.”
It was the kickoff of a national book tour for McDermott, whose novel explores the theme of how hard it is for the working class to achieve economic success.
If you only knew Jim as a corporate business litigator and law partner who’s married to a judge, and who appears trim, healthy and handsome, you’d think the guy has it made. His law firm represented former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber during his legal troubles last year, and Jim’s wife, Karin Immergut, was the U.S. Attorney for Oregon before she joined the bench.
But there’s much more to his back story.
Raised in a small town in upstate New York, in one of those places with a gas station, a grocery store and a single stoplight, McDermott made it out — to Syracuse and then to the University of Virginia Law School. But many of his childhood friends didn’t and many of them remain there, limited by their lack of schooling and struggling to get by.
Growing up, most families he knew didn’t have books or art on the wall, he said. Young men went to work in the factory or, if they were good athletes, aspired to become major league baseball players, back in the days before football became king and a guy of average size could still dream of a pro career. Today, old friends still work in the factory, at the gas station, at the auto repair shop.
For more than 25 years, McDermott said, the novel has taken shape in his mind as a way to look back on what separated him from his peers and, more importantly, to look more broadly at the experiences of the working class as he experienced them.
Wearing a sports jacket, V-neck sweater and jeans, McDermott talked about his inspiration for the book, read three excerpts, and took questions from audience members.
“I wanted to write about the obstacles faced by the middle class,” he said. “What are the impediments? What is the role of money?”
Cemeteries were his first exposure to wealth disparity, with a simple observation that the more money you made, the bigger your tombstone. As the years passed, he saw how money made a difference — in how people see themselves and are treated by others, in how they navigate the educational and judicial systems.
“It’s really hard to get out of the lower class unless you have an education,” McDermott said. “I saw a lot of people get their cars repossessed. I saw lot of people ashamed because they couldn’t afford to send their kids to college.”
In his novel, a father named George Johnson is an all-state baseball player who wins a scholarship to play college ball but gets his girlfriend pregnant, quits school and returns to the small town where he grew up, his dreams of pro ball unfilled. His son, George Jr., loses his mother and sister in a car wreck when he is 7 and grows up a troubled, though intelligent, kid. Can the younger George overcome his own missteps and obstacles to make a success of himself? Or will he too succumb to diminished opportunities?
When you’re in the middle class, you face environmental, intellectual and structural obstacles in society, McDermott said. In writing the book, he aimed to deconstruct the American Dream and asked himself several questions about the boys he grew up with: How could things have been different? What could America have done better? What could they have done better? What could their parents have done better?
As someone who’s climbed from the working class to the middle class, I appreciate that McDermott has not only been cognizant of these questions for so long but also that he made the novel happen. As the son of parents who lacked a high school education, I too credit my first-in-the-family college education as the springboard to a successful career and the broadening of my worldview.
It may be coincidence that Jim’s book comes forth during a political season when presidential candidates alternately talk about or talk around inequality and lack of economic mobility. (Kudos to Bernie Sanders for making these issues the cornerstones of his campaign. Shame on those candidates who call for even more tax cuts for the wealthy.)
But from what I know of this fellow working class survivor, the challenges faced by working men and women and their children has never left his consciousness despite the trappings of success he may have achieved.
I look forward to reading Jim’s book.