Sweat Stained Review: Confessions of a Blue Collar Misfit

Read This Book Volume 1

By Dan Denton

A few times a year I find a book that just kicks my ass. I could gladly give a list of most of those books over the years, and might yet, but I found another one last week. Welcome to “Read This Book Volume 1.” I hope there’s lots of volumes in 2024. 

I got a library card at a small town library in Indiana, and I’m confident you’ll hear a lot about that soon. I don’t have a union autoworker wage anymore, so I can’t buy five books a week, plus I live in a 200 sq foot camper with no extra room for books. Borrow and return is my new life, but it’s always been a big part of me. I love libraries like evangelicals love going to church, and lately I’ve been going two or three times a week just like them. 

Last week I put in an inter-library loan request for some Andrew Vachss books. Most public libraries, big or small, have inter-library loan programs where you can borrow a book from most any library in your state and have it delivered to your local library. Want the new Taylor Swift bio? If you can wait a month you could read it for free and save that $25 for gas money towards your next roadtrip. Anyway I wandered the stacks for a long while, at the one place that has always been my sanctuary, and I found a collection of Henry Rollins short stories and poems, and a memoir by Brittany Means that I’ll be thinking about for the rest of my life. 

The memoir is called Hell If We Don’t Change Our Ways, and I found it in the new arrival section of the library, an area I scour every visit. The title caught me. The inside jacket told me it was about surviving childhood and other traumas similar to mine, and in the Midwest near areas where much of my life happened. Still, I was on the fence. I only borrow two or three books at a time. My own to be read pile is as tall as I am already. But the back inside cover with the author bio told me that Brittany Means was a graduate of Iowa Writer’s College, perhaps the most prestigious writer college in America. Despite my blue collar grit and the glass ceiling of academia that I often batter my head against, Iowa Writer’s College grads are pretty good bets for a decent read. Finding a book by happenstance that becomes one of your favorites is always worthy of a lengthy story. 

The book kicks off with a one paragraph long gentle trigger warning, and if you’ve read my work you know I normally scoff at such things, but fuck, there are parts of this book that are so horrific that they rocked me, and my shock meter is hard to rattle. 

Means and I are both the product of absent, no good fathers, and we were both born dead in Indiana to mothers that have survived unspeakable and horrific lives of their own. We both experienced the trauma of evangelical religion, and so many other similar things, but she’s not a straight white male, she’s a she, she’s Latinx, a graduate of the most prestigious writers college in America, and she doesn’t write anything at all like I do. She writes about the most shocking things children can endure but she does it gently with prose that often approaches brilliancy. She drops big trauma bombs like cinder blocks on your heart but she doesn’t lean into them or make them the driver of her story. Means spends much of the story showing how she coped, how she found optimism and hope no matter how illogical.

I know the experts tell us we are not supposed to compare our traumas and life experiences with others. Surviving the baddest shit in life is not a fucking competition that any of us willingly compete in, but the shit I’ve lived through is on the highest, most desperate end of the PTSD scale and one of the things that makes me feel less alone in the world is reading about and finding humans that have been through worse, and managed to find success and reasonable happiness in life. If you’ve had a tough life, then read Elie Wiesel, it’s hard to find excuses for why you can’t keep trudging. At least, it is for me. 

This book is the same. Brittany Means lived through things I can only try to empathize with, and parts of her story brought me to tears, but the part that really hit home was at the end when she writes about finding success and love. Imagine surviving the worst of childhoods and then finding a loving partner, a career and a home. As Means writes, “I’ve never had this much to lose.” A whole new level of worry and terror at times. That passage in the book hurt like hell. 

Another part that really crushed me was a phone conversation between the Author and her brother, who grew up to be a psychologist, and in a moment of frustration and tears he asks, “I made it out. Why am I not ok?” I cried for a good three minutes when I read that. That’s the cost of surviving, and succeeding against impossible odds: the things that you had to make it through, and the things you did to make it, will live inside you forever, and in your best moments and your best years, there will still be times when you are not ok. Means mixed in a few passages giving scientific descriptions of why the human brain sputters when dealing with trauma, and how trauma reprograms our brains so they keep sputtering even when we survive and find safety. 

I recommend a lot of books to others. Like an evangelical book reader if you will. But this one is a must read for the prose that sings and screams, for the courage it took to write it, and especially for the courage it took to live it and the strength necessary to rise above it. This was exactly the book I needed to start a new year. A book that has challenged me to keep working and fighting to be well. A memoir that encourages me to be more open and fearless in my own work. This book was a donut floaty ring thrown to me by a local library, days before I knew I was going to need it.

Dan Denton is not a preacher but he is close friends with three former and current chaplains. He is a former UAW chief steward, father of three, and 17 years California sober. You should buy his new novel The Dead and the Desperate from Roadside Press. And probably ask yourself if you remembered to take your meds today.