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The Bag

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Panther, London, 1972
price: 50p; 448 pages

(first published in Great Britain by Victor Gollancz, 1970)

dedication: this book is for Warren Miller who knew exactly the way it is

The blurb on the back:

Many novels have been called bombshells before. But The Bag is the real thing...
'This book is possibly the most powerful, intelligent and balanced novel in several years about our diseased, embattled and explosive cities' -
'Sol Yurick's achievement is stunning ... he has brilliantly conceived and powerfully executed a portrait of the sight, sound, smell and taste of Urban Now, beneath the plastic; and he has renewed the novel as a social transaction' -
'Imagine, if you can, a super writing team composed of: Hubert Selby Jr, for violence and slum realism; Terry Southern, for nasty humour; Norman Mailer, for impressionistic commentary on the New Left; Tom Wolfe, for frenetic, driving style; and I-don't-know-who for political sensibility ... If you are really lucky, the upshot of the team effort will be something as good as Sol Yurick's The Bag' -
'Powerful ... a work of rare passion and conviction ... enthralling frm its comic but disturbing beginning to its horrifying end' -
Sunday Telegraph

opening lines:
The welfare center is housed in an armory, along with a police precinct.

Those reviews on the sleeve are perhaps a bit over-stated, but then searing state-of-the-nation novels do tend to date rather quickly. As indeed do most American writers of the 1960s. It's a tribute to Sol Yurick's talent then that this remains such an impressive piece of work.

The setting is the New York breadline, the twilight fringe of a rich society, where generation after generation of the same families find themselves dependent on what passes for a social security system. Our principle filter through we see this world is a disillusioned novelist who's taken a job as a welfare worker and encounters a sprawling black family, whose existence forms the backdrop to the book.

It's not a cheerful read (that reference to Hubert Selby Jr isn't entirely wide of the mark), and the huge cast of characters inevitably means that some sections are weaker than others, but the political commitment is still sadly relevant, since Jesus got at least this one right and the poor are, indeed, still with us. As Mr Yurick explores the labyrinthine structures of welfare, the lesson emerges that 'Organization with representation is tyranny' (p.222). Which is as relevant a slogan as ever, in a world where bureaucracy continues to entrench and institutionalize poverty.

The other major thread running through the book is the study of a sensitive mind collapsing under the horror of living in the modern world. There's an obsession with what Jeff Nuttall termed Bomb Culture, making it an interesting historical record but inevitably dated.

An impressive if not lovable book, and leagues ahead of The Warriors. One of these days they'll make a movie of this, and they should get Spike Lee to direct it. It's that kind of book.


from the maker of...
come out to play
The Warriors