in the Barrel
By D.A. Dintzer
182 pages, $16
Review by Anitra Freeman
A conservative Senator is persuaded by a liberal
Congressman and friend to spend one week living
as a homeless person, wagering that it will change
his opinions (and vote) on social programs. Unplanned
events lead the Senator far deeper - and longer
- into the homeless community than he had planned,
with more life-changing consequences than either
he or his friend had expected.
This story is written by a believer. As a Naval officer, Dintzer was himself awakened to the realities of poverty by a duty-related visit to one of the poorest neighborhoods of Detroit. He extended his awareness and empathy with two weeks living as a homeless person in one of the rougher areas of Detroit, and another two weeks in the Denny Regrade (Belltown) area of Seattle. His desire in this book is to present the humanity of people in homelessness and poverty, and so increase public empathy, compassion, and action.
I am glad that the book tacitly acknowledges that one week living in a "fleabag hotel" with $50 in your pocket (the Senator's original planned excursion) is not a true experience of homelessness. He has to lose his memory, money, and lodging to really begin to "get it." Even then, he has it relatively easy: he is the guest of a working family that lives under the bridge.
There are a few unrealistic points. Dr. Wes Browning gets rather impatient with me when I fret over these logic problems in fiction plots, but I still fret. One of the central factors in the Senator's psychology is how much he loves his little girl, how much he misses her while he's away, how much he longs to be back with her. But we never hear anything about who is taking care of her while he's gone! And what happened at home when he didn't show up on time?
The book is realistic in depicting the variety of homelessness, including a mentally ill poet, the alcoholic men sharing wine around a "fire in the barrel," a working wife and mother living with her children in a hand-build shack under a bridge, altruists, and predators. It is compassionate in depicting almost everyone with dignity (with the exception of the predators). Dintzner's main strength is in characterization; he's written about it for an online writer's magazine.
Books that have a mission have a certain common feel to them. If you like laughter, thrills, and general entertainment, you might be bored. If you like the Reader's Digest, church magazines, and general inspirational literature, you'll probably enjoy it. It has won a Clara Award, a book award judged without knowing who the author is, in the category of Mystery and Suspense.
The novel seems to be effective in fulfilling its mission, and it is certainly sincere. It may be a good Christmas gift for someone you know that you want to educate about homelessness. A portion of the proceeds goes to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless and other initiatives toward ending homelessness in America.
When I worry about who's babysitting Jennifer, I remind myself it's just a story. But overall - with its lively characters and homeless heroes, and the commitment of the Senator in the end - I wish it weren't.
I think that's the strongest praise I can give the book. I wish it were true.