Weaving the brackish humor of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club with the empathy of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, J. R. Helton brings to life an obscured, all-too-often ignored slice of the American psyche in this unflinching memoir of blue-collar Texas.
In the 1980s, somewhere in Austin, Helton was young, married, and jobless. After a few strung-out years trying to make it as a writer, he was caught in a cycle of drunken, coked-up nights, crashing on friends’ couches and looking for money in the morning. Succumbing to the daunting reality of what it means to support both himself and a troubled marriage, he became a housepainter. He sold pumpkins on the side of the road, delivered firewood, ran a crew of illegal immigrants hauling railroad ties across the empty plains of Kansas, and then he painted even more.
Despair is transformed into resilience as Helton insightfully narrates his wayward years, enduring hateful employers and mind-numbing manual labor. Along the way, the people toiling beneath the saccharine veneer of wealth that was the Reagan years are brought to vivid life: the ambitious and the lazy, the potheads and the racists, as well as Vietnam vets too shaken to hold a paintbrush and deadbeat fathers straining to pay child support.
With intoxicating, blasé-faire sentiment, Helton shows that everyone—from the beauties at the rodeo to the lowest laborers—is tethered by a common desire to just pay the bills and balm the loneliness. A raw and moving account, Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions captures a microcosm of left-behind America that straddles a dangerous line between ruin and redemption.