In East Bay Grease, Eric Miles Williamson has created the ultimate novel of a child living in Hell, a story of brutality, transformation and transcendence. The narrator, T-Bird Murphy, is a poor kid from the Oakland slums, living in a world where people violate each other horribly—a world of vandalism and violence where no one ever calls the police because the police are the enemies of all. No one ever files lawsuits. It’s vigilante law. People take their revenge themselves. They use knives to maim and torture. They burn down houses. They murder. Everyone knows whodunit and they know why it was done. It’s the real world that the poor in the big cities in the U.S. live in, but though the poor make up a huge segment of our population, this world is invisible to anyone not living in it.
T-Bird Murphy is ten years old as the story opens. He’s living with his mother and the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club—which is to say, his mother is an alcoholic/druggie who has a standing agreement with the Angels that her house is their house and her body is their body. As T-Bird is growing up, Angels are often sprawled out in the living room, often drunk or drugged, or sleeping, or banging his mother. He’s seen as many as four or five Angels at a time naked on top of his mother.
T-Bird’s mother is abusive to him to the extent that even one of the Angels suggests she’s excessive. She pours boiling water over his hands to teach him not to steal, presses a hot iron onto his hand to teach him not to eat between meals. And she frequently leaves him alone, sometimes for weeks at a time, when she takes off on road trips with the Angels—often leaving him without food, sometimes with the power shut off. The rundown Oakland neighborhood T-Bird lives in with his mother is mostly black and Hispanic. He’s the “fat white boy” the other kids torment.
T-Bird’s life changes dramatically when his step-father, Pop, gets out of prison. His mother finally abandons him for good and he finds himself living with Pop in a trailer behind a Mohawk service station in an even worse section of Oakland, a neighborhood so bad that T-Bird never leaves the service station parking lot. But Pop, a failed jazz musician, sees right away what’s happening with the kid and shows him the importance of taking revenge on enemies.
Pop keeps a list of anyone who’s ever fucked with him, and makes clear that he intends to get back at each and every one of them in time. So, T-Bird starts a list of those who have wronged him, including many incidents that happened years earlier, and starts taking his own revenge on the bullies of his past. There’s no schmaltzy turn-the-other-cheek, forgive-and-forget morality message in this book. Quite the contrary, the revenge taking is triumphant, a matter of survival, with T-Bird finally making a choice to survive. A good part of the bond between T-Bird and his stepfather comes from their taking revenge as a team.
One of T-Bird’s brothers, Clyde, is caught having sex with a Mexican girl. Her family captures Clyde, ties him up in their backyard, beats him unconscious, and cuts off one of his ears. Then they put the dazed and staggering kid onto a BART train heading to San Francisco. Pop and T-Bird take it upon themselves to avenge Clyde’s torture. They burn down the Mexican family’s house, but not until after Pop has tied the doors closed, making escape difficult. Four Mexicans die in the fire, and T-Bird is transformed from doomed victim into someone the neighborhood won’t mess with.
Eric Miles Williamson is another author I love for his ramblings that inject such meaning into his stories and give his characters such depth. For example, on a driving trip across the country, T-Bird fears his car may break down in the rural South:
I don’t care what people say, you’re safer in any city in the world than you are in America’s “God’s Country,” in rural America where everyone who doesn’t have a sister fucks their livestock, where retards sit on porches whittling and waiting for your car to break down so they can strip the skin from your body to use as binding for their Bibles. God’s Country, my ass. You got a little bullshit town in the middle of nowhere, population one-hundred, and no one’s moved in or out since the town was founded. How many generations does it take before some toothless banjo-playing inbred hillbilly motherfucker when he’s finished with the horses, the goats, the sheep and the chickens, is screwing his sister, his retard aunt, his cousin, his nuclear-waste radiated one-eyed hermaphrodite little brother? The math ain’t that fucking hard.
