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In 'Abundance,' Measuring A Life In Dollars And Cents

Graywolf Press

The novel Abundance begins with a birthday celebration: Henry's son, Junior, is turning eight. So Henry splurges on a dinner at McDonalds.

While Junior runs around the PlayPlace, Henry stuffs ketchup packets into his pockets for when he gets hungry later. That first chapter is titled, $89.34 — which is all the money Henry has. Each chapter title is a different dollar amount, Henry's cash in hand.

"I knew I wanted to explore wealth inequality and the experience of poverty," says author Jakob Guanzon, "yet that's that's not necessarily anything new to literature, right? But one aspect that I really did want to hone in on was the ever present and really inescapable knowledge of your budget, your spending power. And really, in turn, you know, one's human worth, just right there in really brutal, irrefutable digits. And how that kind of weighs down on you, on a person who's living in poverty, and even even in a situation that's less dire than Henry's, the protagonist of Abundance. Just when you're living paycheck to paycheck, this is a really, a tragically all-too-familiar experience."

Interview Highlights

On deciding to write about hunger and need

I really wanted to tap into some of my experience back in Minnesota. I worked on a landscaping crew through high school, and put myself through college doing that, and really just, you know, grueling manual labor. And in that experience, I was studying sociology and it was this really bizarre time in my life where all the social critical theory topics that we were discussing in air-conditioned classrooms, I was getting to watch play out in the lives of my friends on the crew. And so graduation was this surreal experience of launching myself into these opportunities that my very, very close friends would never experience, just because of an education ... They were the lifers, we called them. And I never thought about the kind of brute brutality of that term, because it sounds like a prison sentence. But it can be when you just, when you don't know what other chances you're going to have in life. So I really wanted to mine that experience.

On including a child's perspective in the story

I thought it was really essential that we had a child in this story, because the consequences of poverty and the way we, as a society, put the onus and the blame on somebody who's going through hard times, right? There's just this way of kind of holding them culpable for life choices that they've made on a very individual level. And I fiercely oppose that way of looking at it, but I know that's kind of a knee-jerk reaction to the way we view poverty in this culture. And that said, a child, especially at Junior's age — he's eight years old — is entirely removed from any responsibility for the situation in which he finds himself in this novel. And so having that alongside Henry, who has made some questionable decisions in his life, I think complicates the the views of of poverty in a way that I hope gives the reader pause.

On the connections between food insecurity, the criminal justice system, housing instability, addiction and abuse

When we watch the news, when we're listening to these little tidbits from the campaign trail and we hear these statistics, they're really jarring. But ... they're siloed and ultimately they're abstractions. They're really hard to conceive of on the micro level, the the individual level. And once you zoom down to that really intimate plane of the individual's experience, that's where we're able to experience how inextricable these social issues are on a visceral and immediate level. And I think that's one of the great social functions of fiction and narrative in a society.

On beginning the book at McDonald's and ending at Walmart

I worked at McDonald's. I was my first job as a 14 year old myself and a part of me. When I first drafted this, I imagined myself as the pimply cashier in that first, I guess that's the second chapter. Fast food, and McDonald's in particular, are to a lot of lower income communities one of very few sources of employment. And I wanted to start in a McDonald's because, of course, we have the Happy Meal facades and the PlayPlaces. But behind the scenes is, you know, people living, working on starvation wages and with very limited opportunities. I wanted to start there, but then I really wanted to end with Walmart because I think the general understanding of Walmart as an institution is amplified sense of consumerism. And to have Henry not be able to access anything within this store because of the situation he's in, I thought was a really tragic way of of pushing this point forth, that it becomes a taunt to anybody who has been told that this material comfort is part of your American birthright. And yet he's denied that because of his situation.

This story was edited for radio by Sarah Handel, produced by Vincent Acovino and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.