Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 2013.
Reviewed by Mike Ervin
The Chicago playwright and actor who is a quad wrote a play about young women with disabilities that she considered to be one of her finest works. But no one would produce it. It’s not possible to be involved in theater for decades as Nussbaum has without a strong ability to persevere in the face of rejection. But Nussbaum stopped writing for a year or so to reassess her art.
Then she decided to write a novel. If worse came to worse, she said, she could publish it herself and perhaps persuade a hundred or so of her friends and family to read it “At least I wouldn’t have to ask anyone for an audience. I didn’t want to shop it around and sort of suck up to anyone because it’s not a pleasant experience.”
Then, she says, “I got very lucky.” She submitted her manuscript for Barbara Kingsolver’s PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. And Nussbaum won the award in 2012. She received a check for $25,000 and a publishing contract.
So if producing Nussbaum’s play would have meant that Good Kings Bad Kings never would have been written, let us all rejoice in her painful rejection. Her novel is a finely-crafted story of disabled adolescents trying to grow up in a state-operated institution called the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center. The story is told through seven distinct and musical first-person voices.
Nussbaum depicts often with great humor the struggles of the residents against institutional oppression. Yessenia Lopez, a 15-year-old resident, eventually resolves to stage a one-person protest outside the school. While holding her homemade protest sign, she wears red lipstick and her pink top that says “Baby Girl” across the front, which she purchased from the Dollar Store. “I want to look good in case they got cameras,” Yessenia says. “One thing I didn’t remember to think about is that nothing never happens around here. ILLC’s in the middle of nowhere. Some cars drove by and the drivers looked at me. But they didn’t look at my sign. They just looked at my cleavage or my wheelchair. I hope it’s my cleavage.”
Nussbaum never attended a place like ILLC, but I did —from age 13 to 18. Believe me; she really nails the intricate dynamics. This is an aspect of cripple life that no one has ever come close to articulating until now.
Nussbaum says one of the most gratifying comments about her novel came from a man from Philadelphia who said he facilitates book discussion sessions in a maximum-security prison. He said reading Good Kings Bad Kings blew the prisoners’ minds. Nussbaum says, “It connected with them on the level of being incarcerated and having no control of your life and the decisions that are made for you.”
The PEN/Bellwether Prize recognizes a work “of high literary caliber fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.” That describes Good King Bad Kings well. Don’t let the word politics scare you. This is no dry polemic. It’s rich and fascinating.
Drop everything and read it now.
From Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum.
Copyright 2013 by Susan Nussbaum.
Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
All rights reserved.
Before Louie can get to me and take me out of drive, I smash my wheelchair into the wall and make a big hole. I back out and go as fast as I can to smash into the wall again and he grabs my handlebars and he’s saying, “You retarded little shit,” and he tries to get to the gears but I just keep ramming into the wall and backing up into his legs and I can hear Mr. Sokolsky at the door saying, “What’s going on out here?” but I keep up ramming the wall and ramming Louie till Louie gets ahold of my gears and then my chair stops dead. I hear Mr. Sokolsky telling the class, “All right, all right now, settle down, it’s all over,” and the door to my class closes shut. Then Louie starts in pushing me to the time-out room.
He won’t shut up. The whole way to the time-out room he’s saying mean things to me. I ain’t trying to hear him either. Fuck him. And I don’t care if he sees me crying because I ain’t crying ‘cause of him. I don’t give two shits about Louie. I don’t give a shit about nobody.
When he sticks me in the time-out room he goes into my pockets and takes my pen and pencil and a dollar I had left over from my allowance and two of my stamps I’m collecting. He says, “I’ll just take this, retard,” and I say, “Fuck you, dickhead.” He’s laughing at me like I’m a joke. He says, “Fuck you, dickhead,” like he’s aping me and then everytime I say something mean to him so he’ll leave me be he says the exact same thing back at me. So I just stop talking. Then he makes like he’s going out and he stops at the door.
“I can be a good king or I can be a bad king,” he says, and I don’t say nothing and he walks out the door and shuts it.
Now he’s asking me how I’m doing in here. I can see his fat head in the little window they got there so they can keep watch on you.
It stinks like piss in here. They must’ve had a million cripples piss on themselves and on these ugly-ass carpet walls. They don’t have to get locked up in here so they don’t care. You know what I want to do? I want to shoot Mrs. Phoebe up with drugs. I’m gonna steal drugs from the infirmary and sneak up on her and stick a needle right in her butt. Then I’m gonna get Bernard to help me drag her ugly self into the time-out room and lock her in here and leave her here and when she begs and cries to get let out I’m gonna say, “I’m afraid there ain’t nothing I can do about it, Phoebe. I’m real sorry about it.”
Me and my dad went to Mrs. Phoebe’s office this morning ‘cause she’s telling us what the deal is with shipping me outta here. She says they’re sending me to Maywood way far away in two months. My dad asks her can’t they send me someplace closer to home. Closer to where he lives so’s he could come visit easier and she goes, “I’m sorry, it’s a very nice home. I think Teddy will be happy there.” But I won’t be happy. My dad’s gonna have to take about 50 trains out there and he works all night at the restaurant and they cut his hours back, so he’s trying to find a extra job, and I won’t never see nobody.