by Susan Nussbaum
298 pages —Algonquin Books
Reviewed by Julia Bouwsma
There is an issue that has been rubbing at me this fall, and it has, in the last few weeks, taken on a fevered pitch in my brain as incessant as the nails-on-chalkboard sound of the starlings screeching in the woods below my yard. It surfaces whenever I open a book. It surfaces whenever I go online to read the latest indignities regarding healthcare and government shutdown. And it surfaced again when I read Editor-In-Chief Ken Robidoux’s blog post for Connotation Press’s October 1, 2013 issue. What I have been worrying about is the intersection of politics and art. Why does it so often seem that politics and art ought not to be discussed in the same mouthful? Ken’s post struck me as equally troubled by this question, for he writes: “As much as I shy away from politics on this blog (you’re here for the art, right?)…” Which is true, of course. You are here for the art, we all are. But it is equally true that for artists living in a world governed by politics, the two are often inherently inseparable.
Well, we here at Connotation Press certainly aren’t the only ones contemplating this. Barbara Kingsolver has often been faced with the question, “Isn’t it risky to mix art with politics?” Her answer? “Yes”—but “it is also risky to get out of bed in the morning.” As Kingsolver puts it, “Great art creates empathy. Is that not political? Empathy is at the heart of all civic progress.”[i] And so in 2000, she founded the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The 2012 winner of the Bellwether Prize is Susan Nussbaum’s Good Kings, Bad Kings, a fluid, vocal debut novel that follows the story of a group of teens living at the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center, which “might sound like a fun after-school program with arts and crafts and barbecues but it’s just a place they put disabled kids that struggling parents and the state don’t know what to do with.”
Good Kings, Bad Kings is a book concerned, above all else, with voice—with creating authentic, distinct voices for its disabled characters. Nussbaum has stated that when she became a wheelchair user after being struck by a car at the age of twenty-four, "All I knew about being disabled I learned from reading books and watching movies, and that scared the shit out of me."[ii] It became her goal to create disabled characters that defied the usual two-dimensional caricatures found in most books, TV shows, and film. “…It was really important to me to give disabled characters, more than one, their own voices, and the agency to represent themselves and their own perspective on what happens.”[iii]
Nussbaum’s background is primarily as an actor and playwright and, Good Kings, Bad Kings is accordingly relayed through chapters set as alternating dramatic monologues spoken by a cast of seven characters. Yessenía Lopez, fiery and boy-crazy, was recently transferred to “this Illinois Center for Cripple whatever” from Juvie, where she served three months for “aggravating assault.” Joanne Madsen, a data-entry clerk at ILLC and their sole disabled employee, commutes to work on the same bus line (Number 8 Halstead) that hit her years earlier. Joanne develops a relationship with tenderhearted, conflicted Ricky Hernandez, who describes himself as ILLC’s “bus driver/cop” because “When I ain’t driving, they call me when a kid gets out of line.” Michelle Voklmann works as a recruiter for Whitney-Palm Health Solutions, the private company that took over the ILLC contract from the state. Teddy Dobbs, who dresses up in a full suit and tie every day, is twenty-one and uncertain of what will become of him once he ages out of ILLC on his next birthday. Mia Oviedo, Teddy’s girlfriend, has been living at ILLC since she was eleven and harbors a dark secret, as well as the scars of parental abuse. And Jimmie Kendrick— a friend of Joanne’s and a singer for an all-lesbian band—takes a job at ILLC as a “houseparent,” where she becomes particularly close to Yessie.
It is no easy task to navigate the onslaught of these individual characters, and as a reader I admit that I initially approached the early chapters of this novel with some skepticism. However, Nussbaum’s detailed renderings reveal her enormous skill and attention, and she fully succeeds in creating voices as complex and disparate as they are wholly themselves. Which is essential not just to the novel’s success in and of itself, but because the characters themselves desperately need both to be seen—and to see themselves—as individuals. For just as the novel’s structure runs the risk of lumping them all together, so too does the institutional system that binds them. As Yessie points out:
They send people with physical challenges, but also retarded challenges, people been in accidents like brain accidents, or they’re blind or what have you. I do not know why they send us all to the same place but that’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it looks like it will always be because I am in the tenth grade and I have been in cripple this or cripple that my whole sweet, succulent Puerto Rican life.
