Jonathan Dee’s Sugar Street invites us into the internal monologue of a middle-aged, educated, straight white male undergoing a crisis. So far so similar to countless stories in popular culture designed to be relatable for a wide audience. (The fallacy, of course, being that white men somehow constitute the majority of the audience, or that everyone else can’t get enough of identifying with them).
Our guy’s on the run, presumably from the law. he’s driving down highways in search of a non-descript post-industrial American city in which to disappear. Again, a familiar trope.
He’s serious about disappearing though. No phone, no credit cards, no social security, no name. Parsing his stream of consciousness, a credo emerges: that of a man desperate to stop causing harm by his very existence in late-capitalist society.
As he ditches his car, cuts his hair, and finds a landlord who’ll rent him a room with no ID, we find ourselves rooting for him. Could he be a hero for our times? Is our guy the white dude who gets it? The one who not only acknowledges his privilege but does something about it, going to great lengths to minimize harm, extinguish all ego and atone for his sins?
That would be underestimating the bold, risk-taking nature of Dee’s writing. Dee has skewered entitlement before (read his Pulitzer-shortlisted The Privileges it’s ace), but this time, he’s really toying with our expectations, our profound need to identify with the protagonist.
Our guy, of course, is a metaphor. His intentions may be good, but there are stronger forces at play. Old habits die hard, and liberal guilt, in the end, is self-serving behaviour: we are hard-wired for self-deceit.
Sugar Street (good title!) is not a pleasant read, but it may still be worth your time.
My take? Ego and destruction are coded into human nature, making true change impossible without veering off the rails. Or, alternatively, it’s capitalism that so conditions us to entitlement, those of us born into privilege, that progressive instincts are actually futile. It’s the tale of the scorpion that stings the helpful frog, simply because it’s his nature… except the frog is also a scorpion. Welcome to hell.