I’ve been working a lot, which is why this is my first substantial piece of writing in a long time. By working I mean “for money” working. Divisions are important. In the haze of “for money working,” it becomes impossible to understand what I care about. All I want to do is go home and sleep. My manner turns irritated and my jokes easy. Everything, if I may make a broad statement, becomes easy. All I have to do is keep walking into this room 5 days a week and I’ll have enough money. Enough, soon, is a word I misunderstand.
In short, I no longer matter to myself–I don’t count. Touch and Go is all about counting. Terkel’s memoir is informal, loosely organized. As he says himself “I’m not [a writer]. I’m a disk jockey who happens to have written some books. I often say, I put together the book instead of I wrote the book” (198). This reads true, in a sense–his structure is minimal, made up of meaningful anecdotes which gesture at conclusions instead of chasing them down, pulling them apart, putting them back together, and telling you about how to do it. At the same time, Terkel clearly understands great writing. He recognizes great writers and knows how to make a point. “Two Towns Called Girard,” Chapter 23, does a great job with historical flashback–a trope which can be easily made trite.
Success in historical flashback is all about space. This is a rule I came up with right now (I don’t read much nonfiction that isn’t theory) One should drop the hints and move on without making too much of anything, because if the reader can’t make the connections quickly and thoroughly, it’ll be too clever to be intelligent. Terkel starts off with a James Baldwin quote about the persistence of the past. This leads into a conflict Terkel had at a speaking engagements in a town called Girard, PA. Without tying up the story of the conflict, he goes back to 1867, when Girard, KS published a radical socialist newspaper which reached almost a million readers. They also put out low-price editions of labor-friendly classics. Using these books as a jumping off point, he goes into a recollection of interviewing a rural preacher who taught the Bible as a handbook of economic protest.
And that’s it. He never returns to the present to conclude and remind one of some continuity. These short examples (the chapter’s only about 8 pages) make a point about the changing national consciousness, about things that used to be important but seem like they aren’t anymore. A kid at his speaking engagement is named Robert Burns but all he does is quote bland and meaningless Bible verses. The man for whom he once was but probably isn’t named is some bloke-blur–patron of haggis, right? His grandfather might have cared.
In this example, the blur that is Burns shows how the notion of carving out a distinct, implicitly rebellious personal life is retreating from much of American culture. The residue is still there but the substance is lost. At the risk of sounding insipid, people forget how much previous generations fought for the things we take for granted. Terkel mentions a recent encounter: him, an old man, haranguing a union hating yuppie couple about all the union members who died so that they could take the 8-hr work day for granted (66).
Terkel was an old man when he wrote this, but this book is not an out of touch old man rant. He doesn’t prop up the past as something to emulate and revere like some Tom Brokaw asshole. He just wants us to remember things that can help “in the now” and “on the 6.”
He understands the basics. Much as I hate to get all “talk-radio,” Terkel talks about the characteristically American malaise/ignorance/superficiality that is making a lot (but not all) of this country very shitty for very many people in ways that are righteously angry, soberly hopeful, and heartfeltedly direct. I liked this book. Read it and remember why there are so many goddamn better and more important things than making money for meaningless garbage