Theodore Dalrymple, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass.
Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001. 263 pages.
Reviewed by Paul Delany
As we walk through city streets, it normally does not trouble us that we know almost nothing about the lives of those whose paths we cross. City life is supposed to provide freedom from responsibility for others, apart from our family or friends. Everyone else just gets a casual glance – except for when a “street person” appears, someone obviously destitute or desperate. Our first instinct is to look away, before they can make us aware of something we would rather avoid: the needs of strangers.
Alexander Masters, a freelance writer in Cambridge, England, chose to keep looking at a homeless man he noticed on the street, Stuart Shorter. He has written Stuart’s biography, and made the claim that his is “an important life.” Most people who read this book will agree. It is the funny, fantastic and agonizing story of someone who made a complete mess of his life, and did much harm to others along the way. Failure, of course, is often more interesting than success; and absolute failure becomes more than that, a trip into the infernal regions beneath the affluent surface of Western cities. Stuart underwent pain, and inflicted pain, far beyond anything most of us have experienced. Then he chose to end his life – like Jesus, at the age of 33. Masters hints that Stuart, too, may have died for our sins, though one of the virtues of this book is that it suggests many other ways of telling the life of Stuart.
Stuart was one of the “chaotic homeless”: people who have no settled homes or relationships, who are rarely employed, who are unhealthy, violent and addicted to drugs. In the government agencies that deal with the homeless, the chaotic are often considered beyond repair. Their life expectancy in England is 42 years. They are 35 times as likely to commit suicide as an average person. Ten of them are male for each female. Why? Masters suggests that women may cope better with failure and disappointment. This is not a very satisfactory explanation, but one of the themes of Stuart is that it isn’t easy to explain anything about homelessness. The problems in a life like Stuart’s are so comprehensive, so majestic in their destructive power, that the standard sociological explanations of them look like the most feeble of clichés.