Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed is her chronicle of (temporarily) giving up her fancy life and trying to make it as a waitress/maid/retail clerk, as part of a test to see if it’s actually possible to get by in those circumstances.

There are about a zillion ways that this could go wrong, and Ehrenreich is deeply aware of all of them, and does a great job disarming all but one of them (which I’ll get to in a moment). She does a masterful job of not seeming condescending, scolding, exoticising, or smug about her experiment. And as impressive as the book is for what it’s not, it’s even more impressive for what it is, which is first and foremost some finely told and absorbing stories about life in the low-wage world.

Ehrenreich isn’t writing in the David Foster Wallace mode — no footnotes, no fancy literary tricks — but this ends up feeling like a DFW essay anyway, because of her sympathetic eye for human realities and her disarming candor. But beyond the breezy readability, this is a polemic of the sort that ought to be given out to every person who pulls the Republican lever, dagnabbit. That she’s able to make a polemic out of absorbing personal stories and a bare handful of statistics says a lot about Ehrenreich’s skill as a writer, but also a bit about the subject at hand.

The only really problematic part of the book, alluded to earlier, is her stint as a maid. Ehrenreich has some weird unexamined judgments around housecleaning — she takes a moralistic stand against ever hiring a cleaner herself, and clearly finds the work to be demeaning in a way that she doesn’t find any other job to be. Her co-workers don’t share her attitude at all, either, so it’s not as if I’m just some crazy out of touch rich person who doesn’t understand Maid Rage. This is the one section of the book where her objectivity fails her and she’s unable to get past her blue-collar attitudes to get a truer picture. Even this section, though, is still worth reading.

Highly recommended.


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