This book’s greatest asset is the experienced skill of its writer.
Heavy on drinking stories and filled with nostalgia for the days when propaganda by the deed was an accepted political concept, Death by Capitalism gives the reader a sort of bar room version of American radicalism which is epitomized by the writers ongoing drunken conversation with a tombstone; with whom he shares recollections of past lovers and political conquests in exchange for tales of Albert Parsons and Big Bill Haywood. As if Edwardo Galeano met William Burroughs and they had a few.
The book meanders through the life of its writer John Ross, E.B. Schnaubelt (a long dead anarchist whose brother was accused of throwing the Haymarket bomb), Emma Goldman and the living statue that president McKinley became, amongst many other side forays.
Each of the myriad stories are engaging, whether they be about the writers own childhood, his trip to Baghdad, time in Mexico or the fictionalized account of the Philippine defense against American forces. Though none of the historical points are un-trod ground they’re retelling through a drunken haze can be engaging. More enlightening at times are the writer’s own recollections of Harlem riots enlivened by the PL or trying to hold in National Guard troops with a crowd at 14th & Mission St. These stories, at least, are more instructive than those of Russian emigres making bombs at the turn of the century and yelling antiquated but still common slogans.
At the more serious moments the reader is left wondering if the writer would have been better off trying another serious piece rather than relaying the stories of his life to a tombstone that he pored liquor onto while lying in the rain. Not that the symbolism is lost on this reviewer but the whole scenario comes up short of being ephemeral enough to be magical realism but strange and Cuervo soaked enough that it could not be considered a serious work of history.
The bits of the book that deal with the writers drug abuse and the periods of his life lived in poverty in Tenderloin hotels and the Lower East Side of Manhattan will be more instructive and engage able to readers looking for political and social insights. Little of use can be gleaned from the post mortem ranting of Emma, Elizabeth, Joe Hill, Bill Haywood or Vanzetti. Each of whom has been written about adnaseum in historical, biographical, and fictional accounts.
If the book had claimed to have a point then it would have been a failure, but it never did. It is a book that the writers 1967 communist comrades would no doubt find folly in for its lack of analysis and serious class commentary; and that his 1972 poetry comrades would pass on for its lack of real dilettantism. But it bridges that contradiction, and the contradictions of the writer’s life well, never falling into either camp wholly and reflecting critically on each.
John Ross is no Edwardo Galleano, and there are readers who would rather see him stick to serious works like Rebellion from the Roots or The War Against Oblivion, but if the book were said to have a single success it should be that it tells the story of an interesting and accomplished life. Explaining the historical time period of that life’s finer moments and does all that without an excess of hubris. No small accomplishment for the semi-autobiographical work of an American man.