Good Kings Bad Kings: A Novel

Good Kings Bad Kings: A Novel

by Susan Nussbaum

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Overview

Bellwether Award winner Susan Nussbaum’s powerful novel invites us into the lives of a group of typical teenagers—alienated, funny, yearning for autonomy—except that they live in an institution for juveniles with disabilities. This unfamiliar, isolated landscape is much the same as the world outside: friendships are forged, trust is built, love affairs are kindled, and rules are broken. But those who call it home have little or no control over their fate. Good Kings Bad Kings challenges our definitions of what it means to be disabled in a story told with remarkable authenticity and in voices that resound with humor and spirit.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616203252
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 11/12/2013
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 237,709
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.88(d)

About the Author

Susan Nussbaum’s plays have been widely produced. Her play Mishuganismo is included in the anthology Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. In 2008 she was cited by the Utne Reader as one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” for her work with girls with disabilities. This is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Yessenia Lopez

My tía Nene said three is the magic number and when three things happen to you that are so, so bad and you feel like the whole wide world is just throwing up on your new shoes, don't worry. Your bad luck is about to change.

And I am sitting inside a room that smells like a urinal toilet at a place called the Illinois Learning something something. It's only my second day here and would you believe these people already got me in the punishing room? So this is three.

My name is Yessenia Lopez, and before they stuck my butt in this place I went to Herbert Hoover High School in Chicago, Illinois. I went there on account of I am physically challenged, and they send the people which have challenges to Hoover. They send people with physical challenges, but also retarded challenges, people been in accidents like brain accidents, or they're blind or what have you. I do not know why they send us all to the same place but that's the way it's always been and that's the way it looks like it will always be because I am in tenth grade and I been in cripple this or cripple that my whole sweet, succulent Puerto Rican life.

My last day at Hoover was the beginning of all hell breaking loose. I was going down the hallway like usual minding my own sweet business when Mary Molina comes straight up at me and real, real close she says —

No. I cannot even say the words to tell this story. That's how bad those words was that that bitch said to me. But I looked in that horsey-looking face and said, "You trifling desgraciada sinvergüenza. You want to confront with me? You gonna pay the consequences."

That wasn't the first bad name she called me but it was gonna be the last.

Tía Nene told me if anybody talk down on me or talk down on the people of Puerto Rico or get up in my face like they think they better than me, I need to kick that two-faceded person's ass. I told Tía Nene before she died — okay, not really before she died, it could have been I told her after she died when she was already up in heaven with the Lord Jesus — that I would always remember her and always remember everything she taught me. I told her in my mind before I left for school on that very day that I hope she knows I always want to make her proud. Then I imagined Tía Nene kissed me on the top of my head and said, "You do what you gots to do and have a good day, chica."

My mother gave me to my Tía Nene on the day I was born into the world. My Tía was more my mother than my real mother ever was. I even look like my Tía because I gots big eyes and long, wavy hair and my real mother gots tight, curly hair and little, beady eyes. And my skin is more darker like my Tía's — not dark dark but just dark — and I am more curvaceous even at my young age, just like Tía Nene. I called my Tía my mother and she called me her daughter and that's that.

After school was over I went outside to where all the buses was at, waiting to load us up and drive us home. The fumes coming out the buses looked like big white clouds because it was cold. You could see the breaths coming out the mouth of all those pupils just like Indians sending smoke signals. Everybody was all bundled up in coats and hoods and it was hard to see who was who but I knew to look in the little yard next to where the buses line up. That's where she always goes. That's where I saw her.

First thing I did was wheel right up on her, pull my footrest up offa my chair, and grab onto that hair to hold her steady and whack her acrost the head, and then I pushed her right offa her chair. But I'm still holding her mop in my fist, so when she went down I had a big clump of that ugly-ass hair in my hand and she was screaming her Mexican butt off. Then I hop down offa my chair and sit right on top of her and pin her down to the ground. By now I can feel a bunch of pupils around me, everybody shouting, trying to get close, trying to see what's happening, and all of them yelling, "Fight! Fight!" and she's trying to push me off and hit back but she couldn't land more than a scratch on my face. But that was all I needed 'cause when I wiped blood offa my cheek I felt everything rise up in me and I lifted my footrest high up in the air and I gave her a thwack! Then blood starts trickling down from her mouth and the cheering goes higher and I raise up the footrest again thwack and again thwack! Then Veronique, my best friend from fourth-period hygiene, busts through the crowd and starts yelling, "Yes-sie! Yes-sie!" till it sounded like every challenged person in all of Hoover was shouting my name and I gripped my footrest real tight and felt my arm raising up high in the air — and then a security guard grabbed my wrist hard and yanked the footrest out my hand and drug me up on my chair and pushed me inside to Mrs. Maloney's office.

