A month ago, I was among those who turned out at a bookstore to hear Portland author Jim McDermott discuss his debut novel, “Bitter Is The Wind.”
Already a successful corporate lawyer and married to a judge, McDermott told a standing-room only crowd of supporters that he spent more than 25 years thinking about and working on the novel as a way to look back on what separated him from his working class peers and to look broadly at the experiences of the working class as he experienced them.
How did he make it out to Syracuse University and then to law school while so many of his friends stayed behind to work in jobs at the local factory? What were the challenges and what is it that makes a difference in overcoming them?
As someone born into the working class and a first-generation college graduate myself, I was intrigued by Jim’s objectives and admired his effort in producing a book-length piece of fiction. Writing is hard, hard work. On top of that, he explores issues of economic inequality and privileges of the upper class that have resonated deeply during this presidential campaign.
The book’s cover depicts a tattered baseball and an empty field with a wire backstop — fitting for a story set in the 1970s that revolves around a father and son who both play high school baseball in the small upstate New York town where they grow up.
The father, George Johnson, hopes to become a major league ballplayer but quickly has those dreams extinguished when he impregnates his girlfriend and gives up a college scholarship.
The son, George Jr., isn’t as talented as his dad but is academically gifted and yearns to make a life for himself away from the community where so many of his peers are bound to follow in their parents’ footsteps, their economic and social mobility limited by their working class status as well as their own perceptions of what is possible.
To use a baseball metaphor, I think McDermott has hit a single in his first time at bat as an author.
He told us at the night of his reading that he intentionally wrote the coming-of-age novel to be accessible to the very people he was writing about. It wasn’t that he dumbed it down but, rather, that he avoided embellishments that smacked of literary affectation.
I understand the instinct but I think the novel would have been stronger had he aimed a little higher. At 179 pages, it’s a compact book. And McDermott wastes no time jumping into the narrative, starting with George Jr.’s suspension from junior high school, rather than with his father’s shattered dreams and the early, accidental deaths of his mother and sister.
The book covers a lot of ground, following George Jr. as he moves from junior high to high school, then to college and graduate school, and into the corporate world. Much of the story relies on dialogue and that is where I think the book falters. I would have preferred more in the way of character development and less in the way of direct quotes. In too many instances, I felt I was reading about one-dimensional characters rather than getting to know them as real people.
I commend Jim for taking a swing at this important subject. Bringing light to the forgotten working class via a fictional account of one family is a worthy goal. Not many people would even give it a try, let alone someone who’s a self-made writer. I tip my cap to the effort even if the execution fell short.