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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Class warfare in Burning Questions

Q. In your blurb for Burning Questions, you say that “There’s class warfare in a New England fishing community when the teenage heir to a Gloucester MA fortune is found shot after recently witnessing a hotel being torched. Can you describe what you mean by ‘class warfare?’”

A. For me class warfare begins with the actor’s motivation for behavior. First, the actor has to identify with a particular class. Second, the actor needs to justify his/her behavior consistently with the class identification. A worker who pilfers her employer, and justifies it by saying: “The boss is rich. He won’t miss it. And besides, he pays starvation wages.” is engaged in an act of class warfare. A wealthy boss who fires an injured worker to avoid paying compensation and justifies it by simply believing the worker is malingering and gaming the system is also engaging in class warfare. This king of under-the-radar class warfare goes on every day just about everywhere. Only when it gets violent will we read about those incidents in the paper. We prefer to think that it’s just a bad apple, but it originates in a sense of injustice based upon one’s class.

When my characters in Burning Questions speak the exhibit a “class subconsciousness” that translates into their actions. Here’s what some of them have to say:

Teresa Lima, Christina’s mother, uses the example of Teddy Kennedy at Chappaquiddick to tell Christina she should break off her relationship with Kenny, her rich boyfriend:

“One way or the other, Kennedy’ s gonna get out of this clean. You just watch. He comes from those people who always get away clean. That’s why they do the things they do. ’Cause they get away with shit. Daddy or someone always comes in with the bucks an bails ’em out.’ …when people like us run with them, an’ the shit hits the fan, we’re the one’s that catch it. We either get hurt or the blame.”

Christina tells Nate about failing in her attempt to explain to her boyfriend, Kenny, her fear that she will become like the girls she babysits for:

“He didn’t understand,” she said, her shoulders drooping. “Mr. Lewis, I mean Nate, look. Know how I get my spending money? Baby-sitting. I don’t get no allowance or nothing. And you know who I baby-sit for? Girls my age, or a couple of years older. They’re on welfare, Nate, and food stamps.” … “And they got two kids already, snottin’ and poopin’ up their three-room apartments. Know what their idea of fun is? An evening at the local tavern, and I don’t mean this place. And when they get up the next morning and the bed beside them is still warm but empty and they walk into the kitchen and see the guy left them a ten on the table, they know what they are and all they’re ever gonna be and they sit there cryin’ ’til its time to feed their little brats. And I get some of that money for watching the kids.

“Nate, what Kenny couldn’t understand was the fear poor people like me got. Folks with money, they don’t know that fear.”

When asked whether Steven diSimone may have sexually assaulted Christina, Charlene, the diSimone’s Caribbean maid says: 

“I got a daughter jus’ her age back in Jamaica, you know. She a pretty girl too. It da worst fo’ dem, you know, ’cause da rich man, he like ta taste da honey, you know. But when he finish his dinner, den next day he want to taste sumptin’ diff’ent. An’ he can do dat easy enough, ’cause he rich. But da pretty po’ girl, she gonna jus’ end up yestuday’s dinner, she don’t watch herself, you know.”

Nate Lewis explains to Abby, his Yankee blueblood girlfriend why he thinks Kenny’s murderer will escape justice:

“They’re rich and connected. They’ve got the best lawyer in town and the judge and the cops in their pocket. What’s a poor girl’s death against those odds? Hell, even Marilyn Monroe went down in flames under those circumstances... ”

Steven diSimone, Kenny’s wealthy stepfather tells Nate why he thinks Christina’s murderer will never be brought to justice:

“(N)o one’s going to testify that they know anything about any arson. No one’s going to pursue an investigation of a dead teenage girl who was despondent over the death of her boyfriend and the end of a possible marriage that would have made her rich. Her accusations against me wouldn’t cut it even if she were alive.”

When blueblood Trish Foster, the victim’s sister, describes the nearly six-foot tall Christina as:

“Little Lolita, the Portuguese bombshell.” She’s saying Christina seduced the murdered teenager. Kenny’s’s her victim. And she’s also disparaging the girl’s ethnicity. Plus, by diminishing her size, she’s subtly diminishing her. There’s an unseemly ethnic subtext in the description.

Nate and Abby, his Yankee blueblood girlfriend, have an argument about her withholding sex:

“Were you just slumming? You wanted to see what dating a Jew without money was like?”
“And you. Is it just that you wanted to screw a Yankee? Sometimes, when we were together, I got the feeling that all you wanted was to get into my pants. You wanted that trophy. After that it would have been over, right?”

When Christina’s disappears the cops refuse to pursue Nate’s lead because they don’t want to inconvenience rich people to save a poor girl. Nate, tells a police investigator:

 “I told the police last night that the two guys drove by me in a new black Continental. But you did nothing about it.”…

The police inspector shrugs it off:
 
“ You get down to the rich part of the county, Manchester, Prides Crossing, Beverly Farms, there’s probably dozens of those cars,” (Detective) Poole said and shrugged. “ You want us to roust every millionaire in Essex County?”

Just about every exchange of dialogue Burning Questions hints of a societal double standard ⎯a privileged rich class that gets a pass and a suspect poor class that gets accused. As you read the novel notice the undercurrents of disrespect and humiliation. That’s class warfare in my book.

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