I looked down at myself and I had blood all on my pink overalls which I was wearing that day and under my nails. I felt my cheek 'cause it stang from her putting her claws on me.

Mrs. Maloney kep' asking me why did I do it, why did I do it, you know? And I told her the truth. I got no need to lie. I said, "Because she called me a Puerto Rican bitch."

I'm not sure if getting three months at Juvie for aggravating assault counts as the number two bad thing that happened or the number three bad thing. I'm pretty sure Juvie was number two.

The number one bad thing was when my Tía passed into the next life. So it could be the number two bad thing was going to live at St. Francis Home for Young Women where they sent me after my Tía died. St. Francis was a pain but it was okay. It was a whole lot better than living in a foster family with a bunch of people who could be freaks and rapers. So I'm gonna have to say, Juvie was definitely the number two bad thing. And this place, the one I'm in at this very moment? This Illinois Center for Cripple whatever, is three. This is where I got put after I got out of Juvie.

And I'm sitting here in this urine punishment room because that pimple-headed heifer Benedicta, my quote roommate, stole one of my teddy bears out my collection I won playing body-parts bingo, so I chopped up her blanket. Or I started to until some bald dude interrupted. It's not like she was in the bed at the time.

I only been here two days but I already hate it. Even worse than Juvie. But I can't talk no more now 'cause I see cigarette smoke all outside the window of this punishing room, so it must be that bat Candy come to get me. Candy's a houseparent. That's what they call them here. After she sucks that thing to the nub she'll open the door. That's what the boy from on my floor said when they was pushing my chair to the elevator. I guess he's been in this room hisself a time or two.

Okay, I got a question. If three is the magic number, then do you get three good things after you finish with the three bad? Or just one good thing and then three bad things again? 'Cause if that's how they work it, then it is not fair. Or what if another thing happen that's bad? That's four bad things in a row, so that can't happen, right? I wish I knew to ask Tía Nene for more details at the time.

I wish I knew to ask Tía Nene a whole lot of things.

CHAPTER 2

Joanne Madsen

The ad was posted by the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center, or ILLC. I was immediately captured by the awkward acronym. ILLC is a state-run nursing facility for adolescent youth through age twenty-one. It's just like a regular nursing home, but instead of locking up old people they lock up young people. They were looking for a data-entry clerk. Not really my thing, but then again I don't really have a thing. Data entry sounded like the kind of job that would satisfy my lack of ambition. No one really thinks about the data-entry clerk. Do they? Data entry allows one to soar beneath the radar and avoid the usual workplace Sturm und Drang. Not that I wouldn't work hard. I always work hard. When I'm working.

Of course the longer you are unemployed, the more they want to know at job interviews why you were unemployed for so long. And though my family has never seemed to progress beyond the denial stage as regards my quadriplegia, there is such a thing as job discrimination. People will see me coming through the door, wheelchair awhir, and momentarily freeze. Then they will marshal their resources and nervously reach out to shake my gimpy hand and smile enthusiastically while they mentally feed my rÃ(c)sumÃ(c) to the shredder. My family said I am my own worst enemy and I have to be more assertive and perhaps I should go back to school for something I can do. They also said I blamed others for my disability. What does that even mean? Do they think we're living in a made-for-TV movie?

I'm rich. Not mad rich but I am a multi-thousandaire. I'm like Rockefeller compared to 99 percent of the rest of the disabled people on earth. There are poor people and then there are poor disabled people. One of those things sucks, but both together suck stratospherically.

I was hit by a bus a long time ago. The No. 8 Halsted. But the CTA paid me generously to apologize for hitting me, which is why I enjoy my lavish lifestyle of jetting off to exotic locales whenever I feel like it. And I do feel like it from time to time, but frankly, what with the inspections of one's privates for explosive devices, the prospect of a broken power wheelchair in areas where local crips travel by wheelbarrow, and the ever-present dread of traveler's diarrhea with no wheelchair-accessible bathroom for miles, traveling is no vacation. Let me say only that the world, Earth, is not a hospitable place for crips.

My job is way far away. South by southwest. Back of the Yards neighborhood, so called because it's next to the old Chicago stockyards. Hog butcher of the world. I'm a North Sider, so I could take the bus to the Red Line but I'd have to take two more buses after that. The No. 8 Halsted Street is a straight shot. So here I am. The air is humid with irony.

