Eric Miles Williamson, Welcome to Oakland

Publisher: Raw Dog Screaming Press
2009, 236 pages, paperback, $15.95

i was taking night classes at the University of Central Missouri when I first met Eric Miles Williamson. He was teaching a fiction writing class. I took the class, thinking at the time that Creative Writing would be the easiest minor possible. Bad move on my part. The students in his class represented the surrounding community well: there was a pig farmer, an ex-Air Force serviceman, a cowboy, a stoic warehouse worker, a cheerleader, and me, a high school dropout.  I was not serious about writing because I did not read books growing up. Few of us did. This did not go unnoticed on Williamson’s part. It enraged him. The class met once a week for fifteen weeks and he made all of us read a book each week. And, as Williamson explained, these books wouldn’t be by John Grisham or Stephen King. No, these books would represent a crash course in the western canon, a subject none of us had been prepared for as students by any teacher or any course, and this was something Williamson was determined to address. So long as we all agreed to read the books. One week for Moby Dick, Don Quixote, and Gravity’s Rainbow? This was an absurd proposition that Williamson further complicated when he required us to write 45 pages of fiction to even receive a passing grade in the course. We could not possibly do this. Maybe kids from private school with tutors, money, and most importantly time could pull off reading so many books, but not us. We had loans to pay, full-time jobs, and kids to support.

And Williamson constantly beat this point into us with his verbal lead pipe; we’d have to work harder and longer to make up for our lack of education if ever we hoped to become writers.

Working class students from blue-collar neighborhoods don’t have the same opportunities as their more affluent counterparts who are groomed for excellence. Williamson knows this from firsthand experience. He grew up as a white kid in the black and brown ghettos of Oakland. Never knowing his real father, Williamson’s only positive role models were a roving ensemble of bikers representing the Hell’s Angels. Ironically, these men helped anchor his abusive mother’s multiple personalities by making her their mascot. And Williamson incorporated the harrowing moments of his early life with the character of T-Bird Murphy in his first novel, East Bay Grease. The book, and Williamson, were well received when it was first published by St. Martins/ Picador in 1999. East Bay Grease was a bildungsroman, presenting the young T-Bird Murphy as an innocent born into the urban poor of Oakland’s ghettos. It was a sympathetic tale, polished and shined for the aesthetic tastes of mainstream “literary” culture. This never sat well with him. Agents and editors made Williamson cut out the gore of gang fights, and toned down the language until it was more politically correct.

Two Up, Williamson’s second novel, did not follow the pattern of his first. This sprawling epic of gunite workers sucked into the Dante-like world of dangerous construction jobs spared no detail, no matter how horrific or politically incorrect. The book frankly portrayed the labor inferno of California, graphically describing how the mechanism of big-business consumes day laborers who all too often leave the worksite minus a finger or two and sometimes not at all. Two Up was a shocking jolt to an American society that believes class no longer exists. And its publication firmly seated Williamson amongst contemporary class conscious writers like William Vollmann.

Two Up was a private triumph in its uncompromising moral vision, but it would not be as commercially successful as his first novel. Far too many American authors embrace both politically correct subjects and language which lead to watered-down pedestrian fiction. I would list some of the author’s names, but I’m a coward. I don’t want to offend any of the elite. However, Williamson is currently a columnist for the French slick, Transfuge, where he has torn down such “deified” American authors as Updike, Roth, and Morrison. The French and international public now have a strikingly different perspective of these American authors who have been lavished with critical praise for years in the states. Williamson offers his own fiery take on novels and authors that have committed “literary offensives” as American prose steadily decreases in quality in favor of quantity to better serve the palate of increasingly suburban fiction.  

And it should be no surprise that Williamson followed Two Up with his first book of criticism, Oakland, Jack London, and Me. The book delved into the core of Williamson’s hero, Jack London, and passionately illustrated London’s love/hate relationship with the working class poor of Oakland, a group that he championed and similarly detested. Williamson easily identified with London. Though the men were born almost a century apart they both had traumatic childhoods growing up and then escaping their poor neighborhoods in Oakland. The book achieved a level of rare critical success. The Atlantic Monthly’s review of Williamson’s Oakland, Jack London, and Me called it “one of the least politically correct texts of our time.”

The Atlantic Monthly got it right. Williamson did not offer an objective perspective on London, nor could he if he tried. This made for a jarring book of non-fiction, ultimately making Oakland, Jack London, and Me one of the best critical examinations of London’s work.

