“A typical American family?” Barnes repeated as he lifted up the ad with one hand and pointed at it with the other. “What’s this man wearing, son?” he asked as he pointed to the father figure.
“A...suit. A suit and tie. And a white shirt,” I observed.
Barnes replied softly, “A suit and tie. And a white shirt, right?” I nodded.
Barnes’ face suddenly flushed and he shouted at me so loudly, I could smell his cigar breath all the way across the conference table. “Son, the only people who come into my stores wearing ties are cops looking for one of my employees for a parole violation! And the broad; she looks like she just stepped out of the Neiman goddamn Marcus catalog, pearls and all.” Barnes took a deep breath and continued. “You ever been in one of my stores?” he asked. I thought for a minute and shook my head. He then looked at the other executives. “Any of you shitbirds ever been in a BillyMart?”
And so begins the quest of Edward Prescott III to discover the ins and outs of the white trash culture. Undercover White Trash is a good piece of writing. The first thing that impresses me is the simplicity of the concept—a guy enters an alien culture incognito in search of its secrets. Kilpatrick spins the spy trope in a fresh way and shows what creativity is at it’s best—taking what is already familiar to the reader and spinning it in a new way. The author also moves directly into the protagonist’s problem—living in a different culture than that which he comes from, creating tension by juxtaposing a privileged young man with a subculture that is as alien to him as something in the pages of National Geographic, then plunging him into it, “like Jane Goodall with the monkeys”
As we witness Prescott pack for his three month adventure, we can’t help but wonder how he will be altered after contact with the world he’s about to visit. How will the people and events that are about to happen to him change him? There are many dangers that he flirts with: being swallowed up by the world into which he ventures, his lines of communication and safety cut off and him becoming a stranger to his old friends; or becoming entangled to his detriment in relationships with the member of this subculture.
The book shows differences between the world of privilege and want in America as the protagonist goes in search of the BillyMart consumer, a missing link between rural poor and suburbanites. Prescott inserts himself into a trailer park community, then uses a bait in order to start a relationship with Conley, the father of the family that Prescott decides to study. As he enters the lives of the people he studies, he learns that they are pretty much okay, and learns that his old environment is filled with backstabbers.
Undercover White Trash steers clear of pastoralizing the underclass or taking the well-worn road of cheap humor at their expense. There is in this story a lot of humanity with which Kilpatrick treats his subject and characters, making the book one of those rare independent novels that are worth a read. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this one was optioned by a movie producer because it has cinematic potential.
I had a bit of a gripe with this ending—too hopeful for my taste—and I would have liked to see more comedic tension milked out of the near encounters that the protagonist has with his privileged pals—more dramatic irony, please--but despite my pet peeves, the book is, still, very good, and Kilpatrick is a totally talented writer whose work will most likely end up on the big screen.
(This review is not based on a submission but a reaction to reading a free ebook on the Author's Site)
Update 3/16/11: Mr. Kilpatrick's website is gone.