My duties are mostly typing. There must have been dozens of far more appropriate applicants. People who type with all ten fingers, for example. But for the first — and I feel certain only — time I think I got a job because of my disability. It's well known in crip circles that the best place for a crip to get a job is a place that's swarming with other crips. So I applied, emphasizing my computer skills, which are pretty good, and how important it is for disabled youth to see disabled adults in the workplace. Places like this love the idea of role models. There was no haggling over the miserable pay either, as money is no object for me. No salary could possibly be too low. They could pay me in rat turds and I'd happily put them in my wallet. What I needed more than money was human interaction.

Recently, over the past five years or so, my world had been shrinking, slowly but quite surely. At first I'd take little "breaks" — just not leave my apartment for a day. But my breaks started creeping up to, say, five or six days in my apartment with no outside contact. Not including my personal assistants and the Thai Palace delivery guy. I didn't have cabin fever. I certainly was not agoraphobic. I just behaved as if I was.

Sometimes I imagine there is an entire subpopulation of people who live out their lives in nine hundred square feet of space. The TV plays, the pad woon sen is delivered and consumed, the sun comes up and goes down. One day our subculture will be discovered by Ryan Seacrest and one by one we'll be sniffed out by German shepherds and burst in upon by lights and cameras and forced to attend a mixer. With each other.

Then one night I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror and stopped. I realized that I'd been in self-imposed solitary at that point for nine days or possibly ten or eleven. I asked myself if I was prepared to look back at my life when I was old and know I had wasted it. I determined at that moment to rouse myself out of my complacency. And here I am on the Halsted, on my way to work. And that's the inspirational true story of how I overcame my disability and became a contributing member of society.

My first week I learned that people refer to ILLC as "ill-see." Emphasis on "ill." The Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center may not sound like the name of a nursing home, but that's how they work it. Naming these places is all about misdirection. ILLC might sound like a fun after-school program with arts and crafts and barbecues but it's just a place they put disabled kids that struggling parents and the state don't know what to do with. Inside, it smells, sounds, and looks like your standard-issue nursing home. Same old wolf but in a lamb outfit.

I've worked there only a week. Taken on the whole — eighty young institutionalized crips — the situation is pretty depressing. But somebody's got to do data entry for almost no money, so why not me? The kids here are called patients. The woman who runs the place goes by the supersquishy name Mrs. Phoebe. She calls the kids her children or her angels. Ick.

I'm about as messed up physically as any of the kids, but I don't have any mental disabilities. Most of them here have both. For instance, in addition to spina bifida or cerebral palsy, they have some kind of intellectual disability or maybe a few learning disabilities. A few have psychiatric disabilities. Some of the kids were taken out of abusive homes and they're traumatized by that. The biggest difference between the kids and me is that I'm a whole lot luckier. I mean, I just work here.

Most of the kids are chair users, but they have manual chairs. Quite a few are too gimpy for manual chairs and should have power chairs so they could get around on their own, but it's against the rules. That's unofficial. The official practice is that everyone who needs a power chair gets one. But just the other day I asked why this one girl, Mia, didn't have a power chair, and Mrs. Phoebe said Mia wasn't ready for a power chair. But I'm looking at her, she's planted in this one spot all by herself, can't move an inch on her own, can't talk to the other kids, has to wait for a staff person or one of the kids who can walk to notice her so she can get a push. Mia looks about as ready for a power chair as anyone I've ever seen.

After I got hit by the No. 8, I went through a rehab process and they finally gave me my first wheelchair. It was manual. No matter how hard I tried I couldn't do more than push myself a few feet on a smooth surface. Carpet was like quicksand. People had to push me everywhere. I'd end up staring at a fern or getting my feet smashed into a wall or being held hostage in the middle of someone else's conversation. I could see where I wanted to go but was powerless to make it happen.

Maybe because no one is paying attention to Mia, she's captured mine. She seems a bit tired and a little wary. She's a pretty girl, Mexican, with a thick black mane tied into a high, messy ponytail.

The good news about Mia is she has a boyfriend named Teddy. He's this skinny, pale blond kid who wears a suit — I mean a real suit with a jacket and everything — every day. And a tie. The suit is always wrinkly and food-stained and one pant leg is usually scrunched up higher than the other, but he is dead serious about wearing this suit every single day. Sometimes he'll take his jacket off and then you can see his little plastic fireman's badge on his shirt. I love this kid. He wears glasses with lenses so thick they make his eyes look like planets. Teddy is a nonstop questioner — he talks a lot and he's really outgoing and friendly and totally unruly, so he annoys the adults but makes the other kids want to be his friend. Unlike Mia he has a power chair, so he's constantly moving. Sometimes he attaches Mia's chair to his with a piece of bungee cord and they roll around together.

