Fiction | USA

“Americans blame poverty on the poor”

In his debut novel, Jakob Guanzon explores the reality of the “working poor” in the US. An interview about fathers and sons, money troubles and the dangerous legacy of the American Dream

Mr Guanzon, do you know how much you've got in your wallet today?

I do. When you grow up with that awareness, you keep it - even if I’m in a more comfortable financial position now.

The chapters of your novel “Abundance” have different dollar amounts as titles, representing how much money the protagonist currently owns. Why?

The day I had the idea I went into a supermarket in the very posh, bourgeois Upper West Side in New York. I was waiting in line to pay but it wasn't moving, and people were getting really aggravated. The woman who's paying was visibly very poor, and like in the opening scene of my book, she was sliding each coin across to the cashier to pay for her bread.

It struck me to see that amount of hostility towards somebody who's very vulnerable, such resentment only because of a slight inconvenience to their retail experience. The disparity of wealth in America is very visible. But the typical attitude is of apathy, of looking away. After that, I decided to use amounts of money as a way of structuring the story.

The protagonist of your novel, Henry, and his eight-year-old son live in their truck and struggle to cope from day to day. Is this taken from your own experience?

Luckily, I've never experienced homelessness myself. But I'm the son of immigrants to America, and money was always tight. There were times when we were wearing coats in the winter at home. To be mindful of how much it costs to simply exist, formed part of my childhood. I started studying sociology and learned that this is a global trend and that is what I wanted to explore in this book.

Why did you choose a father and a son as protagonists?

Partly to explore my own relationship with my father but also, more importantly, for the sake of the story. Americans blame poverty on the poor person. It's always about individual responsibility. So many readers in America will probably be coming with that attitude, even if they're centrist or slightly left politically. But the child cannot be blamed.

Henry's parents were immigrants who worked hard all their lives. Nevertheless, they leave him with nothing but debt. Is Henry repeating his father's life?

Absolutely. Immigrants have a hard time accumulating generational wealth because they come to the country with nothing or very little, and the cost of living is so high. But in a number of states, if you die with debt, it goes to your next of kin. Imagine being in grief, losing your parents, and then finding you owe the bank thousands of dollars. On top of the emotional tragedy, there is a financial tragedy. Health care typically plays a part in this. It costs an incredible amount of money if you are sick, you get bills you will pay for the rest of your life.

“The narrative goes that everyone in America is just a temporarily embarrassed millionaire”

The relationship between Henry and his father seems to be difficult in other ways too …

My own father was Filipino, like Henry’s father, and Filipino fathers are very strict, demanding and cold. That's their role, the father gives orders, and the son, especially the first-born son, obeys. As a child I resented my because I saw how American dads were like sports buddies. But as I got older, I understood that this was the only way he knew to love. This was his way of teaching me about the world, of protecting me. Now we have a very healthy relationship.

Henry does not seem to have an emotional outlet for his feelings and he’s always trying to hide his precarious situation. What role does shame play?

Shame is a huge driving factor for him. You could call it Filipino machismo, but it also comes from that attitude of taking responsibility for yourself. The idea of asking for help, even from your family, is very difficult – especially as a young man in America. A lot of the book’s energy comes from that boiling sense of shame.

Key moments in the novel take place at McDonald's and Walmart. Why did you choose these locations?

I think of them as a sort of national cathedral. When you travel to Europe, you see these beautiful old buildings, there's history. But in America, to have that sense of being a part of something larger, you must walk into Walmart. There you experience big ceilings and light and colours. There’s something exciting about that – even though they only sell disposable garbage. We don't have public spaces in America. Everything is privatised, even our parks close very early. Aside from visiting friends, the only place people can congregate in these small American towns is McDonald's.

And Henry's whole environment is relentless.

If you look at Henry's youth, I think readers can make their own judgments. I didn't want to moralise about drug use or his behavior. I just wanted to illustrate how we live in this part of the country not only Minnesota, but other very disenfranchised, no opportunity-kinds of milieux. We didn't have sports, but we had drugs. There's no money for a vacation, so you can take a pill and relax a little. These people are also easy customers the pharmaceutical companies during the opioid crisis: let's get these poor people addicted to our drugs.

America's founding narrative is, you can make it if you try. In your book, hope is very fragile. Does the American dream still exist?

I don't think the American dream ever existed for other communities than for white men in the 1950s. But we love to celebrate the rare occasions where there’s success, those are the narratives that dominate Hollywood. There's is a great deal of denial in the American psyche. From childhood on, we're indoctrinated to believe that we are a special country. Later you question that story and realize that many lack material goods. It's the end of an empire.

It felt important to write a book that represented the reality of so many Americans. The narrative goes that everyone in America is just a temporarily embarrassed millionaire – you'll hit your million soon, don't worry! But the statistics say, if you’re poor your children are going to die poor. So it’s disrespectful to keep telling the working poor this kind of myth. It’s time we talked honestly about who we are as a nation and what comes next.

„Abundance“ by Jakob Guanzon, published by Graywolf Press 2021