As a child Bageant had lived in the insular, subsistence-farming community of Unger, West Virginia; and later just over the state line in the town of Winchester, years before I-81 was built and the town became a bedroom community for DC commuters. Nestled deep in the Shenandoah Valley, it was a poor, conservative, deeply religious, and suffocatingly class-bound society, dominated by a largely cashless system of favors and exchanges.
Bageant was, in many ways, the misfit of his family. While his ancestors were only marginally educated, Bageant himself was from a young age drawn to books, to art, to music. Later, he would say how he had always felt Winchester offered few opportunities for a poor kid from the ramshackle wooden homes far from the mansions and brick houses of the town’s gentry. Hadley High School routinely lumped the country kids into the “dumbbell room,” and made sure to inform them that they were allowed to leave school at the age of sixteen and could join the Army a year after that.
His teachers told him that because of his background he wasn’t cut out for college, and his parents pressured him to work manual jobs from an early age. So Bageant quit school, joined the Navy, and got married. He was discharged in the heart of the 1960s; making up for lost time, he bought an old school bus and headed for San Francisco. En route, the bus broke down in Boulder, Colorado. Bageant and his young family lived there, sometimes on the bus, for several years, before moving to an Indian reservation in Idaho. During that time, Bageant worked a variety of sweaty, laborious jobs until, in the mid-1970s, he broke his back and had to lie flat for months while he recuperated. It was then, his family recalled, that he started honing his writing skills, using his enforced leisure time to perfect an in-your-face technique that would, over the decades, acquire a cult following. He learned to describe people and scenes intimately, to document his subjects’ idiosyncrasies—a technique that would serve him well in his books on redneck culture. He learned how to make his readers laugh and cry.
But as that voice developed, it left Bageant lacking a natural home in the American class system. He was, says his longtime friend Nick Smart, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, made too worldly by education and travel to rejoin the working class from which he had come, yet too shaped by that world to ever feel comfortable as an American burgher. He simply couldn’t, wouldn’t, aver that class didn’t exist and shape lives; nor could he buy into the American fiction that everyone had an equal opportunity in life. “Joe was fearless,” says Smart. “Truth came out of him almost as if he couldn’t stop. But he was also funny as shit. He could see the comic irony of this crazy country we’re living in.”
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Bageant churned out long essays, most of them published online, detailing his thoughts and observations about modern-day America. He was interested in how religion and cultural conservatism were being used by political movements with deeply conservative economic agendas. Like many other contemporary political writers, he was fascinated and depressed by a politics that convinced poor, rural Americans that they should vote not on bread-and-butter issues but for the candidate who most enthusiastically referenced the Bible, talked about guns, and attacked gay rights.
After the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Bageant’s writing became increasingly urgent. He thought the Bush presidency was unleashing something akin to class warfare in the country, and yet many of his contemporaries, the poor men and women with whom he drank beers and smoked cigarettes, seemed all too happy to connive in their own demise. It was out of this paradox that Deer Hunting with Jesus was born.
The book became something of a cult sensation among the (admittedly small) group of readers interested in class politics in America. It introduced an extraordinary array of characters—including the author’s brother, a demon-expunging preacher who tried to convert Bageant to fundamentalist Christianity during a hunting trip. And the book treated those characters with no sense of condescension or remove. Unlike commentators who use the poor as set decorations in some larger piece of political agitprop, Bageant was simply describing his daily life in Winchester, without intellectual disdain or anthropological distance. Indeed, his mockery of white, working class Americans only succeeded because, like Woody Allen telling Jewish jokes, he was so evidently one of those he mocked. “He liked redneck food. He was a redneck,” says one drinking friend. “But he’d read Sartre and Camus.”