In July, I quit my job of nearly eight years with The Washington Post to live in a van and pursue freedom and solitude.
A month into the trip, I learned how lucky I was. I met a 62-year-old man named Pete at a Michigan state park who’d lost his job and his home. He lived out of a car, too, but not by choice. Even though his bed was a back seat, he remained optimistic: “It’ll get better; it always does,” he told me.
In her devastating, revelatory book “Nomadland,” Jessica Bruder documents people like Pete, one of tens of thousands of dispossessed Americans who live itinerant lives in search of seasonal work and affordable rent.
Seventeen years into the 21st century, the news for the middle class is bleak. As one expert puts it in the book, the “three-legged stool” of retirement security — Social Security, private pensions, and personal savings — has given way to “a pogo stick,” with Social Security as the single “wobbly” leg. As the election made clear, the erosion of factory work is taking its toll on many Americans. These days, many decent jobs are in cities with absurdly high rents.
Caught in this trap are what Bruder calls “downwardly mobile older Americans.” Millions are facing the largest reversal in retirement security in American history. “Nearly half of middle-class workers may be forced to live on a food budget of as little as $5 a day when they retire,” Bruder notes.
Some Americans have decided to scrap the house to become workampers — working while living out of an RV or a tent — because, as Bruder notes, “the last free place in America is a parking spot.”
Workampers sort sugar beets, pick strawberries, maintain campsites, or stock shelves at Amazon warehouses. (Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.) It’s back-breaking, poorly paid work without benefits. Amazon’s CamperForce program, for example, hires legions of seasonal workers — most of whom live out of their vehicles — ahead of Christmas and cuts the positions when the holiday ends.
“Nomadland’s” central character is Linda May, a 64-year-old grandmother who’s worked an assortment of jobs through her life: a cigarette girl at a casino, managing a carpet and tile shop in Arizona, a Home Depot cashier. When we meet May, she’s working as a campground host, checking in campers, shoveling out the ashen remains of fire rings and cleaning toilets.
“Her options for work would dwindle with age, rather than broadening to reflect her years of experience,” Bruder writes. “There seemed to be no way off the treadmill of low-wage jobs.”
Despite the hardships and her meager income, May is ebullient, speaking in exclamation points. “Hell-ooo-ooo!” is her usual greeting. An indomitable spirit, she’s the perfect choice for Bruder to follow.
We also encounter, at various campsites, a Muslim man who lost his halal goat farm and parks his van in the direction of Mecca; a nudist bookseller; and a transgender young man. Most are upbeat and optimistic. Some, however, have a more sober view. One aging man has an especially grim retirement plan: When he’s too infirm to work, he’ll walk into the woods and shoot himself.
Bruder, who teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, writes in an evenhanded, impartial tone, avoiding polemicism. She does, however, insert herself into the narrative, sometimes intrusively.
Bruder buys a van. She describes being awoken by a police officer and frigid nights that freeze fluids in the van’s piping. She works at a North Dakota sugar-beet factory. It’s grinding work, and she flops in bed sore and weary after a 12-hour day. She quits after just a few days.
“No matter how long I stayed, the experience wasn’t going to anneal me into the ranks of real workampers — I’d be going home at the end of it all to write.”
Her instinct to get out of the way is wise. The people she meets and the stories they tell are powerful in their own right. For instance, Bruder meets an older couple at the beet factory: He lost his job as a Walmart truck driver; she was recently diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and had to stop working. It’s a devastating tale that Bruder could have explored more thoroughly.
When Bruder does stand aside, “Nomadland” soars. Her subjects are self-sufficient, proud people. Many in their 60s and beyond, they should be entering Shakespeare’s sixth age of man, “into the lean and slippered pantaloon/ With spectacles on nose and pouch/ On side.” Instead they are sans homes, sans money, sans security, sans everything, except their dignity and self-reliance.
Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century
By Jessica Bruder
Norton, 320 pp. $26.95Timothy Smith is a former staff member of the Washington Post Book World.