Fish, Soap and Bonds is both a God’s-eye view of a society that treats homelessness as a slow form of public execution and the story of Fish, a former insurance salesman, now homeless, who can’t forget the past.
At the beginning of the novel, Fish has married Soap, a homeless woman, in an unofficial ceremony on the street, presided over by Bonds, their good friend, another homeless man who was once a deacon in his church. The story is set in the mid-90s, and in many ways, these characters are like any people you’d run into in a novel set at that time. They argue over whether O.J.’s guilty. Soap, a still-attractive woman, yearns for a Clinique make-over. Fish starts every morning obsessed with finding the day’s newspaper to catch up on the news about Rwanda. They deal with the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake and fires.
Fish has not accepted his fate—he keeps trying to find a way back, a way to take care of Soap. He goes to church and prays. He thinks up new ways to hustle. He keeps applying for real jobs.
We see him trying to use one of downtown L.A.’s public restrooms, which is flooded with excrement water from overflowing toilets. We see him trying to comb his hair with his fingers before walking into a gas station that’s put out a help-wanted ad. Fish is a real go-getter; you can see how he could have made a living once at sales. He gives himself pep talks after every failure. When his memories of the past threaten to overwhelm him, he suppresses the memories—that’s what alcohol’s for.
Meanwhile, the cops keep showing up regularly through the book, like a heart beat, to rough up Fish, Soap and Bonds, break up their shelters, arrest them, and just deliver a regular dose of cruelty to them. In the face of the abuse, absurdity, and deprivation, we see Fish begin to slip.
Fondation uses news clips, encyclopedia and dictionary entries, quotes from scientific newsletters, and a short chapter in all caps (screaming) to drive his plot, confront his readers with reality, and make big thematic connections. He catalogs the insects and sick animals his characters encounter in the streets. He supplies copies of the laws used to harass them, including a law against “aggressive panhandling,” with a fine of 500 bucks. Two poignant chapters are poems.
Fondation also documents how his characters survive—they see a political rally in the park and go for the free food. There are panhandling tips. They pick up money for a room for the night by washing car windows in parking lots—but in artsy neighborhoods, not rich neighborhoods. Artists will give you a buck, but the people in rich neighborhoods won’t.
One chapter is literally a table with a list of places where they can use a bathroom, or get free booze or showers, with one column for their personal remarks about the place:
Sanctuaries and Rituals Burger King on Highland Washing up in the morning “The manager lets us in before they open—every day. No food though. The doorway of the old Egyptian theater Eating lunch “A cheap slice of pizza, seagulled scraps, 49 cent tacos.” Openings at downtown galleries Free booze “Most times they chase us out.” The Hollywood Y Showers “The only ones we get.” Sunday brunch at the missions A hearty meal “Avoid the sermons.” Wednesdays at Saint Ambrose Free bag lunch “The lady there is really nice.” Public bathrooms Basic human functions op. cit. On the street in front of Home Depot Work for a day “Rip off.”
Fondation never gets on a soapbox. He also refuses to get sentimental, like his characters themselves. Instead the book is a steady accretion of detail, very much like the finest of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories. It’s only as this detail continues to pile up that you understand the overall story and start to feel how much the book has moved you.
And Fondation seems to know his stuff; he’s a community organizer in the L.A. neighborhoods of this book and he’s paid attention to the details.
I read one review of Fish, Soap and Bonds that admired the book for showing “both sides” of the homeless story, specifically mentioning the “responsibility” of the poor for their plight. It’s hard to believe that reviewer read the same book I read. What Fondation carefully documents is that they’re not responsible for their plight.
There’s a scene in the novel where the characters exult in having received a $40 hand-out. If you read the book, I have a feeling you’ll remember that scene the next time you’re touched up. In the meantime, please consider giving to Shine a Light, a fund established by Las Vegas writer Matt O’Brien (Beneath the Neon and My Week at the Blue Angel) for the people who are living in Las Vegas’ storm drains.
Fish, Soap and Bonds