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.” 

 

Sasha Abramsky is the author of American Furies: Crime, Punishment and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment (Beacon Press, 2006). His most recent book is a profile of President Obama titled Inside Obama’s Brain (Penguin Portfolio, December 2009).