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.”
And yet Rainbow Pie is not a bitter book. If anything, it is more reflective than his first book. Unwell, thinking both of his own mortality and of the increasingly dysfunctional politics of the country, he retreated into nostalgia, looking to explore the America of his youth, the personalities and beliefs of a vanished world. Perhaps he knew that he hadn’t long to live. His memoir was, in some way, a grand farewell note.
In late 2010, Bageant was diagnosed with colon cancer. Despite receiving treatment at the local Veterans Administration hospital in Winchester, he understood that his prospects were bleak. Unsentimental, he wanted no funeral; he even tried to argue his family out of having obituaries published. When news of his death was announced, his website was inundated with messages of condolence from his fans across the globe, and from friends and acquaintances in the region that he was never able to leave.
Bageant was raised in America’s cheap seats, watching the drama of postwar prosperity from afar. Despite his copious writerly talents, as he got older he returned to those cheap seats. It was, he believed, where America’s most interesting characters sat. From those seats, Bageant sketched an American tragedy, a bleak postscript to Norman Rockwell’s version of a wholesome mid-century America. Tom Cave, a childhood friend, never quite agreed with Bageant’s political credo, or with his analysis that working Americans were being subjected to one snow job after another, but the more he read of Bageant’s work the more he came to realize that his friend represented something good, something valuable. “I’ve always been more or less conservative,” he says in a soft voice, fighting back tears. “I love the flag, love America and all that stuff. Joe did, too. That’s why he tried to change things.”