March 24th, 2012

Rose-coloured reviews *Subways Are for Sleeping* by Edmund G. Wilson

One of the interesting things for me about writing book reviews is that I do further research on the book that I would never have done if it was just a personal read. For example, after finishing Edmund G. Love’s Subways Are for Sleeping, I googled my way to the discovery that it started life as a Harper’s article, *then* became a book, followed by a radio play and finally a musical comedy for which the title is most famous.

It’s a little disconcerting that what purports to be a series of non-fictional essays on homeless people could be transformed into a muscial comedy. I haven’t seen the show, but to my mind it’s a bit of a stretch, but not *that* much of a stretch.

Each of these essays is in fact a detailed character sketch of one person who lives without traditional housing. However, in truth, many are not homeless, which is not exactly a problem with the book–it is certainly interesting to read about a rich man who comes from Boston to New York whenever he feels the need of an alcoholic bender, or about a party girl who arranges for the men in her life to pay for her rent, buy her groceries, and refurbish her kitchen. I did however find it disconcerting how Love gets around talking about anyone who is actually hungry or cold or suffering, except perhaps existentially.

The only two women who populate these essays both exist in semi-comfortable surroundings where they scheme to manipulate men into maintaining their lives. The most pathetic of these, Martha Grant, whose story “The Girl Who Wore No Clothes” is muchly reminiscent of Truman Capote’s novella *Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which was published the year after *Subways*, interestingly…) Martha refuses to leave the hotel, to wear street clothes (she sticks to a bathing suit at the pool, or towels in her room), or to pay for her own upkeep. She claims to be ill, or vulnerable to illness, and the hero (allegedly Love himself in his days as a down-and-outer himself) pities her in her hypochondria. There’s a strangely tender moment at the end of the story when he realizes the heights/lows of dishonesty she has reached in order to avoid working for a living. At that point, you realize that gorgeous seductive Martha really *is* psychologically damaged, and you feel for her as the narrator does.

But the other story about a women living off the sponsorship of men, the aforementioned “Party Girl,” was silly in the extreme and, moreover, I can’t believe anyone would ever be *quite* as systematically dishonest and greedy as that–or at least, if they were they wouldn’t tell a journalist about it.

But it is the systems that Love truly enjoys writing about, and what drew me to the book, too. The copy I have is my father’s, purchased in the 1960s in a pocket paperback edition that disintegrated as I read it (I had to place each page in a stack when I was done reading it, and will throw them out when I complete this review. I am upset about this–I don’t think I’ve every destroyed a book before.) My dad described to me the homeless man who discovered that if he went the New York Public Library, the reading rooms would be full of homeless folks trying to stay warm and not be kicked out, but none of those went to the microfiche viewers, where they could read and sleep unobserved with their heads in the viewers.

How clever, I thought, and it is–that’s Henry Selby, the protagonist of the title story and the original Harper’s piece, and a semi-legitimate homeless man. Henry has dozens of complex systems, from how long he can sleep on which line of the subway to places to get bathed and shaved, to how long he must work to give himself enough money to live a few days. I am fascinated by these subtle contrivances, these ways of making life work.

But hell, maybe that was life 50 years ago, but I was surprised and unconvinced that Henry, and others in this book, were able to get work as waitstaff, office clerks, labourers, for a few days at a time, be paid immediately, and then hive off until they needed money again–and then be given another job just as quick. It seemed to me that men who had been sleeping rough, or semi-rough, for weeks at a time would not be the ones bosses were most eager to hire off the street and pay cash to. Like I say, perhaps the economy was different then, but I was also a bit baffled by the fact the men *could* get decent work and do it well, but mainly preferred to sleep in parks. Not that I don’t think there’s people like that, but if you’re going to examine them as a group, it’s pretty necessary that you look at the why of it. Love never does. In ten stories, the author gives only the barest glance to what about traditional wage-earning, apartment-inhabiting life alienates these souls, and what has come before to lead them to this position.

But that’s old-time journalism for you, and it’s only my modern psycho-analytical perspective that makes it unsatisfying for me. But that’s how I read, and I found that though *Subways Are for Sleeping* was very interesting, it left me wanting much much more.

This is the third book in my 2012 To Be Read Challenge.

2 Responses to “Rose-coloured reviews *Subways Are for Sleeping* by Edmund G. Wilson”

  • Jeff Bursey says:

    Rebecca, hello. You may be interested in Larry Fondation, a contemporary writer in california who has worked with the homeless. The two books of his that I’d recommend (though he’s written more) are the novel _Fish, Soap and Bonds_ (2007) and the set of short stories called _Unintended Consequences_ (2009). I’d go for the novel first, which is 164 pages and really good. For a non-fiction treatment, William Vollmann’s _Poor People_ is global and excellent.


  • Rebecca says:

    Thanks so much for the suggestions, Jeff–I’ll have to check them out!


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