Adam Shepard

Plenty of people disagree with the reductive tendencies of Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed), who’s created a minor publishing industry by joining—and writing about—the losers in today’s stratified economy. But not many young authors can summon a specific “rebuttal” to her liberal crusading by also going incognito among the underclass. Barely into his 20s, Adam Shepard did just that in Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream (Collins, $19.95). A college grad, he moves into a Charleston, South Carolina homeless shelter with his pocket change, tells people he only has a high-school diploma and no family support, then hits the bricks to find employment. Originally self-published, Scratch Beginnings is not the work of a seasoned journalist or sociologist. But it has the virtue of arriving at the right economic moment. Shepard documents how hard work, shitty jobs, extreme thrift, public transportation, Goodwill bargain hunting, and Internet access at the public library can raise a guy off the bottom rung of society. Sure, it’s the kind of project that Morgan Spurlock—who gets a shout-out here—has tackled on his 30 Days television show. Or you could look further back to the precedent of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. The milieu is essentially the same as Shepard goes to exploitive temp agencies, works as a day laborer, and learns why all movers dread the Sony Trinitron. There aren’t many chances for upward mobility, yet Shepard—a likable, non-scolding, bootstrapping Reaganite—finds those chances. Still, he admits that success in the “full blue-collar experience” amounts to an ascent up to the poverty level, not beyond. And of all the interesting fellows he meets at the shelter, you get the sense that he alone made it that far. BRIAN MILLER

Tue., Jan. 20, 7:30 p.m., 2009

 
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