Reading this book is hard. Writing about it is harder.
All through Jess Goldberg’s life, she seems to carry a target for cruelty on her back. She’s an unwanted infant, a faux-native, a working class jew, a lezbo, a slut, an integrationist, and lastly, a stone butch.
No matter where she goes or what she does, somehow she infallibly goes against the “natural” order of things. Her struggle is the epitome of man vs society, as social gender norms have been drilled so far into her life that her natural ability to counter them, even as an infant, has set her up for a challenging life of woe.
Any attempt to aid her fails in the most dramatic way. From the ring her fake-grandmother gave her being taken by abusive police, to whatever happened to Al and Jacqueline, no one is safe from Jess’s misfortune.
Feinberg blatantly peppers Jess with attacks from meaningless characters. Their only real character trait is sadism. Jess’s mother, the six boys and the football coach, her high school principal, the seemingly infinite stream of police officers. All of these characters are introduced only to inflict pain and then they are disposed of. Feinberg also drags many other targeted groups into the crossfire, by means of Jess’s meddling with social order. Namely, the cafeteria scene, when Jess (white) receives one week suspension and her friend (black) receives two, despite Jess being the instigator of the event and the duo having a reasonable teacher to vouch for them. It would seem that Jess’s own family, a group discriminated against for their religion, would have some sort of empathy for the civil rights activists. And fine, let them be racists, but their inability to even sympathise for other groups facing social disadvantage and abuse even more severe than their own is horrifying.
Basically, Jess’s life is really really sad. But why?
At this point in the novel, we’ve seen some cute coming of age scenes. She got a suit. She got friends. A motorcycle. Laid. Nice, it’s fantastic, but whatever. Reading this novel is near debilitating because I personally feel that Feinberg included all of the horror in an attempt to explain what life was like for butch lesbians at that time. Admittedly, it’s historical fiction, but someone out there has to have lived a life similar to that of Jess Goldberg. Perhaps this novel exists to educate the newer lgbt generations who are living in a world with much less institutionalized abuse. Perhaps it’s meant to be a lesson in the history of lesbian culture and an explanation of how butchness came about, and the police assaults are included because that was just a by and by part of life that shaped stone butches into the fragile people that they were. And the other groups might have been included to give perspective. Their inclusion shows how little the minority groups fight for each other, but how spare members of the groups maintain friendly ties. Contrary (or possibly similarly) to some of the argumentative pieces we read earlier, the masses of oppressed experience no solidarity, only the individually abused do.
Do you think that Feinberg included a variety of other discrimination-suffering groups in order to round the story to a complete social snapshot, to make the story more “universal” and relatable, or for some other reason?
In your opinion, does this book read more as historical fiction or as an autobiography? How much stock can we put in Jess’s reports?
Why is Jess’s life so sad? Why is the novel so graphic? Who is Feinberg trying to educate?