Every so often a novel appears on the American literary landscape from authors deeply embedded in local life. As a result, these authors are able to illuminate the existence of ordinary folk who, like most Americans, live out their lives a long way from the glitter of the media capitals.
One noteworthy example is Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird," a work that gave us the sorrows and joys of a southern girlhood as well as a focused view of post-Civil War racism. (Harper Lee passed on in February in her Alabama home.)
The new novel by Portland attorney and writer Jim McDermott, titled "Bitter Is the Wind," is another such book. Set in rural upstate New York in the mid-1970s, this coming of age novel explores the bond between a father, George Johnson Sr, who sacrificed a promising baseball career to marry the girl he has impregnated, and the son, George Johnson Jr, who ultimately rises to success from the constrictions of a working class background. The younger man overcomes obstacles, temptations, and traps as he rises. And, ultimately, he questions the meaning of purely financial gain.
Underscoring the working class lives of father and son is the lingering impact of a terrible accident that mar's the younger man's childhood: George Jr's mother and two-year old sister are killed when their small car is smashed by a tractor trailer rig on an icy road. Thankfully a widow friend and neighbor emerges as a steady influence, and a dog provides unconditional love.
This novel is set in the undistinguished Watergate era when many young people struggled to find suitable role models. When I first read the book I was struck by the clarity and simplicity of the prose--which reminded me of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories and the short stories of Raymond Carver. In fact, like Carver, McDermott has a way of beautifully and crisply illuminating the thoughts and feelings of solid, blue-collar Americans.
Recently, a former (Portland) Oregonian editor attended a local reading by the author and reported in his blog: "It may be a 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." Specifically, Bitter Is the Wind puts clothes on the arguments of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Readers who enter the landscapes of this book will fully face the lives of well-intentioned folk who are hemmed in by the circumstances of go-nowhere factory jobs and the many obstacles to social mobility.
The depth of Bitter Is the Wind and its resonance among contemporary audiences is underscored by the author's awkward, self-effacing, nuanced, and ultimately moving performances in events at major literary venues on the East and West Coasts. His recent talk at the legendary Strand bookstore in New York (posted on YouTube) is one example.
Jim McDermott came from a similar background as his protagonist. Born and raised in upstate New York, McDermott worked his way through Syracuse University and the University of Virginia Law School to become one of the country's preeminent business litigators. In addition to his achievements as a lawyer, McDermott is a surprisingly talented writer. The language of this first novel is without frills. It is simple, written from bones and muscle. A startling debut.