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From the PublisherLubrano's view of the challenges that upwardly mobile children ofblue-collar families (he calls them Straddlers) face inestablishing themselves in white-collar enclaves could spark livelydebates among Straddlers themselves, not to mention those Lubranoviews as having a head start based on birth into a white-collarfamily. In this combination of memoir and survey, thePhiladelphia Inquirer staff reporter recalls his freshmanyear at Columbia; he'd expected classmates to regard him assophisticated because he was a New Yorker. However, this son of aBrooklyn bricklayer found himself on the outside of elite cliquespopulated by men he characterizes as "pasty, slight fellas-all ofthem seemed 5-foot-7 and sandy-haired." This was only the beginningfor Lubrano, who came to see entry into a select educationalinstitution as a harsh cultural dividing line between hisblue-collar upbringing and his white-collar future. Becoming ajournalist cost him emotionally when he felt torn betweenabandoning cherished values from his youth and accommodating hisnew profession's demands. Lubrano's interviews with otherStraddlers have convinced him that ambition puts many of them inpositions f raught with similar ambivalence and unexpected cultureshock. With quotes from Richard Rodriguez and bell hooks, Lubranoillustrates his thesis: "Limbo folk remain aware of their'otherness' throughout their lives [and remain] perpetualoutsiders." Yet he's quick to recognize individual Straddlerswho've persevered in the face of those outsider feelings (though,regrettably, he doesn't share self-reflection). Straddlers'ultimate challenge, Lubrano opines, is to be as steadfast andself-possessed in reconciling their white-collar present with theirblue-collar heritage as they have been in achieving theirprofessional goals. Agent, David Vigliano. (Nov.)
Forecast: A national advertising and publicity campaign andco-promotions with the Philadelphia Inquirer and NPR should attractreaders who've experienced the duality Lubrano describes.(Publishers Weekly, July 28, 2003)
An award-winning reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer andcommentator for National Public Radio, he owns 11 backyard-bredhorses on a farm in South Jersey: "I hold our chestnut yearlingBeau Soleil as a friend French braids his blond mane in preparationfor his Devon debut," he reports. Life is good-but that's theproblem: Lubrano cannot reconcile his father's being a constructionworker with his becoming an aflluent professional. The result isLimbo, a stringing together of Lubrano's and others' thoughts onthe pain of straddling two different worlds. Lubrano's journalismbackground apparently precludes any sociological methodology: thenarrative is full of broad generalizations with littlesubstantiation. One may wonder what country Lubrano was born in:aren't most Americans of a "hybrid class"? Don't most parentsaspire to have their children exceed their own station in life? Andwhat about the current glut of unemployed graduates? Now there's aproblem. My advice: Lubrano should stop kvetching, and librariansshould save their money for Sherry B. Ortner's New Jersey Dreaming:Capital, Culture, and the Class of '58, which explores the forcesthat influenced the author's classmates' lives after graduation.Many of them went from blue-collar families to the middle class,but Ortner analyzes the phenomenon with scholarly expertise ratherthan bemoaning it. —Ellen D. Gilbert, Princeton, NJ(Library Journal, October 1, 2003)
One of the lies we tell ourselves, as a nation, is that thereare no real class boundaries here - or, at least, none that can'tbe overcome by determination and hard work. Anyone can bepresident, right? That's why we've had so many working-classpresidents over the years, so many vice presidents from the ghetto,so many cabinet secretaries from the barrio and the hollow, so manySupreme Court justices whose fathers were plumbers.
With another presidential election clicking into gear, the issue ofclass is sure to be raised, but it will be quickly doused by onemillionaire candidate or another saying something like: "Now, now,no one wants a class war in America." True, no one wants a classwar. In fact, we want so badly to avoid a class war that we'reafraid even to initiate the kinds of national discussions we'vemanaged to have about race, gender and sexuality. Part of thiscomes from the fact that the poor and working classes have no voicein the American media elite. Part of it is more subtle: Though thelaw offers equal opportunity to members of the lower classes, thereare enormous psychological barriers to upward mobility, and, often,an enormous price to be paid by those who overcome them.
In Limbo, his brilliant examination of people who have climbed fromthe poor or working classes into the middle and upper classes,Alfred Lubrano knocks down one of the walls that keep the classissue out of sight and earshot, and floods the subject with light.Born to a tough, kind Brooklyn bricklayer and a knowledge-hungryhousewife, Lubrano now lives on a horse farm, is a reporter for TheInquirer, and does commentary for National Public Radio, so heknows the joys and perils of this climb, and writes about them withan authority unavailable to someone merely making an academicstudy.
Limbo is a pitch-perfect interweaving of his own story - asneighborhood kid, Columbia scholarship student, newspaper reporter- with the stories of others who have made a similar journey. Someof the others, such as writers Richard Rodriguez and Dana Gioia,are well known. All are successful - surgeons, professors,executives, lawyers, teachers. And, beneath the business suits anddegrees, all of them carry histories that reach back to the meanstreets, the factories and farms, the dinner tables and bars atwhich their unschooled parents and less talented, less ambitious,or simply more frightened peers talked to them about the snobberyof the well-educated and well-off. "This book," Lubrano writes, "isa step toward understanding what people gain and what they leavebehind as they move from the working class to the middleclass."
We already have an idea what they gain - nicer homes, cars andvacations, safer schools for their kids, safer jobs for themselves.But Lubrano wisely gives equal time to what they leave behind - thedirectness and authenticity of their hardworking relatives; therough, honest humor of their peers; a humility and a courage bornof daily discomfort.
"Much about working-class life is admirable and fine," Lubranowrites. "The trick is to avoid glorifying it without painting lifein it too darkly." So he gives us the racism, sexism andsmall-mindedness, too, the crippling envy and pettiness, all thethings that pushed his aptly named "Straddlers" out of the oldneighborhood in the first place.
After the Straddlers have earned their degrees, moved away from thefamiliar streets, and embarked on the types of careers theirparents once spoke about with envy or disdain, they face challengesparallel to those faced by immigrants to the land of plenty.Lubrano details those challenges in chapters on the workplace,dating, marriage and child-rearing. His research is extensive, andthe stories he elicits from interviewees are touching andraw.
There is the woman who loses on purpose while playing Scrabble withher less-well-educated mother; a young man who spends monthscarefully talking his closed-minded father into letting him go tocollege. Lubrano presents their stories sympathetically, linked tothem as he is by his own uncomfortable adjustment to the bright newworld of American success: "I often feel inhabited by two peoplewho don't speak to each other."
That duality will be intimately familiar to readers who have movedfrom humble backgrounds well up into the middle class, fromCampbell's soup to sushi, from stifling apartments to summer homes,from a sweaty tribal comfort to an anxious open-mindedness. Butthis book is too good and too important to be limited to a narrowaudience. In Limbo, Alfred Lubrano has said something fresh andtrue about our simplistic myth of upward mobility, and in doing sohe has illuminated the panoply of fear, hope, envy, courage andsacrifice that lies at the very heart of the American dream.(The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 2, 2003)
"Hopefully, this superbly written book will give voice to themillions who have to make this transition...." (San FranciscoChronicle, November 2, 2003)