ElCicco #CBR5 Review #44: Good Kings Bad Kings: A Novel by Susan Nussbaum


A novel about disabled youth living under abysmal conditions in a sub-par nursing home in Chicago sounds mighty depressing and perhaps not the kind of thing you’d want to dive right into. This novel, however, the winner of a PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, is one of the better novels I’ve read this year and tackles a very serious, sometimes tragic, topic with intelligence, compassion and, yes, even humor. Nussbaum allows seven of her characters to take turns relating to the reader their personal histories and experiences at ILLC — the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center. ILLC is one of several nursing homes that the state has placed under the supervision of a private company called Palm-Whitney. ILLC is understaffed, and while some staff are conscientious and compassionate toward their patients, others clearly have no business being there. Abuse and negligence lead to several tragedies and, eventually, serve as a catalyst for change not just at ILLC but among our characters as well.

Three of our narrators are disabled youths who are in wheelchairs. Yessenia is 16. She is an orphan who has taken the loss of her beloved Tia Nene very hard, but she hides her sadness behind a tough, street-fighter kind of personality. She is fabulous and has some very funny lines in the story, including, “Milwaukee is different. It don’t look like Chicago too much but you could kinda tell it’s supposed to be a sort of city.” Mia is sweet and quiet and has been abused for much of her life. Teddy, age 22, is Mia’s boyfriend. He wears a suit every day and dreams of living independently but ILLC’s plan is to move him to an adult nursing home. Teddy resents the treatment that he and his friends receive at ILLC and engages in acts of subversion to protest. When an aide told his friend she would never get a job because she was “retarded,” Teddy tells the reader, “That’s not nice to say and I’m against the R-word. I put Vaseline on her cigarettes.”

The other four narrators are adults. Michelle works for Palm-Whitney as a “recruiter.” She visits shelters to try to recruit the homeless into Palm-Whitney institutions and gets paid a bonus for reaching recruitment goals quickly. She also visits Palm-Whitney nursing homes and files reports, a job which eventually leads her to question her dedication to her job. The other three adults work at ILLC. Joanne became disabled as an adult and works on data entry in the office. She is connected to the disability rights community and is concerned about the conditions she sees at ILLC. Ricky drives the van and helps inside the building as well. He sees first hand the physical abuse that some children suffer at the hands of aides who seem to be on a power trip. Jimmie (female) is an aide who develops a special friendship with Yessenia. These three are decent and conscientious people who care about the kids and the kids respect them in return.

For those unfamiliar with the disability rights movement and the push for community living and integration instead of institutionalization, the novel serves as an educational tool. Nussbaum shows that not only has our treatment of the disabled not improved, it has in some ways gotten worse. Yessenia tells of an aunt who had developmental disabilities but who lived with her family until she died. “She was a hard case, Tia B., but we had a lot of fun with her. You know, we didn’t know any better…. By now, we should know better how to treat them.”  Joanne frequently notes that being in a wheelchair causes others to either ignore her or treat her as a child. And the abuses that occur in this novel — rape, physical abuse, death, Medicare/Medicaid fraud– could be taken right from today’s headlines. The novel, despite the heavy themes, does end on a somewhat optimistic note and I hope it makes readers run to support their local disability rights advocacy groups.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #56: That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

I adore Richard Russo, with his simple but powerful storylines, his colorful yet identifiable characters, his rollicking sense of the absurd, his wit and his penetrating insights. That Old Cape Magic does not disappoint, and if it is another story about a dysfunctional family and the lasting consequences of that dysfunction, it is also a story about the human condition, our human condition.

Griffin is a former LA screenwriter of hack movies turned creative writing professor at a small northeastern college. He has a wife he loves, a daughter he adores, and a good life. But not a contented one, for he is haunted by his parents—one alive and one whose cremated ashes have been traveling in the trunk of his car for the past year. His parents were both college English professors made bitter by their perceived failure to achieve the academic greatness they felt was their due. Their intellectual snobbery, their fierce competitiveness, their rudeness towards all things smaller than their own egos, their serial philandering, their constant moving from one job to the next, and their toxic parenting style all have a stranglehold on poor Griffin’s psyche. Griffin believes he has successfully exorcised his parents from his life, but his wife recognizes his unresolved relationship with his parents as the deep-rooted source of his discontent, and is not sure how much more she can put up with.

The novel begins and ends on Cape Cod, whose beach homes have always symbolized for Griffin’s parents the pinnacle of academic success which has eluded them. In the beginning, Griffin is attending the wedding of his daughter’s best friend, and has a moment of near lucidity about himself and his family which he is unable to sustain. When next we meet Griffin, it is a year later. He has been back in LA living a miserable existence of self-loathing, and he is separated from his wife. His mother is dead, but her voice lives on inside Griffin’s head. Griffin and his ex are both bringing “dates” to their own daughter’s wedding on the Cape, and a hilarious series of events ensue which have the power to force an emotional and psychological awakening on the part of our hapless protagonist.

The stories that make up Griffin’s life are as hysterically funny as they are heartbreakingly sad, and That Old Cape Magic is that rare book that can make you cry and laugh at the same time, while giving you a deeper appreciation of the human spirit.