Linda Tirado's new book, Hand to Mouth, is to Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed as The Wire is to The Help.
In each case, we proceed from a well-told story of social dysfunction (economic on the one hand, racial on the other) to a story not told by an earnest outsider, but one that is lived by the teller.
The teller isn't polite. The teller is often angry. The teller mostly doesn't care who gets offended, and the language goes accordingly.
Parents, block SBW from your youngster's iPads today, for we are discussing the F-word.
The idea for such a meditation hit me recently when I was listening to the CD version of Tirado's provocative book, subtitled Living in Bootstrap America. Bearing a foreword by Ehrenreich, who famously went "underground" as a member of the working poor for Nickel and Dimed, Tirado's account comes from a bona fide minimum-wage slave who wears attitude on her ragged sleeve and issues a withering indictment of the permanence and prejudice afflicting America's hamburger flippers and strip-club waitresses.
And oh, the vocabulary. The math of living expenses doesn't F-ing add up. The boss is asking the F-ing impossible. And lest you expect her to say "Pardon my French," she explains that "When you say F as a woman, you are sending a message that you are not to be F-ed with."
Even in 2015, there is shock value to such rhetoric in a serious piece of personal journalism that is not merely quoting someone on the street. But the shock wears off, as it did long ago in realistic novels and films; and that leaves poor naked F out there to stand trial for its usefulness.
It is a potent tool of expression, bedecked with multiple meanings from playful to polemical, sometimes so compellingly suited to the job at hand it seems a shame it had to wait all those centuries to come out of the box. Yet the razor edge it gave The Catcher in the Rye and Serpico in the middle of the past century has worn down. In fact, it has dulled it to the point where the merciless HBO series The Wire offered a scene in which two homicide detectives simply went for the world's record, uttering the F-word and only that word over five minutes of dialogue.
"Virtuosic," one critic called it.
You say F because the circumstances demand inflammation. You say it because you must vent raw emotion. And sometimes, you say it just because you can. Frankly, my dear, you don't give a damn if a word that was unthinkable when Clark Gable defied the censors in Gone With the Wind occurs to you on screen or at the keyboard nowadays.
I must say I grew weary of it in The Wire, a show I loved; and I don't feel the need for it from Tirado, who's already a woman after my own heart and to my way of thinking is not about to win the hearts and minds of readers who don't know poverty firsthand. Perhaps I'm prudish or just old; but the language is a fragile instrument.
I've experienced the F-word used beautifully. Two fine contemporary examples are poems that include the word in their very titles. Kim Addonizio takes direct aim on the sexual meaning and gives us a tender paean to human connection. Etheridge Knight treats "F-ed\ up" as in "screwed up," its denatured casual usage, to sound the most abject cry of the forlorn, love-starved homeboy.
F as art. How many of us true believers fear for its very survival as the juice drains, decade by decade? Shall we petition Robert "Love" Indiana to preserve it as his final four-letter block? At least we'd have some closure.
You know, it wasn't all that long ago that my son, then about 4 years old, came to us one day and reported he had overheard someone utter the F-word. Our little one didn't repeat the expletive as such, but he simply identified it as "the King Tut of cuss." Alas, are we seeing the end of the reign? Or just the shrinkage of the kingdom to the Land of BFD?