Prepare yourself: reading Welcome to Oakland is liking drinking Everclear with a chaser of Drano. Oakland’s narrator, T-Bird Murphy, doesn’t like you.
What a fucking shame—you mean someone might not agree with me? So few people will ever read my book anyway that it doesn’t really matter much to me if I piss a few off…At least I’d be making the assholes feel something. People might not like you, The Author. Shit. My heart is all broken up about this. [All italics author’s.]
T-Bird has plenty to say—not only about his life in the lesser areas of Oakland, but to you, the reader, the person not only wealthy enough to buy a book, but educated enough to read it. His people, he tells you, do not read.
I called a chick poet—one of those baggy pants silver jewelry no makeup bumpersticker healthfood hairy-armpit types—and I read her what I’ve just written [a screed against the rich—that’s you and me] and she got pissy and said…“You’re just telling the truth (instead of writing fiction), and the people who read books are the very ‘art fags’ you’re railing against.’”
His agent—clearly there is some overlap between T-Bird and his creator—read a portion of the book and fired him, saying he was one of the people T-Bird wished dead, an art fag. T-Bird heartily agrees.
Is there a contradiction therein? T-Bird is writing a book, he obviously knows how to read, even if his people don’t, and isn’t your reading his book a good thing? Not according to T-Bird. In grad school we were taught about characters like this, people who excoriated you for who you are (comparative wealthy, educated, living someplace with flush plumbing) while simultaneously expressing a wish to become somewhat like you; they’re are called unreliable narrators.
T-Bird’s unreliability is part of—I was going to write “his charm”—only T-Bird isn’t charming. No: T-Bird’s unreliability saves him from being a total bastard.
Welcome to Oakland begins not in Oakland, but in a garage in Warrensburg, Missouri. We never learn why T-Bird is living in this dump, which lacks just about every amenity and is alive with vermin. He says he cannot tell us, and he doesn’t. Instead, he talks about growing up in Oakland, part of a poor white family in a tightly intertwined community where nobody had much, but you could count on your neighbors to watch your back. Hostilities with Mexicans and Blacks were the norm; murders, drunkenness, filthy streets, and noise were all commonplace.
Oakland is a loose weave of stories, anecdotes meant to illuminate T-Bird’s lowdown, mean and dirty hometown. Dick’s bar is the meeting hall, where T-Bird’s friends hang out, a sad place where men bemoan, to use T-Bird’s word, cunts. Women in T-Bird Murphy’s world are the ultimate virgin whores: put on pedestals by their men, loved and longed-for, hated when they leave for “better” men or just plain leave, demanding alimony and child support and the trailer.
Still the men literally cry over them. One, Blaise, loses his mind when his wife leaves with their infant. Never mind that Blaise, a brilliant scientist and musician, spent his every waking moment in a shed composing, not giving his wife the time of day. That’s okay, even expected. But then she leaves, and Blaise goes to pieces, inspiring Dick’s regular Jorgensen to takes matters in hand. Jorgensen is a retired Navy SEAL who may have left the Navy but is definitely still in business. His efforts cannot be said to help.
Work is paramount: manual labor performed with hatred but attention to detail. At age ten, T-Bird begins working for his stepfather at a gas station. From the station he moves to mowing lawns, leading to FatDaddy Slattern and his lawn. Slattern is a custom toilet seat baron who tries to cheat young T-Bird, engaging him to mow his lawn for 75-cents, only to open the gate on an overgrown, thistle-choked yard. T-Bird, instructed by his stepfather on the dignity of work well done, spends weeks in the heat, hacking weeds and fighting off bees.
Meanwhile, his stepfather ensures the rest of town knows how FatDaddy screwed his son. Even “Mr. Brown,” then Governor of California, is informed. Mr. Slattern’s house suddenly begins coming apart—the wiring sparks, the toilet floods, the flooring is ruined…and then, alas, the house burns down. FatDaddy is run out of town, reduced to loading a U-Haul while the neighbors crack beers and watch.
Revenge isn’t always so sweet. T-Bird’s stepfather (his biological father is unknown), Bud Murphy, once played horn with the Oakland Symphony Orchestra. He now runs a Mohawk gas station, only occasionally picking up the horn, now played by T-Bird in Mexican bands and bars. T-Bird loves music, loves jazz and blues, and realizes that though inherently musical, he isn’t great; he’s merely good. He isn’t sure why Bud gave up playing professionally and doesn’t dare ask. Then T-Bird finds work building an amusement park ride at Great America.
The work is grueling and dangerous. A local high school band — wealthy, white, and clean, kids with perfect teeth and classy instruments—is rehearsing in the unopened park. When T-Bird tries speaking with the horn player, he’s met with a condescending sneer. He finally convinces the boy to briefly lend him the instrument, blowing the kid away before an audience of construction guys and the high school band. Handing back the horn:
I thought I’d feel really good about it, showing the rich fuckers how they didn’t know shit and could do even less. But I didn’t. I felt really rotten. It didn’t make sense. I felt like an asshole. I felt like that sometimes.
The remainder of the book is narrated from the dump truck T-Bird both drives and lives in while saving for an apartment deposit. He gleefully describes driving through the wealthier parts of Oakland, arriving early in the morning and making an unholy racket, certain to wake the burghers in their fine homes. As a departing gesture, he allows the truck to leak stinking waste—their waste, mind you—into their clean streets.
I’ll let T-Bird take the end. Again, spelling and italics are the author’s.
You want perfect? Read someone else’s fucking book. This book, if I’m doing it right, is anything but purrfect. I don’t want you to finish it and lean back in your expensive chaise lounge and sigh, reassured…I don’t want you to finish this novel and, if you’re the rich fuck I suspect you are, you think the shit-for-life you’ve imposed on my people by your very existence is something that is not your fault and that everything works out in the end, your sins forgiven…I want you to finish my book and be a little apprehensive, just a little…Maybe we’re just waiting for our chance to take you the fuck out.
You’ve been warned.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More
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