I have my own little office with a desk and a too-tall file cabinet. There's a window but I think it actually sucks light out. It's an unwindow. It's placed at the very top of the room, right next to the ceiling, and the glass is opaque. I have a computer and plastic trays filled with handwritten files that I'm supposed to enter into the computer. I can only type with two of my fingers, one on each hand, but I'm used to it and I'm pretty speedy. I have some other duties too, all tasks I have no interest in doing, but I don't mind. Dissatisfaction with my work makes me feel more employed.

After I enter the files in the database, I'm supposed to keep them updated, so I'm beginning to know a little about the kids I see in the halls. I know Teddy has an intellectual disability as well as a physical disability. His IQ is 74 but that's hard to believe. He's so smart. Mia is a ward of the state and has lived here since she was eleven years old. She was sexually abused by her father and has cigarette burns on her arms and back. All this I type into the computer.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Good Kings Bad Kings"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Susan Nussbaum.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Yessenia Lopez,
Joanne Madsen,
Ricky Hernandez,
Michelle Volkmann,
Yessenia Lopez,
Teddy Dobbs,
Ricky Hernandez,
Jimmie Kendrick,
Ricky Hernandez,
Mia Oviedo,
Joanne Madsen,
Yessenia Lopez,
Ricky Hernandez,
Michelle Volkmann,
Jimmie Kendrick,
Joanne Madsen,
Teddy Dobbs,
Jimmie Kendrick,
Michelle Volkmann,
Mia Oviedo,
Teddy Dobbs,
Yessenia Lopez,
Joanne Madsen,
Ricky Hernandez,
Jimmie Kendrick,
Yessenia Lopez,
Mia Oviedo,
Joanne Madsen,
Teddy Dobbs,
Ricky Hernande,
Michelle Volkmann,
Yessenia Lopez,
Jimmie Kendrick,
Ricky Hernandez,
Yessenia Lopez,
Michelle Volkmann,
Teddy Dobbs,
Ricky Hernandez,
Mia Oviedo,
Yessenia Lopez,
Teddy Dobbs,
Yessenia Lopez,
Michelle Volkmann,
Joanne Madsen,
Jimmie Kendrick,
Michelle Volkmann,
Mia Oviedo,
Yessenia Lopez,
Acknowledgments,
Reader's Guide,
About the Author,
About Algonquin,

What People are Saying About This

Barbara Kingsolver

“This is fiction at its best. The story’s sharp eye allows no one to take shelter, and it doesn’t flinch; it is simply and breathtakingly honest . . . A stunning accomplishment."

author of "Before and After" Rosellen Brown

“[Nussbaum’s] novel is all fierce energy and wit, a celebration of strength, dignity, and the cathartic pleasure of telling it like it is.”

Unpublished endorsements

“This is fiction at its best. The story’s sharp eye allows no one to take shelter, and it doesn’t flinch; it is simply and breathtakingly honest . . . A stunning accomplishment." —Barbara Kingsolver

“[Nussbaum’s] novel is all fierce energy and wit, a celebration of strength, dignity, and the cathartic pleasure of telling it like it is.” —Rosellen Brown, author of Before and After

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Good Kings, Bad Kings 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
RebeccaScaglione More than 1 year ago
I received this book from LibraryThing in exchange for a fair and honest review, which is awesome because this book rocked my socks off and I read it in a day. Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum was such an amazing book. I not only thought it was wonderful, but it also won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaging Fiction. Good Kings Bad Kings is a story about people with disabilities, mainly teenagers and children, who find themselves in a "nursing home" for kids with disabilities. The novel is told from many perspectives, all connected in some way, and shows the neglect and corruption that can be found at many (but not all, I'm sure!) nursing home facilities. Some of that is based on lack of funding, while other parts are based on disgusting, horrible individuals. But the characters are so real and spunky! Yessenia is in a wheelchair, physically disabled, but if you cross her, she will totally knock you out. Joanne has both a physical disability and a trust fund, but when she decides to work an admin job at the kid nursing home, her life completely changes for the better. Ricky is a fully-abled bus driver at the home, but realizes his job is consisting more and more of disciplining the kids, and in ways he doesn't always agree with. The LA Review of books said that Good Kings Bad Kings was a "knockout" - and I have to agree 100%. Susan Nussbaum realized that most of the novels we know about that include people with disabilities were written by able-bodied people. When she was disabled in an accident, her life changed. And after writing numerous plays, this is her first novel. And wow, what a success it is! Good Kings Bad Kings is one of the best books I read in 2013 (even though the review is being published in 2014!). Thanks for reading,  Rebecca @ Love at First Book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago