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Review: Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland and Chris Urquhart’s Dirty Kids explore itinerant lives

While countless blogs make living in your car seem like a quirky lifestyle choice, Nomadland glimpses into the more unpleasant realities.

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Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

By Jessica Bruder, W.W. Norton, 320 pages, $35.95

Dirty Kids: Chasing Freedom with America's Nomads

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By Chris Urquhart, Greystone Books, 212 pages, $21.95

Earlier this year, the New Yorker published a 5,000-word article centred on the hashtag #vanlife, which is an earthy, social-media friendly way to describe living in your car. The piece follows Emily King and Corey Smith, the attractive couple behind the blog and Web series Where's My Office Now?, whose Instagram has garnered 173,000 followers based on snaps of the couple camping on beaches, cooking "huevos vancheros," and staring wistfully off into the rugged wilderness. Taking up residence in a vehicle may have once channelled the manic desperation of Matt Foley, the Saturday Night Live character played by Chris Farley who "lives in a van down by the river," but #vanlife is presented as a movement in which quitting your job to pursue photogenic leisure activities in pursuit of social-media likes – and brand sponsorships – is the evolution of the American Dream.

If #vanlife is aspirational, than Nomadland skews closer to nightmare territory. The latest from Jessica Bruder, a journalist and professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, the book chronicles the grisly conditions of itinerant retirement-age workers who travel around the country in quirkily named vehicles such as "Vantucket," "Vanna White" and "DonoVan." These "workampers" perform short-term, low-wage, physically strenuous work and represent a cross-section of what Bruder describes as "a demographic that in recent years has grown with alarming speed: downwardly mobile older Americans." Often living on meagre social-security benefits that amount to less than $500 a month, these people face ageism when applying for retail jobs that usually go to teenagers or recent college grads, so they follow work across the country while simultaneously cutting down on their biggest financial suck: rent. On the road, older workers are considered eminently hireable because they are punctual, reliable and, most important, don't complain.

The book's inimitable protagonist, Linda May, is a 64-year-old woman who has worked four decades as a cocktail waitress and Home Depot cashier, yet has no home or savings. Seeking reprieve from living in her daughter's cramped apartment, she purchases a trailer van, "the Squeeze Inn," and drives from job to job, cleaning up toilets as a campground host in California and working as a "stower" shelving products at an Amazon warehouse in Fernley, Nev.

And yet, many of the workers Bruder interviewed didn't want to be portrayed as victims – they are "houseless," not "homeless," after all. It's clear the power of positive thinking has become more than a platitude, it's now the bedrock of the American disposition. Bob Wells, a van-dweller since 1995, provides tips on how to acclimatize to life on the road on his website CheapRVliving.com, where Web traffic exploded after the 2008 financial crisis. One of his tips is to move into a cardboard box in the corner of one's apartment and live there to get accustomed to small spaces. Bruder writes, "In a culture where economic misfortune was blamed largely on its victims, Bob offered them encouragement instead of opprobrium. … By moving into vans or other vehicles, he suggested, people could become conscientious objectors to the system that had failed them."

While countless blogs with mottos such as "Never Pay Rent!" and "living on less and enjoying life more" make living in your car seem like a quirky lifestyle choice, Bruder's glimpses into the more unpleasant realities cast this ineffable sunniness as a form of Stockholm syndrome. Many of the van-dwellers' contingency plans reveal a stark hopelessness. One aging camper, when asked what they will do when their health starts to decline, answers, "My long-term health-care plan is bleached bones in the desert."

The main feeling that characterizes itinerant living seems to be the oscillation between fear and joy. Chris Urquhart, author of Dirty Kids, experiences both as she spends her early 20s criss-crossing North America with the Rainbow kids, a loosely knit group of homeless hippies and anarchist crust punks. Urquhart began her travels on assignment for an Italian magazine, and became quickly enamoured with this dishevelled form of minimalism, where its adherents survive on the literal waste of capitalism. She experiences the transcendent highs of living outside society but they are often subsumed by the stress of sleeping outside or in strangers' apartments, constantly starving and developing skin fungus owing to infrequent showers.

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One can practically smell the patchouli, unwashed bodies and white dreadlocks emanating from Dirty Kids, which resembles a 2017 redux of Evasion – originally published in 2001, that authorless book from the anarchist publisher Crimethinc weaves tales of creative shoplifting, train-hopping and eating out of dumpsters. But while Evasion's nameless protagonist is clearly immersed in a life outside the law, Urquhart feels caught in the crossfire between posing as a dirty kid herself and attempting to maintain her journalistic distance. Without the rough backstory of many of her travelling companions, Urquhart often expresses the internal guilt she feels at having a loving family and a bed to sleep in back home. Yet guilt is unproductive if it fails to translate into action, and the book suffers from Urquhart's failure to question her own desire to participate in this subculture. It appears that it is only when you grow up with everything that you feel comfortable eschewing it all for nothing.

Dirty Kids reads like a disjointed collection of origin stories that never quite crystallize into a singular narrative of why these youths are drawn to Rainbow culture, favouring block quotes over nuanced analysis. Many of the youths share traumatic backgrounds – child abuse, intergenerational addiction, multiple suicide attempts – but none seems to be aware of the fact that their decision to fully drop out of society is inherently a privileged one. The fundamental hypocrisy of Rainbow culture is unintentionally on full display; they eat vegan diets yet can't give their own pets a clean, stable home; they "hate cops" on principle but refuse to denounce state-sponsored violence against black bodies; they refer to straitlaced Western culture as "Babylon," yet not once does the book acknowledge the term's origin in Rastafarian culture. The few times critiques of Rainbow culture are brought in, it feels more out of obligation than genuine engagement. But it's worth mentioning that dropping out of society is a choice that only white people have; everyone else just suffers.

Again and again, freedom is stated as the ultimate goal of eschewing a job, personal hygiene and a permanent address. "The road strips you down. It makes you calloused. It makes you infinitely independent. It makes you dirty, it makes you free," Urquhart writes. Yet according to Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, true freedom only comes when a human being is conscious of their motives for acting. One doesn't need a face tattoo to accrue a sense of self-awareness.

Isabel B. Slone lives in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Toronto Life, Fashion and The Walrus.

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