Thursday, 10 November 2011

Once Upon A Time In Paradise

This book made me angry a few times.

Well-written? Sure. Evocative? Yes. A good story? Definitely.

But the cover fooled me into thinking this was a "happy" book. Its overall tone was sombre.

It was sobering. Hard. Unforgiving. Real.

But I wasn't charmed by it. I couldn't see the wit. Nor could I relate to the times the book was set in.

Maybe it's because it's not my world, not my childhood that unfolded as the pages turned.

In fact, it's not certain whether Lunch Bucket Paradise is the memoir of author Fred Setterberg's postwar childhood in the Californian suburb of Jefferson Manor. Over half of the book happens in the home of the young narrator, known only as "Slick" by his Uncle Win. The way it's written, interspersed with vignettes of another era, it could've been the story of any US kid in a working-class family in the Fifties and Sixties.

After World War II, the US seemed to be booming. It had to, I suppose, after downers such as the Great Depression and the Axis threat. Conveniences such as washer/dryer machines, dishwashers, electric blankets, electric can openers and electric toothbrushes made life unimaginably better. Betty Crocker cake mixes turn average housewives into not-so-average pâtissières. The future looked bright.

Of course, not everything is unrecognisable. Kids all over the world jump through the same kind of hoops on the way to adulthood. Fistfights and assorted mischief. Chores. Making and losing friends. Girls. Sexual awakenings. First jobs. Dreams and ambitions. They may be the childhood flashbacks of an American kid, but they can sure evoke yours.

And the kids here sound like kids too. They swear a lot, and do stupid things like torture little animals and taunt one another. What do kids care about political correctness?

But then, after some years, we get "Nuke the Gooks!", "Bomb 'em back to the Stone Age!", and "Ho Chi who?" For a moment I heard "Nuke the Ragheads", "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" and "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan".

And when Slick's father mentioned a scientist that apparently ate and developed a taste for 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), presumably because it was said to be harmless to humans but not certain pests, I popped a vein. Can an ingredient in Agent Orange be "harmless"?

"Oh, they got enough in China and India to eat two, three times a day, thanks to our pesticides." Oh, the allegations I can dig up on Monsanto Corp.

Under the layers of Lime-O jelly and frosting in the home-baked cake, lurk the harsh realities of a workingman's life, a fate from which there's no escape without education and hard work. Realities I feel are far removed from today's ruling elites and parts of the middle class.

"You got to be something, you see?" Slick Sr tells his son one day. "You got to learn everything you can or otherwise you're just going to be a prisoner, like we are."

No you're not, says Junior who sounds confused.

"I was a prisoner," Senior insists. "And you'll be one too, if you don't learn enough to make you different from every other son of a bitch out there scratching around for a job."

In short, education is empowering. It's the ladder towards a better life, but you gotta make the effort to climb it. Sage advice all parents give. But it's not until the author slogs it out at a cannery that he finally sees the need to make a better life for himself.

If it was mostly based on Setterberg's childhood, it must've been hard for him to write this book, given what's going on in the US today. I certainly had a hard time reading it. If anything, it's his masterful, compelling storytelling and the open frankness of his voice that helped me go from cover to cover.

"True-life novel"? Yes. Oh, yes.

Perhaps too true to life for comfort.

Despite his war tales and bluster, Uncle Win seemed destined to be no more than the average journeyman labourer. But it's the toil of Win's generation that ensured the prosperity of future Americans and the continuation of the American Dream. What would they have to say about the suits and their slick ways that nearly brought the country and the world to its knees?


12/09/2015   This postscript might be a late one, because I wasn't sure if I should put it here. Days after this review was published, Fred Setterberg responded to this review. Among other things, he said:

You're right in thinking that it was a difficult book to write in light of the current state of the nation -- and the world. I find it particularly painful to see my home of California turning its back on the promise of education that enabled me and my friends to enter the middle class. When I attended college in the early 70s, we all worked a few months at factory jobs with union wages during the summer, and then had plenty of money to pay for books, tuition, and living expenses for the rest of the year. Today, as you know, kids are crushed under school debt, as we taxpayers abrogate our responsibilities to the next generation and virtually guarantee a dim future for our nation.

That downward spiral still continues today, with no sign of improvement.

Apart from Kinokuniya (out of stock, sadly), no other bookstore in Malaysia seems to have carried (or still carries) this book. To this day, I still feel sorry that this review is the only thing I've done for it.


This review was based on a free copy I borrowed from my boss who got it from the publisher, Heyday Books. This book may not be stocked at local bookstores.



Lunch Bucket Paradise
Fred Setterberg
Heyday (2011)
245 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-1-59714-166-6

Get the book from Amazon.com | Heyday

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