Thus Nussbaum’s structural and narratorial decisions mirror the intuitional system, allowing the reader to see—no, feel—the inherent inseparability of artistic and political choices. There is a strong sense of intent behind every choice Nussbaum makes about who tells (or does not tell) their own story in Good Kings, Bad Kings. Narration parallels advocacy: some characters have the ability to tell their own stories and evolve as individuals through this process, while others are denied the opportunity. Mia, for example, summons the courage to tell her secret to the reader and then, eventually, to someone who can help her. Yet the story of Cherie, Yessenía’s best friend and schizophrenic roommate, is narrated entirely by other voices, and the end of the book finds her mute altogether. And Pierre—who has rickets, ADHD, and PTSD, as well as a penchant for hiding food under his bed—is also narrated entirely by others. Eventually the brutish houseparent Louie breaks his jaw in a lunchroom altercation.
Nussbaum strives to depict the ILLC as an average, realistic representation of “these kind of places”—no better and no worse. There are the usual problems: staffing shortages, a notable lack of power wheelchairs for those who need them, an attention to cost over quality of care, a general lack of motivation on behalf of the powers-that-be, the occasional bad-apple among the staff. But as the recruiter, Michelle, initially sees it, “At least ILLC has beds. It has everything.” By contrast, Ricky’s take on the institutional system is a little bleaker:
The kids’ rooms smell like moldy diapers. And the houseparents don’t always clean up after they leave a mess. Some of ‘em are cool—Beverly, Toya, Victor—but some of them, I don’t think they really give a shit. What do they make? Ten or twelve an hour? So you know…it is what it is.
And “what it is” is a system governed by arbitrary rules, a system which in turn rules over the children in its care with a mighty yet equally arbitrary hand. As Louie warns Teddy one day while leaving him in the “time-out room” as punishment for an outburst of frustration, “I can be a good king or a bad king.” And that’s the key. Power is arbitrary: those who have it have it, and those who do not, do not. A system in which a few maintain complete control over many is a system that encourages inequality and foreshortened, binary vision and prevents people from being seen as complex individuals. If I were to find any fault with Good Kings, Bad Kings, it would be that the book, in its attempt to portray the reality of the situation, sometimes falls prey to this type of thinking too, to divide characters into “good” or “bad.” It is worth noting, for example, that Nussbaum’s depictions of those in power—Louie or the ILLC’s director, Mrs. Phoebe, who refers to her charges as “her angels”—tend to be markedly less developed and without the personal growth that other characters experience. But such casualties are also an inherent risk, as Nussbaum seeks to reverse the system and to give voice and independence to those who have long been dependent. On the whole, binaries are broken much more than they are enforced. And it is worth noting, too, that the novel’s turning point is a tragic accident for which a “good” character is responsible.
One of Nussbaum’s greatest wisdoms is that she never tells her reader what to think. Instead, everything that she gives us is given through the voices of her characters. And it is through them—through the way they tell not just their own stories but the stories of one another as well—that we are able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Because the characters of Good Kings, Bad Kings help each other, not just through the novel’s action, but through the act of telling itself. They narrate for characters that cannot narrate for themselves. They allow one another to help with telling the parts that are too hard to tell alone. They celebrate their successes together. In sum, they create a structure of narration that embodies a transition from a model of dependence/independence to one of inter-dependence. We are never instructed to embrace this new model of interdependence as a solution to the institutional system. We simply arrive there at the same time the characters do themselves, feeling what they feel because we have lived with them. This then is empathy at work. Emotion and craft and politics all linking arms and moving us forward so smoothly we don’t even realize we are going anywhere. And it is a gorgeous thing—this novel that is both a self-contained, deftly crafted world but also something so much larger than itself.
Julia Bouwsma’s poems and reviews have appeared in journals such as Colorado Review, Cutthroat, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, Sugar House Review, Weave Magazine, and Wisconsin Review. Bouwsma is Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Co-editor of Shape&Nature Press, and Poetry Editor for New Plains Press. She lives in the mountains of western Maine.