|Bloomsbury, 304 pp., $25, March 17
"Not many people make it for eleven, twelve years on the street," says Cadillac Man
. Yet this is exactly what he did in New York City after losing his job and eventually his family and home. With nowhere else to turn, he slept on the streets. After meeting a runaway named Penny, he began to journal constantly
, providing the remembered stories that serve as a basis for Land of the Lost Souls
, Cadillac Man's memoir of homeless life in the Big Apple.
And these stories are raw in every sense of the word, filled with sex and violence, feces and foul language
. Circumstances are rough, and Cadillac Man (his street name) knows how to get by, constantly fighting for his own survival. Yet he is as emotionally open and honest as Dave Eggers
' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
. In the opening chapter, we meet a man aching to return home, crying at the thought of his daughter. He was not born homeless, and does not want to stay homeless. When he and Sparrow, a former music teacher, end up sleeping together that night, he says they are "tasting the tears brought on by the memories of past loves. Two lost souls. It wasn't the need of sex that drew us together, it was the need of closeness, to feel wanted." Out there, he says, everyone is homesick.
He and "[his] people" rejoice whenever someone is accepted back into their homes, which is why he eventually sends Penny away when the time is right, even though they've become romantically involved, because he knows her life will be better with her aunt. She has adapted well, a natural no, no one is meant to live like this
. In a line typical of his emotional depth, he narrates, "Oh, Penny, if you could see through my smile, you would notice my heart breaking."
For all the grimness of his life, Cadillac Man never asks for your pity
. He's not writing to make you feel bad for him. He's writing to show you that he and his people are human beings with families and former homes, same as anyone else
. A wide range of characters, mostly homeless, shine as incredibly relatable, funny and moving. He talks with great maturity, as someone telling the story simply because that's what life is like: from cleaning up an elderly "street person" covered in his own shit, to befriending prostitutes (but never soliciting them), to beating the hell out of a financial predator, to making love in a secret hotel.
Perhaps the most surprising (and enjoyable) part of this memoir is that a guy who grew up in Hell's Kitchen, worked in the meat-packing industry, then was homeless for 13 years ends up writing a humorous self-conscious narrative. He repeatedly breaks the storyline to talk to "Dear Reader" (that's you)
. My favorite example comes when he and Penny need to go do some canning picking up recyclables to trade them in for cash at the redeemer Cadillac Man's main source of income. He says, "Everybody sing along: A canning we will go... Hmmm, that's strange, I didn't hear the reader. 'Hello, reader!' It's been a while, maybe he's taking a long dump
. Oh, well, back to the story."
The book is filled with survival tips for anyone who might end up homeless: how to can, how to fight, the best places to sleep
, etc. However, the real treasure here is not only the chance for an "outsider" to get a glimpse into this alternate world, but Cadillac Man's skilled storytelling, dynamic characters and honest emotion.