Along with his regular column in Transfuge, Williamson also writes book reviews for The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Houston Chronicle. He may have been known and remembered mainly for his criticism if not for his latest novel, Welcome to Oakland. If Williamson’s two prior books put to shame political correctness, his new novel drives the death-nail through it. Welcome to Oakland follows a now grown T-Bird Murphy who was the original protagonist from East Bay Grease. The opening pages introduce us to a divorced and destitute T-Bird who lives in a dump, an uninsulated garage in Warrensburg, Missouri, about as far away from his native Oakland as he can get. The first twenty pages represent a stylistic homage to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer as T-Bird details what led him to his current circumstance. Sentences hit the reader in waves of brutal eloquence, rhythmically tuned in both voice and impact. Here T-Bird spares no one, not even the reader who he specifically singles out:

By the way, the occasional “you” in this book isn’t a stylistic tic. It’s an implication, a chastisement, an insult. It’s not addressed to some universal “You,” no. It’s addressed to you personally. Take it to heart, motherfucker or motherfuckette. I don’t want to hear about your pain. Fuck you. I’ve howled and cried until my eyes bled from salt. I’ve got no sympathy for you.

The action of the novel takes place on the torn and stained stools at Dick’s bar, on the faded and soiled bench seat of a garbage truck that doubles as T-Bird’s bed, and in the bars that host jazz concerts until sunrise. The one trait that all the men in the novel share is that they’re divorced, blue-collar working men who once had sight of the American dream: the white picket fence, the lush green yard, the loving wife, the 2.5 kids, and then all of this is taken away. Now the men spend their time drinking cheap booze behind the locked doors of Dick’s bar, forced to work unsafe jobs to provide for a family that’s not theirs anymore. But because they’re male, each man has to come up with child support and even alimony, regardless of how well each one of their ex-wives came away from the divorce.

The subject matter of divorce has been made tame and rendered clich&eacute by popular culture with images of a wronged woman who gets revenge on her cheating, deadbeat husband by taking him for all he’s worth. This is fine for reality television, but not for fiction. Welcome to Oakland shows us the reality of divorce when both parties are equally to blame, but the man still has to pay.

Some may label Williamson as a sexist for his portrayal of women during and after these divorces. And it’s not a stretch to say that Welcome to Oakland may even make him the next literary pariah, having him fill the shoes of the late Norman Mailer. But people who decry and label Williamson as sexist fail to note that what he’s having his male characters ask of their female counterparts is nothing short of equal treatment. And equality under Williamson’s definition doesn’t mean privilege for anyone. You can’t claim discrimination, special treatment, or a position of power because of your race, creed, or sex in this world.

Poverty becomes the great equalizer in Williamson’s Oakland.

The polar opposite of Williamson is the post-Beats author Kathy Acker, whose feminist manifesto Blood and Guts in High School offered a female perspective on what violent, destructive relationships do to women. Well, now Welcome to Oakland offers the male perspective on what the horrors of divorce do to men. If that isn’t balance, then I don’t know what is. T-Bird and the rest of the men carry the burden of financial suffering once they get divorced. None of the men can see any of their kids because their ex-wives remarry and move away. Welcome to the agony divorce leaves for working class men. This is something you’ve never seen in a book before. No author I know of has pulled back the current so far and revealed what life has in store for divorced men.

And the novel’s greatest strength comes from the fact that no matter how low these men find themselves they can still create beauty out of their world. Whether it’s the Australian watchman of the Oakland dump who spends his spare time sculpting cities of garbage, or a parade of garbage scowls carrying a wedding party, or a toothless trumpet player belting notes into the night, or a young T-Bird elevating revenge into an art form, Welcome to Oakland shows us the beauty people make out of the mundane moments and objects found around them.

Williamson’s relentless perspective pierces the veil of what divorce does to blue-collar men like the painful tip of a dulled knife, making Welcome to Oakland a wail of a novel. There’s nothing politically correct about this book. Be offended. If you aren’t, then you’re one of those men sitting at Dick’s bar with a beer in your hand.

As for me, well, I made it through Professor Williamson’s fiction writing class at the University of Central Missouri. We all did, even the cheerleader. How did we do it? Some writers turn to teaching because they have to in order to survive, considering the years spent in the classroom as a waste of their time and energy when they could have been writing. However, there are a handful of writers who embrace teaching. These men and women force their students to produce, to rise above the expected by demanding the near impossible from them. These are Professors. And I know that Eric Miles Williamson is one of them. 

– Marc Watkins