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.”
While Deer Hunting with Jesus did all right in the US, it became a best-seller in Australia, and also sold well in Europe. These were, Bageant believed, parts of the world with a more finely tuned sense of class and its ramifications than exists in contemporary America. In the US, by contrast, the class politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was subsumed by post-World War II consumerism, by the idea that everyone identified upward, aspiring to a social status that by default promoted them to a higher class than that of their parents. “It is most politically incorrect in America to suggest that we are not born equally endowed,” he wrote in Rainbow Pie. “Yet I cannot help but contemplate what effect, if any, the flight of several generations of the brightest kids from heartland laboring America has had on the working class gene pool. . . . As any dog breeder can tell you, slow wit can be bred in as easily as bred out.” Pause. Deadpan stare. Deliver the kicker. “This may help explain the popularity of such things among my class as snowmobiles, Garth Brooks, hot chicken wings, and deep-fried pickles.”
And then, on a dime, he turns to the serious business. “Acknowledged or not, it is also our national shame, this denial of the existence of a massive, permanent underclass in America. In doing so, we deny the one truth held in common by every enlightened civilization: we are our brother’s keepers.”
When he wrote Rainbow Pie, Bageant, who had taken to spending much of each year in Belize and, later, in the American expat town of Ajijic, in central Mexico, was in his mid-sixties. He was eating unhealthfully; not exercising; smoking and drinking too much in a variety of bars and greasy-spoon cafes around Winchester. “By the time my people hit sixty,” he wrote in Deer Hunting with Jesus, “we look like a bunch of hypertensive red-faced toads in a phlegm-coughing contest. Fact is, we are even unhealthier than we look.”
He was, according to his wife, Barbara, and friends, increasingly enraged at the state of America and, more particularly, at the working class itself. There was, says Barbara, a sense of “hopelessness” that came to pervade her husband. After his fourth martini he’d become morose, sometimes aggressive. He was known to throw drinks in people’s faces. Perhaps, in some way, Bageant might even have had a death wish.
“Toward the end his bitterness was overwhelming,” says his friend Nick Smart. “He became a recluse; he was tortured by the role that was thrust upon him by fate. There aren’t many Bageants out there: Studs Terkel, Hunter Thompson. He saw working-class Winchester as in a morass, a continuous cycle of life getting worse, not better. They didn’t have aspirations. It was almost like the caste system in India. The rednecks were so ignorant, lacking in aspirations to change, and the system was conspiring to exploit them.”