Songwriter James McMurtry released a song several years ago that told the story of many working people in the United States. Titled “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore,” McMurtry’s lyrics described broken lives in a broken town in a nation broken by an economic disaster engendered by the greed of the capitalist class. Describing broken people and broken homes bedeviled by addiction and poverty, disability and despair, this tune is an angry cry virtually bereft of hope even while its characters refuse to give up. McMurtry points his acerbic pen and accomplished guitar at those whom he holds responsible—
“I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams
All lily white and squeaky clean
They’ve never known want, they’ll never know need
Their shit don’t stink and their kids won’t bleed
Their kids won’t bleed in their damn little war….”
Capitalism is a heartless system. Its quintessential function is the pursuit of profit. In today’s neoliberal reality this means that many humans are denied shelter, food and a healthy life because they cannot pay the price that others’ pursuit of profit demands. Furthermore, capitalism’s cozy relationship with political power has resulted in immeasurable destruction and millions of deaths, much of which is due to the actions of the world’s most powerful capitalist nation, the United States. Other systems designed to counter this heartlessness are attacked and undermined by the most powerful capitalists and the forces they hire to defend their ill-gotten gains. Coups and stolen elections, covert operations and torture, disappearances and disease—all of these tactics have been used to maintain that domination.
Behind these power plays of the powerful are real human beings struggling to survive. This is something many people forget or care not to remember. Journalist J. Malcolm Garcia’s new book, The Fruit of All My Grief: Lives in the Shadows of the American Dream is an attempt to remind. Moving deeper into the world underscored in the James McMurtry song referred to above, Garcia takes the reader into families from Afghanistan to Miami; Jena, Mississippi to Louisiana and beyond. In eleven essays, he describes the fate of individuals he has known.
There’s the story of a two African-American released from prison after sixteen years for a crime they most likely did not commit and there’s another prison tale about a man who got snitched out by the meth dealer whose product he moved across state lines. The dealer got ten years and the guy transporting the product will spend the rest of his life in prison. Why, the reader is asking, did he decide to something he knew could carry so much time? How is that capitalism’s fault? Here’s the reason: the guy doing life needed money for his son, who suffered from a condition requiring a $50,000 procedure. In the US, as anyone knows, health care is not a birthright like it is in so many other nations. So, a parent does what one feels they must to take care of their children—even if means a lifetime in prison for doing so.
Modern capitalism depends on the extraction, refinement and sale of fossil fuels. Wars are fought over the right to control the immense profits this process makes. Countries are invaded, water and air are polluted, mineral rights under family farms are stolen, and people wonder why and how humanity will survive. Garcia’s true-life tales naturally include stories of those whose lives are affected by this terminal pursuit. He shares the grief of a family whose father and husband died from cancer caused by burn pits in Iraq only to have the grief replaced by anger at those who sent him there. Implicit in this tale is the understanding that those who profited from that deployment who will never pay any earthly costs.
These are but a few of the eleven entries in this attractively designed volume. The writing within surpasses the physical beauty of the book. In language whose poetic simplicity underlines the poignancy of the lives described, Garcia utilizes a nearly perfect mix of emotion and fact, creating a truth that transcends the specifics of his protagonists. These are stories about real people trying to survive in a world designed by a relative few at the expense of all the rest of us. Any reader of this text who doesn’t live in the world where their shit don’ stink and their kids don’t bleed will know someone who might be a subject of Mr. Garcia’s some day; or who could be one themselves. The individual tales are a testament to the strength of the human soul, while the universality of these vignettes is a reminder of how desperate, even tragic, the current reality is.