[On this week’s Inside The New York Times Book Review podcast, Matthew Desmond discusses “Evicted.”]
Lamar, his sons and other teens in their Milwaukee neighborhood sit, playing cards and smoking blunts, when a loud and confident knock on the door could be “a homeowner’s knock or a sheriff’s knock” . Fortunately, it was only Colin, a young white man from their church, who came to read them passages from the Bible, most of which Lamar knew by heart. The subject moves away to God and the Devil, with Lamar adding, “And Earth is Hell.” “Well,” Colin corrects, “not quite the hell.” An embarrassed silence falls.
The onus of “Expelled,” the astonishing book by Matthew Desmond, is to show that the world Lamar lives in is indeed hell, or as close an approximation as you are likely to find in a 21st century American city. When Lamar first looked at his two-bedroom apartment, it was a horrendous mess, “with maggots pushing unwashed dishes into the sink,” but he put it away and cleaned it up to the point of “bordering on obsession-compulsion”. The underlying problem – or one of them – is that Lamar’s income is $ 628 per month, while his rent is $ 550, which leaves $ 2.19 per day for the family. He does what he can to pay part of his rent by doing handyman work, but it’s not easy for a double amputee who crawls on his stumps, his legs having been lost due to frostbite during ‘a homeless passage.
Desmond is an academic who teaches at Harvard – a sociologist or, you might say, an ethnographer. But I would also like to claim him as a journalist, and someone who, like Katherine Boo in her study of a Mumbai slum, has set a new standard for reporting on poverty. For a previous book, “On the Fireline,” he worked with a fire crew in Arizona. In Milwaukee, he moved to a trailer park, then a rooming house in the poor North Side, and diligently took notes on the lives of people who pay 70 to 80 percent of their income for houses. which, objectively speaking, are unfit for human habitation. It wasn’t fun, he wrote in his diary, “I feel dirty, collecting these stories and trials like so many trophies.”