- Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent by Peter Van Buren
Peter Van Buren
Luminis Books, 2014. 200 pages. Paperback, $10.40
Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent, by international reporter Peter Van Buren, is set in the late 1970s, but it is as timely as today’s reports of social inequity. Van Buren’s novel reminds readers that poor and working class Americans have continued to struggle long after the 1930s and long before the Great Recession we have just experienced. While Steinbeck is invoked in the title, the book is closer to the spirit of the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name. There are numerous Steinbeck connections and references in the book, such as a character named Muley, similar to Okie Muley Graves, who refuses to move to California in The Grapes of Wrath. Like Steinbeck’s character, this Muley is a “ghost” in that he is alive but living in a world he no longer understands. A minister named Casey serves as a symbolic “ghost” of one of Steinbeck’s most famous characters, the Reverend Casy of The Grapes of Wrath. Towards the end of the novel, Van Buren’s Casey even quotes Tom Joad’s famous speech to his mother almost verbatim: “So if you see a group standing up for themselves, look for me, because I’ll be there. If you see a cop beating a man, or a kid crying because she’s hungry, I’ll be there” (170).
The novel’s plot centers on the closing of a factory in a southern Ohio town and the resulting economic problems for its residents. The 1970s economy has failed these people, who are depicted as unemployed, with some resorting to selling drugs and some even turning to prostitution in their desperation. Meanwhile, the one percenters are not making things better for the 99 percenters. There is no “trickle down” in this story, which is told mostly through the eyes of underemployed Earl, whose father is a Korean War veteran who is ashamed of something that happened in the war that he might have been able to stop. Earl decides to commit suicide, and readers get flashbacks about his previous life. Before the novel ends, Earl, too, becomes a symbolic ghost.
Here the story departs from Steinbeck’s typical exploration of the American character. Although Earl rides a metaphorical “wayward bus,” he is not on the move. Steinbeck usually writes about people in transit, or relocated. Also, no ecological blight has led to the problems this Ohio town faces, but rather socioeconomic decline. The novel, therefore, closely resembles Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, except that Earl, unlike Ethan Hawley, does not find a spiritual solution to his life crisis. Ghosts of Tom Joad is a book in which the main [End Page 225] character Earl stays, like Muley, even though life has gone sour. He describes his town as it was before economic decline: “I say let the young men in other small Ohio towns dream of bright lights. We didn’t need a fortune teller. We knew growing up we were going to work in the factory. We said, “Graduate today, factory tomorrow.” Life was rich, fat, happy enough” (9).
While Springsteen’s “Ghosts of Tom Joad” shares some thematic similarity with Steinbeck’s Grapes, Van Buren’s book has a different tone than the title reference may lead the reader to expect. For example, there is more and more graphic sex, the Korean War, and tensions between immigrants and the local work force. And the Korean War episodes are certainly not what a pro-military man like Steinbeck would have written. There is a cover-up and self-imposed guilt for Earl’s father. Ray. The main character commits suicide. Overall, Van Buren effectively invokes a troubled 1970s emerging world economy, but this novel offers little hope for new beginnings. Steinbeck’s Okies try harder than these Ohioans to find solutions to their problems. Their discontent is driven home early in the book, but the villains are not...