If you fell within the category of people who are the focus of this impassioned polemic, subtitled "Guns, Votes, Debt and Delusion in Redneck America", then you would not be reading these words, for 89-94 million members of the US adult population are "functionally illiterate". Joe Bageant exposes the vast social gulf in America, and how the poor are exploited and betrayed by those for whom they work and vote: big business and government.
Far from allowing them to remain faceless statistics, however, Bageant aims to humanise those clinging to society's fringes; those who "smell like an ash-tray in the check-out line"; the overweight and the underpaid. His informed sketches succeed in inciting not derision and scorn, but compassion.
In 1999, after a 30-year absence, Bageant returned to his hometown. In the poor, white, working-class neighbourhood of Winchester, Virginia, dwell the ghosts of his ancestors and the ghosts of his own youth. There, his father worked at a gas station, his mother at a textile mill, Bageant smoked his first cigarette and married a girl from down the street. He discovers that his neighbourhood has since been degraded, and the three preferred avenues of escape are "alcohol, Jesus and overeating".
Bageant depicts both the causes and effects of poverty, the "brutality of environment" and its "intellectual bareness". Television presides over a country which has become a corporation, pulling the purse strings and even dictating the seasons – marking its viewers' lives into the football, shopping, election and marketing seasons.
The prose style errs into tautology and flabbiness, but this is an emotive and evocative exposé of the "dead-end social construction that all but guarantees failure". That this book exists at all is testament that the determined may find ways around brick walls.