People who have grown up poor hate to admit that poverty gives them a few decisive advantages over everybody else. Such an admission, they feel, gives aid and comfort to the enemy, to Social Darwinists who view poverty as bracing, character-building stuff, something everyone should dabble in, junior-year-abroad style, before going to work for Morgan Stanley.
Douglas MacKinnon, a successful politico who grew up breathtakingly poor in and around Boston, understands all this. He knows that every poor kid who makes it in this society strengthens the case of those who believe that poverty is neither catastrophic nor especially unpleasant; that anyone can succeed, provided they put their shoulder to the grindstone and their nose to their bootstraps. Or something. Yet at the end of his raucous, uncompromising memoir, MacKinnon cannot resist saying:
Abject poverty provided me with an unbeatable ace in the hole. I was not afraid to fail. I was not afraid to try. I was not afraid to be embarrassed. And I was not afraid to start over if I fell on my face—which was often.
Other than that, MacKinnon has little good to say about poverty. Having survived a dire, violent childhood in a bunch of crummy neighborhoods, including one he refers to as “Rat-Hole, Connecticut,” he grew up to be a respected, successful communications specialist in Washington, writing for both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and serving as communications director for Bob Dole during his presidential campaign. The poverty went away. The rage did not. For Rolling Pennies in the Dark is not really a memoir; it is a bill of indictment, a jeremiad. Written in a conversational, almost brutish style, the book is filled with terms like “lowlifes,” “creeps,” “vermin,” and “Rodent-man.” And this is not just when he is talking about politicians.
The first half bristles with accounts of knife fights, stabbings, and drive-by shootings. A particularly memorable shooting involved his mother, who once emptied a clip of .45 bullets into the bedroom where he, his brother, and his infant sister were trying to get some shuteye.
“All three of us felt the same thing,” he writes, noting that he himself fired off a few rounds at age 9. “At our tender ages, we had experienced more pain than most adults endure in a lifetime and had become numb to the horrors that kept assaulting us. We were resigned to our fate.”
No, they weren’t. Or at least he wasn’t.
The second half of Rolling Pennies is devoted to MacKinnon’s adult life, where he achieved tremendous professional success. But that didn’t take the edge off. This section is filled with attacks on politicians, both on the left and right, who do nothing to alleviate the misery of the poor. MacKinnon has more than a few axes to grind. He hates people on the right who say that poor people are lazy, self-destructive scum who actually enjoy being poor. He hates parents who mistreat their kids, as his alcoholic parents did. He hates rich kids. He hates middle-class people who take their own good fortune for granted while begrudging the poor the few comforts they possess: a new TV, for example.
He doesn’t have much time for the cloying, silver-spoon-in-his-mouth Al Gore. But he also despises people who absolve the poor of responsibility for their misdeeds, constantly returning to his personal Manichean credo that some people are just plain evil. His father being a perfect example: a person born into a solid middle-class family who threw away every advantage to become a violent, despicable alkie. Who, like a lot of alkies, really got off on tormenting his kids.
“The earth is full of real-life monsters,” MacKinnon writes. “Monsters who had mommies and daddies, played with toys as toddlers, wore cute little outfits, and then grew up to perpetrate some of the most heinous crimes known to humanity. While my dad was far removed from that type of Monster, he was still, at least in my opinion, a monster with a small m.”
Rolling Pennies in the Dark is not the most intellectually coherent book to appear this year. MacKinnon is a conservative, yet he greatly admires John F. Kennedy, père et fils. He believes that the poor get screwed left, right, and center, yet he loathes affirmative action. He denies that growing up poor automatically propels one toward a life of crime, yet he admits to committing numerous crimes as a teenager. He hates his mother for the way she treated him—the target-practice incident is especially unforgivable—but is devastated when she dies of cirrhosis of the liver. The book is a bit like poverty itself: It’s picaresque, it’s anything but dull, but there are loose ends.
Books celebrating one’s triumph over poverty share certain themes. Education is invariably singled out as the only way out of the wilderness. The author must acknowledge the intercession of others—a grandparent, an employer, a teacher, a mysterious benefactor—and never, ever claim that he made it all on his own. But all good books about poverty, whether Jane Eyre or Great Expectations or Black Boy or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—no matter how harrowing, no matter how sad—contain a message of hope. Otherwise, no one would read them.
Rolling Pennies in the Dark contains a beautiful passage where the author’s grandfather points to the radiant sky and explains that if you can follow the leprechauns to the end of the rainbow, a pot of gold coins will await you there. If you grow up poor in America, and you do not believe that a pot of gold is waiting for you at the end of the rainbow, you will not survive. This is the most powerful fairy tale the world has ever known. And like all powerful fairy tales, it sometimes comes true.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.