Rural America scares the shit out of me. I’d rather have my car break down in the deepest dungeons of darkie-town Chicago or Detroit or even Oakland, or in Mexican Los Angeles or El Paso or switchblade Tucson, than in hillbilly redneck Climax Springs, Missouri… Give me a ghetto where I can at least buy the guys some Schlitz Malt Liquor-bull and drink it with them and trade stories into the fog of the Oakland night, all of us drunk and telling tales of woe… but don’t strand me in God’s Country. Those crackers scare the shit out of me. They make me long for Oakland. Fucking please, God, please don’t ever strand me with those mutants.
Late in the novel, T-Bird meets his real father, Poulin, the first skunk to abandon T-Bird’s mother, and the man at the top of T-Bird’s list for revenge.
I thought about the shitty neighborhood I’d grown up in, being one of the only white kids in my school and getting the hell beat out of me often. I thought about the times my mother had taken off with the Angels on road trips and left me alone to fend for myself in the projects of Cypress Street… I wanted to find this supposed father of mine and drive him to the corner of Cypress and 14th and kick him out of my navy-surplus station wagon and drive off, leaving him to fend for himself on the streets of my youth.
But when he meets Poulin, he discovers him to be a nobody, just another working stiff with nothing to show for his life. He takes his father to the Piedmont cemetery where T-Bird’s grandparents are buried, as well as both of T-Bird’s brothers. The cemetery is high on a hill from which you can look out over the San Francisco Bay. The reader is expecting T-Bird to kill his father there, to extract the final vengeance that’s so long overdue. But standing there in the cemetery with his father, T-Bird narrates:
… I could see the fog coming across the water, coming on wide and thorough and complete, graying the water beneath and spreading wider as it came… it would smother the city of Oakland and all the people who lived and worked there. And after that it would come upon us… And it would come upon too all the corpses who lay stone dead and rotted in the graveyard beneath our feet. It was a fog that came every day this time of year, and there was nothing special about it, or about the people who lived and died beneath it. It was as common as East Bay grease.
And instead of committing the murder we’re expecting, with this homage to James Joyce, T-Bird transcends his past.
Eric Miles Williamson was raised in the Oakland ghettos. He’s written a couple of other novels, a collection of short stories, and a couple books of essays, all of which I highly recommend. He’s disgusted with the academic snobs that currently rule the literary fiction scene. In an essay titled “The Aesthetics of the Poor and the Rich,” from his book, Oakland, Jack London, and Me, Williamson provides many examples of the differences between writers who came from privileged backgrounds, and those who came from the working classes.
The characters the rich create struggle with their own boredom. Existential angst is the primary focus… An Updike character rummages through a cedar chest of family mementos in the attic, waxing sentimental about those groovy days of youth.
James Baldwin’s characters get hooked on heroin, try to escape the ghetto, struggle against white culture, against each other. They get their balls cut off and lynched.
Williamson has also written a sequel to East Bay Grease, titled Welcome to Oakland, in which we get to see T-Bird Murphy as an adult. I’ll review it on this blog next Monday. Until then, East Bay Grease is one of the best novels I’ve read in years. It’s an exhilarating read.
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One thought on “Eric Miles Williamson’s East Bay Grease: A Portrait of the Artist in Hell”
I felt exhilarated by East Bay Grease as well. I kept having to put down the book to savor the high.
One thing I wanted to add to your review is how funny this novel is. Super-Bob, Rex, and Fish on the gunnite crew are worth reading the book all by themselves. These characters of Williamson’s, strong survivors misshapen by poverty, are often a real hoot when you’re not in despair for them. The humor, side by side with the pain, makes the novel poignant and sharp. Williamson reminds me of Bukowski and Henry Miller.
And though Williamson makes a point of the importance of story and having something to say (which I agree with), the book is formally beautiful as well. It reminds me of Joyce’s Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist in how the depiction of the novel’s world changes as T-Bird grows up mentally, emotionally, and morally. Note the difference in the descriptions of his mother when the novel opens (and T-Bird’s not yet a sixth grader) and when his mother pulls up to the Mohawk station after his high school graduation.
Also, I loved the way Williamson’s prose gets all musical as T-Bird becomes an artist on the trumpet. And I love the way he puts together the stories of T-Bird’s work life, sort of fitting them together like mosaics.
I hope Williamson will let me live when he comes gunning for his readers.