Oakland writer Fred Setterberg’s latest book is an absorbing tale of life in Jefferson Manor, a brand-new working class suburb in postwar California, where hopes are fanned by a booming consumer economy and tempered by prerogatives of class and race. Local readers may remember Setterberg’s evocative reportage for the old East Bay Express
. He brings the same sympathetic insight, rich prose and engaging wit to Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True-Life Novel
As its subtitle suggests, this book is a literary hybrid: a semi-fictional memoir. Born in 1951, Setterberg grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in the East Bay town of San Leandro. Lunch Bucket Paradise
re-creates his boyhood, ending right before he turns 18, which meant, in the late Sixties, old enough to be drafted.
Bookended by the receding shadows of one war and the encroaching realities of another, the story is propelled by the first-person recollections of Setterberg’s stand-in, Little Slick. His experiences — playing soldier, enduring catechism, surviving (literally) the Boy Scouts, puzzling over the mysteries of popularity and sex, playing in a soul band, working the graveyard shift, grappling with the menace of Vietnam, and above all pondering the lessons of his father’s life — anchor the tale.
But other figures loom equally large. One is Franklin, Little Slick’s father, a Canadian whose family loses its farm in the Thirties, when the Saskatchewan prairie turns to dust. Like many of his countrymen, Franklin migrates to the United States in search of work. After a brief but proud stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps, he goes to San Francisco, where he discovers that he’s contracted tuberculosis. He’s sent to the county hospital’s TB ward and a likely death. In a book filled with moving episodes, the account of his willful triumph over his disease is memorable.
That struggle captures the novel’s central theme: the striving for integrity by ordinary people in a world of “prosperous uncertainty” that promises far more than it can deliver and that threatens to take back the largess that it has bestowed: a steady job, a paycheck that can support a family and pay a 30-year mortgage, the cornucopia of commodities that pour out of California’s fields and factories. Franklin submits to the daily regimen of the Alameda Naval Air Station, where he repairs airplanes, and seeks dominion over other realms: his intellect — he’s an autodidact who reads presidential biographies for pleasure — and his house and garden. The novel returns again and again to his assiduous efforts at home improvement and to his insistence that his reluctant son join him in those efforts.
The other major presence in the novel is Jefferson Manor. In keeping with the conventional wisdom about Fifties suburbs, Little Slick and his parents live in a community of breadwinner husbands and homemaker wives. But unlike the office-bound men of Beaver Cleaver’s Mayfield, every weekday morning the men of Jefferson Manor head to factories and machine shops and airplane hangars.
Viewed in isolation, Dad’s focus on “general maintenance” might seem obsessive, but as Little Slick observes, “Everybody in Jefferson Manor puttered” — and not in the way that leisured hobbyists putter. Little Slick and his father stroll the neighborhood, admiring the new roof or rumpus room or brick fireplace that men had built with their own hands. Like the iconic suburban housewife, his mother loves to cook; she delights her husband and son with fantastic variations on Betty Crocker instant cake mixes. But Franklin’s bitterness blights the domestic scene; midway in the story, Mom announces that she’s going back to work.
The working class gets the same nuanced treatment. Setterberg honors hard work, respect for tools and the camaraderie of the local bar. Lunch Bucket Paradise is however no ode to proletarian virtue or manual labor. Racism, misogyny and violence are all woven into the community life. The danger and tedium of factory work are made vivid from the first page. “Just quit,” Little Slick tells his father. “You could find another job.” “My God,” Dad says, “What you don’t know.”
Lunch Bucket Paradise
reveals what Setterberg finally learned — that it was his parents’ “steadiness and sacrifice” that enabled him to gain a “foothold of privilege and dispensation” and “to dream into being” this book.
That education is recounted in a style that brings to mind the perspicacious humor of Mark Twain and Eric Kraft. Employing irony that illuminates without diminishing his subject, Setterberg draws out the absurdity of serious things and the seriousness of the absurd. His metaphors are lapidary: the lead singer of The Lost Souls has a girl “as slender as a microphone stand.” The novel’s musical prose transmits the rhythms of casual American talk, especially men’s talk; the commodified sensibilities of the mid-century U.S.; and the modest beauties of Jefferson Manor and its environs.
In short, a wonderful book.