As the news of the birth of George Alexander Louis is announced, I begin Susan Nussbaum’s Good Kings Bad Kings. It’s not about that kind of king though.
Yessenía Lopez, Joanne Madsen, Ricky Hernandez, Michelle Volksmann, Teddy Dobbs, Jimmie Kendrick, Mía Ovíedo are all part of a place called Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center or ILLC (ill-cee). Some work there, some live there. Some have severe handicaps, others, don’t. There is a Ken Kesey element about the place and should be working to be more like the Green House Project perhaps, but for kids. How we treat our children, especially the disabled is frightful. The fact that a man shot a child in Florida and was found guilty speaks volumes about us. The voices of these young adults bring me back to my final days of teaching in NYC. These are my former students in so many respects; it is haunting. I laugh then cry, then laugh again while wiping a tear from my cheek. It also rejuvenates an anger I used to have about the System and still have apparently. It brings back fond memories of the year a drama class of mine did a play called “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night.” The play is filled with monologues about why a young person wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat or crying or cowering in fear. My young scholars wrote their own monologues and they were brilliant and so moving, so tragic, so celebratory. The angst of these young people is so far different than Eric in The Unknowns or even our favorite angst ridden youth, Holden Caulfield or even that real problem child, Hamlet.
Nussbaum is a playwright and this “novel” is more like a play than a novel. It is like Spoon River Anthology, a collection of monologues. There are some interactions in each individual chapter, but from that speaker’s POV. There are some telling statements by each character. Joanne: “I was hit by a bus a long time ago. The No. 8 Halsted. The CTA paid me generously to apologize for hitting me. The No. 8 Halsted Street is a straight shot to work. So here I am. The air is humid with irony.” Michelle: “But the work I do is important because I’m getting people off the streets and into warm beds with three meals a day and medical help. Do you have any idea how many people are out there without medical? Or dental?” Ricky: “This is the best job I ever had. I like helping people. I like being a part of the solution.” Jimmie: “I cannot even imagine what it’ll feel like to be in my own place again. Alone. Quiet. I already know what I’m going to do the first night. I’m going to light a candle, lay back on my mattress, and relax. Just feel the peace. Breathe in and breathe out. Think about… nothing at all.” Joanne: “Kids like this are trained to stay helpless. So they have to stay institutionalized. There’s no other way to explain. It.” Joanne: “Here Teddy’s vision of the future; He wants to live in an apartment, get a job, decide where he wants to go and when he’s going to bed. Hooking Teddy up with Elaine Brown (lawyer advocate for disabled) was the only thing I’d done since I started at ILLC, and if anyone found out I did it, they’d probably fire me.” Jimmie: “Joanne always thinks it’s the System, And I agree! But the thing is – does that, like erase that people are responsible for their choices? Seems like we go back and forth about that every time we see each other. I can’t say to myself, ‘It’s the System,’ but does that mean I couldn’t do anything about anything? To change things? To me, the two things go together. You can’t change one thing without changing the other.” Ricky: “I told Joanne about Pucho. She said ‘I think the day will come when prisons will be recognized for what they are and they’ll be abolished. They’ll keep some of them around as museums, to remind people of the level of barbarity we’re capable of. I’m serious. It has to end. It has to.’” Yessenia: “Marjorie, what I’m saying is us youth come to these places on account of we got no place else to go and the least they could do is take care of us and make sure nobody gets beat up or gets raped or left in a shower by mistake and killed. And don’t send people off to the booby hatch just because they homesick and didn’t take their meds. We are teenage youth, and I mean, what do they expect?”
There was The Snake Pit, then One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, now we have Good Kings Bad Kings, which is more than worthy for the PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction. This fiction ain’t fiction and we still have so much work to do to help our children and we still don’t get it right with all our yak yak about children, education, and health. It is always about the System and because of that children suffer, corporations thrive, and politicians stumble and fall.
This is an important book.