Lunch Bucket Paradise by Fred Setterberg
Lunch Bucket Paradise
Heyday, paperback, 256 pages
Like a brand new Cadillac with its hood down, Fred Setterberg’s Lunch Bucket Paradise cruises through the life of a post-war working class suburb in California, as seen through the eyes of a childhood narrator growing to adolescence. The book catches a little of everything in crisp, glorious Technicolor: whether it is the listlessness of boyhood summer days filled with mock battles raging over identical squares of lawn, or the amazing bounty of new products from the electric toothbrush to luminescent Jell-O which compensated for the repetitive work routines of blue collar America. Setterberg is best at wittily-written comic vignettes: the timeless battle between brain and brawn among the members of a Scout troop lost on Frog Island delights with a Chaucerian twist that is worthy of The Miller’s Tale; and the sight of a neighbour hacking with a meat cleaver at his wayward nephew as he crawls along a tree branch mirrors the cartoon violence of its recently-arrived contemporary The Flintstones.
Styled ‘A True-Life Novel’, Lunch Bucket Paradise reads more as a broadly chronological series of intensely rendered glimpses, sometimes achieving the status of fully-crafted short stories. These are in turn yoked together in an occasionally fictionalized memoir, rather than fulfilling the promise of the subtitle or working as a novel that could explore the conditions of its own making. The narrator himself is thinly drawn, and perhaps revealingly, we never catch his name: he is only ‘Little Slick’, ‘kid’ or ‘boy’, all diminutives that reinforce him as a watcher rather than a doer. Whilst this is in one sense a plausible depiction of emerging consciousness, the perils of first-person nostalgic narration are exposed a little too frequently as Setterberg places sentiments in the mouth of the boy and affixes ‘dying falls’ to stories that creak with his own adult reflections.
Paradoxically, however, the slippages of the text themselves confirm the poignancy of a work whose subtext, whether consciously or not, is wilful evasion. The context is that of the worker, taking his eponymous lunch bucket to ‘the job, which is always the job’ where ‘time fails to pass’, and where despite the eternal battering of routine he concludes: ‘That’s why it’s called work and he’s glad to have some.’ For his son, though, the compensations of monotony are not so evident, as he is forced to uproot dandelions from the front lawn: a task which, like Sisyphus’, is never done. Against such constraints, characters throughout the story, from children to adults, repeatedly indulge in colourful fabrications and manipulations to lift their burdens, fashioning paradises of their own making.
The father, Franklin, is drawn with great skill and in his creative perversity represents the evasive centre of the novel. He is a survivor of TB, whose long periods in the sick ward gave him ample time to read and prepare, presciently, for a battle with his Catholic wife-to-be and her community. In the required course of lessons before his nuptials, he baits his Irish priest with questions about the Spanish Inquisition and Catholic tyrants like Franco and Salazar. He invites Jehovah’s Witnesses into his home so that they greet the boy and his mother returning from Mass on a Sunday, cooking ‘pointedly burnt toast’ for their breakfast and ‘fattening them for debate’. He offers his brother a plant for his garden which turns out to be ragwort, crowing at the fact that ‘it’ll be all over his yard by the end of summer.’ These petty victories are in some ways like those of the writer, achieving a sharp pleasure through the act of overcoming predictable, pedestrian descriptions.
Lunch Bucket Paradiseis tinged with a knowing nostalgia that celebrates the vigour of this golden period in American life, when things seemed to be getting better for everyone, even as it recognises the underlying tensions and aggressions which were to pull it apart as the sixties wore on. Despite its dandelions and ragwort, Lunch Bucket Paradise offers enough bright blooms fed by the Californian sunshine to make for a fun afternoon drive.