Contemporary Literature

Abundance

Another Aspen Words 2022 longlist read down (my 14th, I believe). And this is one I have seen nowhere and heard basically nothing about until it showed up on this list. So, I went into it basically blind and with no bookstagram reviews to rely on for vibes about it. Which is a position I very rarely find myself in these days. 

Abundance by Jakob Guanzon

Henry and his son, Junior, are living in Henry’s pick-up truck after being evicted from their trailer. Barely making it day-to-day, Henry has high hopes for this particular day, as it’s Junior’s birthday and he has just enough to treat him to a small gift, a meal at McDonald’s and a night in a real motel room. Plus, Henry has an interview tomorrow, and is feeling good with the promise of reliable income on the horizon. But despite all his best efforts and hopes, Henry’s plans are thrown off course by an opportunistic front-desk clerk, an altercation in the morel parking lot, and Junior developing a fever, throwing the pair back into imminent despair and the brink of disaster.    

Well, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, since this award recognizes books that address urgent social issues, but this was a very heavy read. From start to finish, there is such a weight in Henry’s voice, story, and life. Stylistically, it was presented in an incredibly unique way, with each chapter titled as the sum-total amount of cash that Henry currently has to his name. It’s a very unique literary way of measuring a person’s time, life, the space they take up, through the reality of their credits and debits, the large and the small, and the constant flux they’re in. And it’s a visceral commentary on (and condemnation of) the way a person’s economic value is the most salient and important thing about them, in our current capitalistic world. Even as we get to know Henry on a much more intimate level, his past and hopes and dreams and failures and efforts and relationships, his external worth is still measured solely in a dollar amount. The story itself unfolds in two timelines, the first detailing Henry’s adolescent years and how he got to the point where he and Junior are living moment-to-moment out of his truck, the second spanning the less than 24-hour period between Junior’s birthday dinner and getting picked up from school the next day. 

It’s all an incredibly tense reading experience, as in both timelines there is a lot of hopelessness, a tunnel of it, the overwhelming feeling of the inevitableness of “failure” that comes with poverty. It’s an intense downward spiral towards rock bottom that hurts to watch unfold. And Guanzon leans into that with his writing style, sort of short and choppy, a kind of kaleidoscope fever dream of everyday poor, rural(ish) life. The language of description for the smallest details, the things we’d normally overlook, was so precise, really making the quotidian literary. At one point Guanzon uses the phrase “gloom in technicolor,” and I felt like that was truly a spot on descriptor for the entire novel. My one caveat is that that vibe sometimes hit quite right and sometimes felt like it was trying a bit too hard. 

This is one of the few fictional accounts of post-incarceration life that I have ever read (other than An American Marriage, I think…another Aspen Words book, the 2019 winner, actually) and, in addition to the financial/economic social commentary of this novel, that jumped out at me as the reason it made this longlist. The way Guanzon highlights the complete lack of options, opportunities and resources for reintegration post-incarceration, the way the system makes it almost impossible to “get back on one’s feet” and find a bit of stability (and then blames it on the individual’s character when they are unsuccessful), is really affecting. It’s in the little details, the small steps that seem insurmountable under the circumstances. The job interview prep sessions, the phone card/deodorant purchases, and the poignant moments like the constant call of the memory of Henry’s mother with visual reminders/appearances of her shawl, were particularly gutting. Also, the youthful naivete and hope in Henry as he considers the future possibilities after the interview is almost tangible and that just…hurts…to read. This focus on the difficulty of coming back to “external life” after incarceration is paralleled with a look at addiction and recovery as well.  

Overall, the way this book explores the gulf of difference in financial security in this country (and how out of one’s control the circumstances of birth and opportunity are that determine which side of the gulf you’re on), as well as the exploration of the reality of the razor’s edge between disaster and opportunity, with moments of breakthrough hope, are heartbreaking. There is a truly palpable study of primal themes like sex, hunger, addiction and the urge for stability, with a focus on the confluence of circumstance and loss of self-control related to them. Honestly, there was so much about this book that was great, and I wanted to like it more than I did, so I can only put down my “liked, but not loved” vibe about it to a mismatch of reader and book (or a mistimed reading experience), which is too bad. 


A few short pull-quotes:

“If fatherhood has taught him anything at all, it is helplessness.”

“Their everything is so little and they’ve gathered it all…”

“His life sentence to the status of an untouchable seems both cruel and unusual.”

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