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Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams

By Alfred Lubrano
John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 248 pp., $27.95 (cloth)

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Reviewer: JULIE MICKENS

 

Alfred Lubrano's Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams is engrossing, disarming and even entertaining, but I had to read it slowly. The book tapped so much unexamined emotional ambivalence -- I'm also one of those blue-collar kids with a nice college degree -- that I could handle only one chapter's worth of insight at a time.

 

The American Dream is a matter of national faith, but it can be heart-wrenching for those who take it at face value. Let's say you can make a little progress: What does social mobility feel like? Most of our Virgils are problematic. From the shallow memoirs of moneybags like Wal-Mart's Sam Walton to the outsized autobiography of larger-than-life Bill Clinton, to General Motors refugee Michael Moore skittering defiantly from Flint, Mich., to Washington, D.C., in Fahrenheit 9/11, a lot of prominent achievers from humble backgrounds are unreliable narrators.

 

Luckily, Limbo is neither somber sociology nor further mythmaking. Part memoir and part standard journalism (footnotes and all), the case is really made as Lubrano weaves together a chorus of more than 100 interviews with people he calls "Straddlers" -- first-generation college graduates from blue-collar homes. Though the book stands as good cultural commentary, we need it more as a handbook to the unanticipated identity crisis that many class crossovers experience.

 

Straddlers might have escaped the orbit of their working-class traditions, Lubrano writes, but they still have difficulty fitting in -- and fitting themselves in -- to a white-collar world that's not neutral turf, but instead woven from the cultural assumptions and values of the upper-middle class. It's a rude awakening when hard-earned meritocracy credentials -- degrees, good grades, hard work and one's own forthrightness -- don't matter nearly as much as what sociologists call "cultural capital": connections, diplomacy and a sense of "how things are done," possibly acquired from being read The New York Times in the womb. "In a sense," Lubrano writes, "limbo folk in white-collar America feel like a basketball team that's perpetually on the road, never playing before the home crowd and always dribbling on someone else's court."

 

Lubrano, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and NPR commentator (don't worry, he also worked at the New York Daily News), writes casually and compassionately, like a particularly wise childhood friend. Limbo also avoids the pitfalls of lunch-pail nostalgia, hard-times melodrama and scholarly constipation.

 

Nor is Limbo just about the upper and upper-middle classes being snobby: Lubrano doesn't shy from the reasons his Straddlers -- often Lisa Simpson types in school, like Bill Clinton the band nerd -- struggle to part with tradition in the first place. Among the working class, after all, "book-smart" is not a compliment. Some parents sabotage their children's strivings; others might drive their children to get the scholarships and college education they couldn't have, then be dismayed when college changes them.

 

Although Lubrano's Brooklyn bricklayer father hovers at the book's center, Lubrano covers the working-class spectrum, revealing important consistencies across race, geography and rural vs. urban environments. Women interviewees discuss how white-collar sexism differs from blue-collar sexism; meanwhile, blue-collar whites are noted as open racists while middle-class whites are sneaky discriminators. Likewise, as a writer himself, Lubrano acknowledges that intellectual elitism can be more intractable than economic obstacles: It's one thing for rags to become riches, but harder for rags to become a corner office at Random House.

 

As Lubrano notes, his book is a start. Many of his subjects like him grew up in the 1960s and '70s, but hopefully a sequel by Lubrano or a fellow Straddler will compare this batch of interviewees with the next generation.

 

When Lubrano -- and, 10 years earlier, my own parents -- were growing up, blue-collar work was still abundant, sometimes even decently paid, though you couldn't expect folding money. There seems to have been more hope in it: It might even have been worth your while to can tomatoes, or shop on double-coupon day.

 

The stakes seem higher now. Today's Straddlers often feel we literally can't go home again, even if we fail at our middle-classification, because there's few jobs in the mines, factories and farms; there's virtually no way to make a living as our parents did. Furthermore, given that tradition and authority are the unexamined bedrock of working-class families, what's it like when a parent's lifetime of practical knowledge -- sometimes handed down over generations -- becomes economically irrelevant? It seems like a huge break in the continuity of working-class communities.

 

Finally, just thinking about Lubrano's large cohort of Boomer Straddlers makes me fear there's fewer on the way. Lubrano's generation was the last to see income disparities diminish, the last to enjoy generous college aid from the government. Since the 1970s, the average real wages of mid- to low-income people have declined and college tuition has grown much faster than aid.

 

It is hard to balance between very different worlds, but it's also a privilege to lead two disparate American lives. Hopefully, we'll continue to allow this bittersweet achievement.

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