Bruder’s main subject is Linda May, a 64-year-old former cocktail waitress, trucker and insurance executive who has taken to the open road with a tiny lemon-colored trailer, which she calls the Squeeze Inn. (“Yeah, there’s room, squeeze in” is the joke.) Terrible puns for vehicles abound; it’s a tradition among the “workampers,” as they call themselves. Bruder comes across Vansion, Van Go and Vanna White. She names her own Halen.
May is a resourceful and hard worker — and incorrigibly cheerful (she actually wears glasses with rose-colored frames). Nothing brings her down, not running low on food, not getting locked out of the Squeeze Inn. It’s a steely positivity Bruder finds alarming and deeply American, and one that she encounters repeatedly. In a Facebook group for Amazon warehouse workers, a member enthuses, “It’s easy to lose weight by walking a half marathon every day. Bonus: you’re too tired to eat!”
“Nomadland” is part of a fleet of recent books about the gig economy. More than most, it’s able to comfortably contain various contradictions: “The nomads I’d been interviewing for months were neither powerless victims nor carefree adventurers,” Bruder writes. Their lives are shown to be harsh and exhilarating, lonely and full of community. They swap tips for finding cheap dental care and “stealth parking”; they congregate at the “Rubber Tramp Rendezvous,” a kind of Burning Man for the elderly, mobile set. “When someone’s van breaks down, they pass the hat,” Bruder writes. “Around a shared campfire, in the middle of the night, it can feel like a glimpse of utopia.”
There’s always less romance by daylight, though. Amazon is one of the largest employers of the workampers — and the most notorious. Incentivized by federal tax credits for employing elderly workers (25 to 40 percent of wages), the company aggressively recruits them, especially during the holiday season. Jeff Bezos has predicted that a quarter of all workampers will pass through his warehouses, working 10 hours or more a day, sorting packages.
It’s crippling work. The workampers’ RVs look like “mobile apothecaries,” Bruder writes. Amazon’s warehouses feature wall-mounted dispensers of free painkillers. America runs on ibuprofen; it’s the performance drug of the new economy.
Most infamously, on a sweltering day in 2011, managers at an Amazon warehouse in Pennsylvania refused to open the loading doors to cool down the building (they were worried about theft). Instead, Bruder reports, they arranged for paramedics to wait outside, on call, to wheel out workers who became too sick to work. All those sent home, it was later reported, were disciplined for it.
Bruder is a poised and graceful writer. But her book is plagued by odd evasions. Take race, the major one. She writes that “there is hope on the road” — a blinkered view in 2017, after the passage of Arizona SB 1070, which required law enforcement to request the immigration papers of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally (portions of the bill have since been overturned). Not to mention that in the light of the death of Philando Castile, among others, and the beating of Sureshbhai Patel, the open road seems romantic only to some. Only toward the end of the book does Bruder reckon, and then perfunctorily, with the fact that the workamper phenomenon she describes is limited almost exclusively to white people. (“Perhaps the problem was racism?”) It’s all over in a page and a half. It’s a shoulder shrug.
And while there are more than a few references to the Okies, there is no acknowledgment of the more than three million migrant workers in this country, who perhaps pick the same fruit and work the same backbreaking jobs as Bruder’s white would-be retirees.
These omissions don’t doom the book; but they do mark it. You ache for the Gulf War veteran who tells Bruder, “I survived the Army. I can survive Amazon.” But you also ache for the ones without even this option, who don’t even merit a mention.
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