Book Review: Good Kings, Bad Kings (Susan Nussbaum)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
With the publication of Susan Nussbaum's Good Kings, Bad Kings (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013) the novel that disability studies has been waiting for to put disability literature in big chain bookstores beside other best selling literature may finally be here. True, there is Thom Jones' brilliant The Pugilist at Rest, but saying that Jones' work speaks for people with disabilities is a bit like saying that Flannery O'Connor speaks for Catholicism. While Nussbaum's characters can hardly be called cuddly, one can at least close the last pages of Good Kings, Bad Kings without feeling existential despair at the depravity of man.
One of the secrets of Nussbaum's first novel is her previous existence as a playwright. Her facility in switching between the voices of the various characters whose stories comprise the novel is nothing short of amazing. Other writers of disability fiction have certainly been able to create a variety of interesting characters with disabilities between the covers of their book. In The Colony, Jillian Weise's crazy cast certainly explodes many stereotypes and Anne Finger's post modern approach in Call Me Ahab forces readers to take as second look at characters they thought they knew, but in both of these cases, the authorial voice blows so strongly through its characters that there is no doubt as to who is really doing the talking. Neither of these, however, is able to convincing shift as convincingly between points of view as Nussbaum. Despite its binary title, Good Kings, Bad Kings allows for a number of equally valid perspectives.
The book's structure also reflects Nussbaum's drama background. Rather than division into chapters, the book takes its shape from the succession of speakers who tell their stories, with the name of a new speaker printed at the top of a fresh page as the speakers change. Once readers become acquainted with the various speakers' voices, this labeling becomes almost superfluous. The story opens with each of the major characters in succession introducing themselves. Here is the first voice:
My name is Yessenia Lopez, and before they stuck my butt in this place I went to Herbert Hoover High School in Chicago, Illinois. I went there on account of I am physically challenged, and they send the people which have challenges to Hoover.
This bit of exposition, accomplishes at least two things. It lets us know that we are dealing with neither middle class WASP culture nor poster children, and it demonstrates that Nussbaum's facility with language is going to be an essential element of Good Kings, Bad Kings. When the audience has learned about Yessie's background and how she ended up in "this place," the second character, Joanne Madsen steps out:
The ad was posted by the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center, or ILLC. I was immediately captured by the awkward acronym. ILLC is a state-run nursing facility for adolescent youth through age twenty-one. It's just a regular nursing home, but instead of locking up old people they lock up young people. They were looking for a data entry clerk.
The contrast between the voices is startling. We learn that Joanne, like Yessie, is in a wheelchair but her disability results from being hit by a bus. Joanne is able to live independently as a result of a settlement from the accident but her attempt to overcome her lethargy has pushed her to find work. What they have in common is ILLC and a mutual distrust of it. It would be unfair to say that any one character in GKBK is a stand-in for the author, but it is hard not to think that Joanne is the character who most clearly represents Nussbaum's point of view. In truth, though, Yessies and Joanne's perspectives combine to form the greater part of a whole. Joanne's position as a data entry clerk allows her as she says, "to soar beneath the radar and avoid the usual Sturm and Drag." As a data entry clerk she has no vested interest in the institution itself and is able to make observations about what goes on there without actually being part of it – either as a resident or an administrator. Yessie by contrast, is the street-wise, transgressive activist who is able to sense injustice while often being too immersed in her own problems to see anyone's point of view but her own. One senses that while Joanne may be Nussbaum's articulate, intellectual voice, Yessie has her heart.
Yessinia Lopez and Joanne Madson are hardly the whole story, though. After their entrance, the other speakers follow with their narratives: Ricky Hernandez (patient transport), Teddy Dobson and Mia Olvideo (both residents), and Michelle Volkmann (agency recruiter). One wonders, as each new voice enters, whether or not Nussbaum is going to manage another syntactically and semantically distinct voice, but she manages to do it. Moreover, while not exactly in conversation, the speakers are juxtaposed in such a way that they move various threads of a narrative along. There is nothing mechanical about the sequencing. Of those who are given a perspective to present in the story, the last to be introduced is Jamie Kendrick, a lesbian singer and friend of Joanne's who had been homeless in New York and for whom Joanne has been able to get a position as a CNA. Ricky and Jimmie provide Nussbaum with a means of commenting on the treatment of residents that Joanne does not have access to. Of all those lending their perspective, the only character to come off as continuously unsympathetic is Volkmann (even the guttural sounds of her German last name imply a certain coldness.)
Anyone who has either worked in or been a resident in a nursing home knows that no one looking for problems needs to go far to find them. Nussbaum's focus on what can occur in a nursing home then is hardly news. What makes the reading compelling is the way in which she has been able to build a relationship between the reader and the characters of the book who see these issues not from an administrative, scholarly or even an investigative journalism point of view, but from the ground up view of those involved so that when a crisis occurs that involves one of the characters, we are emotionally invested. This is one of the great "tasks" that disability fiction can accomplish.
The negative riffs on nursing home life move from the relatively pedestrian observation that institution teachers can be unsympathetic to portrayals of treatment and institutional procedures that are illegal, life threatening or both. One of the most interesting, and possibly to the reader most surprising, practices is what amount to disability bounty hunting. Michelle Volkmann is a recruiter who frequents various venues such as children's hospitals and homeless shelters to find potential "clients" for various nursing homes. As she says, "I get paid for beds filled." She fast talks those who are vulnerable into signing or getting their parents to sign the papers that commit them to a facility. The results of such practices play out in ethically horrifying scenarios, as Nussbaum's novel illustrates. What keeps Volkmann from being a total villain is that she has her own back story and is herself being used simply to make money. Some of the other issues that Nussbaum takes on are sexual abuse of residents, obstruction of the right to independent living, excessive use of restraints, kickbacks to and by doctors, and death of a patient due to neglect.
The narratives of the characters are no mere dialogue but evolve through their growing relationships with each other into a climatic point in which as a result of the death one of the speakers (I won't reveal who), they take action, demand their rights and bring about an expose of the conditions. As befits a story about disability and diversity, there are multiple endings to GKBK. Nussbaum's structuring of the story has eliminated the need for a strong authorial voice that sees a singular outcome. Nevertheless, there is an implied sense of hope for each of the characters that makes it clear the author does not want any of her readers to think that a life with disability is a life without promise.
A novel that is as well written and readable as Good Kings, Bad Kings invites little room for criticism. This is especially true when through its own success, it has a true chance of drawing a spotlight to disability fiction, a genre that deserves a great deal more attention that it is currently getting. Nevertheless, it will not take a reader long to discover one unusual aspect of the novel. Most of the bad guys in the story are white – specifically, able-bodied, middle-class white males. Other than Teddy's father, there isn't a good one in the bunch. Moreover, in contrast to the story's principal narrators, they are all the kind of stock characters that one might expect in a Moliere play or a Heller novel whose entire being is predicated upon one characteristic. The most generous interpretation of this is that Nussbaum knows exactly what she is doing. Being familiar with the portrayal of characters with disabilities (and those of minority groups generally) in which the portrayals are negative, stereotypic or marginal, she has decided to turn the tables and see how the mainstream likes it. How do we like the fact that, aside from his villainy Jerry's main characteristic is that he smells bad or that Dr. Caviolini's repulsive personal characteristics echo his moral depravity? These are the kinds of tropes traditionally applied to characters with disabilities when they appeared in novels, and Nussbaum is making a point of reminding us of that. That, at least, is how I would like to read the book, but we'll have to wait until Nussbaum's next novel come out to know for sure.
The publication of Good Kings, Bad Kings is a major event for disability fiction. Buy it, read it, tell others about it.