"Tale of Two Americas"

John Freeman has compiled an exceptional anthology of literature about inequality in the United States. This collection includes stories of fiction, essays, narratives, journalism and poetry from 36 acclaimed authors, including Roxanne Gay, Richard Russo, Ann Patchett, Eldwidge Danticat and American poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. The wide variety of literature covers subjects from Mexican immigrant agricultural workers in the 1970s in California to the furtive longings of a restaurant server in a deteriorating Michigan town today.

The editor provides a spectrum of provocative stories that depict the differences between those with real access to America’s opportunities and those without. Karen Russell’s essay on the homeless in Portland, Oregon illustrates this point: “the difference between living indoors and living on the street is an injury, an accident, a family emergency, a bad season, a month’s salary.” Authentic portrayals like this give the book realism, genuineness and urgency.

An especially timely short story, “Outside,” by Kiese Laymon, professor of English and African-American studies at the University of Mississippi, describes the differences in law enforcement practices for white, affluent college students and black men in our cities. He points up the inherent mean-spiritedness of our mass incarceration system, especially among black men.

A chilling story by Kansas journalist Sarah Smarsh, “Blood Brother,” follows her sibling as he regularly gives blood for money. Her brother is a college graduate and a hard worker. He is not an addict, not homeless and not mentally ill. But he suffers from today’s brutal economy in which a college degree no longer opens the door to the middle class as in the past.

Freeman successfully tells the story of our two Americas – the traditional one with families, schools, churches, Friday night football and major league baseball – and the America that practices systemic injustice, entrenched racism, a never-ending war on drugs and an immigration policy that keeps migrants guessing about their status.

I found most of the pieces in this anthology confrontational in style: they challenge the reader to think. Whether the writers are seasoned or just beginning their careers, the quality of work is excellent. Freeman brings together a multiplicity of powerful voices to awaken the reader’s knowledge and sensibilities about the chasm between rich and poor and how this wide gap threatens all of us in the United States. I finished the anthology with an increased awareness that this broad and growing gulf endangers the American dream and the very lives of each of us.

John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary biannual of new writing, and Executive Director of Hub. His books include “The Tyranny of E-mail,” and “Tales of Two Cities,” an anthology of writings about current inequality in New York City. His work is translated into twenty languages and has appeared in the The New Yorker, The Paris Review and The New York Times. He currently teaches writing at The New School and New York University. Penguin is the publisher.