Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.
You’re not going to believe this, but sometimes I can be a bit… critical. No, there’s no use arguing with me on this. You may see me as a happy little sidewalk daisy, but deep down, under all those cheerful layers, I’m more like an actual sidewalk plant: gnarled, trodden, and smelling faintly of cat piss. Well, no more! Today, I am turning over a new leaf as Polly Positive. I’m going to read a book, and for once I am going to find things to enjoy about it. Going Homeless by Kevin Becker is a first person account of a young man who spends five days on the streets of Chicago. This is a hefty one. If I ever scratched off something more lucrative than a hangnail and found myself rich enough to afford physical books, this one could stun a bear. So let’s start by getting to know our protagonist.
Kyle is Lao Tzu’s uncarved stone. He’s bored with his classes and classmates. He has a lukewarm friendship with another boy, who moves away. No other friends are mentioned, so I’ll assume he’s just too busy. As far as school goes, he has the apathy of a greaser in the background of a teen movie from the 50s. You know that podcast where Elon Musk said when he was a kid, he didn’t realize that everyone else’s mind wasn’t constantly exploding with ideas? That’s our Kyle. He gets a 13 on the ACT, and you know what? Screw the ACT. Kyle’s got bigger fish to fry, like biking to the Polish deli to look at Maxim Magazine and not buy anything. He briefly toys with the idea of being a garbage collector, until he realizes that garbage smells bad. In spite of everything, thanks to the diligent efforts of a school counselor, our underappreciated genius gets a few college credits before graduating, mainly because he likes getting to leave school early. It’s a story about inevitable triumph. Kyle’s destiny is woven so deep into the weft of the universe, even he can’t unravel it. I like it. This is fine. Everything about this is absolutely fine, and I am engaged with the material.
Kyle just sees things that other people can’t see, you know? Like the rat race. All the “robot zombies” on the train to Chicago every morning, don’t they realize they’re wasting their life? They should be more like Kyle, slowly discovering that he’s not going to be a professional musician and being generally unflapped by everything. The list of things that don’t bother our hero includes: silence, pigeons, Black people, religion, the emotional needs of intimate partners, the continued existence of social media, and hot dogs. I’m sure this is all part of some elaborate set up, a flawed character who undergoes a painful learning experience later in life. Anyway, the story really gets started when Kyle sees an advertisement for an amateur film festival, and thinks back to an experience he had as a child. Visiting the city with his father, he was struck by an encounter with a young homeless man named Marvin. The idea hits Kyle to film himself living on the streets for five days, to… show people what it’s like, I guess.
Not knowing any homeless people, and apparently unaware that he could speak to one ahead of time, Kyle sets about making a to-do list, with things like “sleep on bench” and “urinate in public.” Presumably “practice bindle tying” didn’t make the final draft. No! Positive. This is a good book, I just need to open my frigid little heart and let Kyle’s warm magic inside. What’s next? He begins his first day on the streets with a quote by Martin Luther King. OK, nope, skimming a few pages. Kyle describes his time wandering the streets of Chicago as a series of goals and encounters. He helps a man named Irv sell newspapers. A nice lady goes with him to scrounge a cup of coffee, and he informs us that she has worth despite not having any assets. At some point he gets mugged by cartoon splatter punks whom he describes as “goblins.” That’s a theme. Anytime our author doesn’t like someone, they are described as something other than human. The high school kids who tried to beat him up in the pornography forest (don’t ask) are “hyenas,” while the Chads beating up a mentally ill homeless man are “jackals.” This makes it just a tad alarming when he describes the hustle and bustle of a city street as “the zoo,” but we’re not going to unpack that one. Kyle is befriending people, broadening his horizons, the whole deal. What kind of obstacles does he face, being on the street with no money? How does he get food?
Kyle tells us his first encounter with starvation was in college, when he ran out of money and had to ask his mother to send him some. Hold on, I just need to get up and stretch my legs a little. OK, so hunger. Kyle ends up doing a little begging at a local food festival to get a few slices of pizza. This requires a little bit of sneakery, but he knows the police won’t touch him, because it would be bad PR if they were seen roughing up a person in need. Yes, you know that’s not why the CPD are letting him go, and I know that’s not why the CPD are letting him go. We’re just going to move on. It’s a learning experience, remember? We’re building a better Kyle out of spit and bubble gum. The whole time he’s living on the streets, he’s filming with a hidden camera, and planning out the sketches and narration that will go along with them. I never did get any indication of what this film is supposed to be other than random footage of a guy selling newspapers or free pizza at a beer festival. What sort of lesson does Kyle take from all this? There is a scene near the end of his experiment, where Kyle looks around at the swirling mass of humanity around him, and thinks that if only people worked for the common good, like ants, then maybe the world would be a better place. Sure, the queen may squash the plan, but what if she didn’t? What if they got away with it? Kyle relates his epiphany to a random stranger, and is disappointed that “even this bug-eyed man” (classy) didn’t get it.
I. OK. So. This is. That’s is not how ants work. The queen of an ant colony is not a divine right monarch, directing her minions to bring her chocolate crumbs and mouthfuls of Pepsi. For that matter, ants do not have a concept of the common good. Ants operate on instinct, usually following the chemical trail of the ant that came before them. I thought we weren’t supposed to be mindless sheeple doing some mechanical nine to five, Kyle! I know I said I was going to like this book, and I tried. I really did. I didn’t even talk about how all the homeless people’s lines are spelled phonetically, or that he calls people “gypsies.” Yeah, didn’t like the taste of that, did you? Well I swallowed it. And this was the thing that brought it all chundering back up: misinformed fucking ant politics. It’s no wonder nobody gets your Earth-shattering revelation, Kyle, you human jar of mayonnaise. This man doesn’t even know how much of a personality vampire he is. The only thought he has for the women in his life is how they can feed him, motivate him, or reward him for success, because oh, did I not mention that his asinine documentary about glamping in Millennial Park got a streaming deal? Because of course it did! This man fails upward faster than a SpaceX rocket. That’s right, two Elon Musk references in one review. That’s how bad it is. There’s no indication that anything he did helped a single person. Kyle is to the homeless what Betty Friedan is to the woman who cleans her house.
Should you pay six dollars to read this on Kindle? It’s still possible this whole thing is an elaborate parody of mediocrity and middle class cluelessness. The fact that I can’t tell for sure may make it worth the read for some people. If your idea of a good time is watching a narrator use “the end of the Civil Rights era” as a reference point and trying to figure out what year he thinks that is, then you’re going to love Going Homeless. Otherwise, not so much.
I tried owning my own house for five days and made a movie about it.Tweet