Friday, June 20, 2008

Flashback Friday! Travels With Lizbeth - Lars Eighner

Travels With Lizbeth (1993) is the memoir of Lars Eighner, who spent three years in the 1980s as a homeless person on the streets of Los Angeles, Austin, Texas and points in between, after quitting his job as a mental health worker and being evicted from his modest home in Austin. The "Lizbeth" of the title is his dog. There were many times during this difficult period that Eighner could have gotten food and shelter more easily, but more often than not, it would have meant Lizbeth's life. In addition to maintaining loyalty to Lizbeth, he also vowed during this time not to steal or panhandle. He does do a couple of things that seem questionable, but that's his business, and he's a little vague abut them -- I wasn't too bothered by the murkiness of the details.

I'm annoyed with myself for not remembering what kind of dog Lizbeth was. I'm under the impression she was some kind of mixed-breed. What I remember best about the book is Eighner's chapter about dumpster diving. This chapter has been anthologized several times, and it's superb writing, both informative and funny. At one point, Eighner wryly remarks that he's gaining weight on his dumpster diet since people don't usually throw out low-calorie foods. Indeed, his most successful forages take place behind fast food restaurants. Another time, he's dumpster diving around the University of Texas and has the opportunity to read some old term papers students have thrown out after receiving their grades. Sounding for all the world like a stuffy old refugee from the ivory tower, he says something to the effect that he's "shocked and appalled at what passes for an A paper these days."

Although the dumpster diving chapter was the showstopper, the rest of Travels With Lizbeth is also quite readable. Eighner is sharp and insightful when discussing welfare and homelessness in general. By the end of the book, he has moved in with a close friend and they've shakily gotten on their feet because the friend has participated in a couple of high-paying medical experiments for a research company. It all feels tenuous, and it turns out that it was, according to someone at Amazon who reviewed this book. Although Eighner had some success with this memoir, by 1997, he was homeless again. According to the reviewer, he was bailed out by a group of authors in Texas who figured that he'd "pay [them] back with more good stories." That kind of breezy goodwill and kindness to artists feels startling in these times.

I was and still am attracted to Travels With Lizbeth because of my long-running, deep-seated horror of being homeless, being a bag lady. (There, I admitted it. I even had a nightmare about it the other night.) If a writer as talented as Lars Eighner can end up on the streets in the United States, how easy would it be for me, a mere ESL/EFL teacher to become a serial couch-surfer or endlessly on the hunt for the perfect cardboard carton?


Literary Feline said...

Thanks for the great review, Bybee. I wasn't familiar with this book until reading your review, but I am definitely interested. I worked in a homeless shelter during grad school--these were people from all walks of life, many of whom never would have dreamed of ending up on the streets. It really makes a person appreciate what they have.

Anonymous said...

My word of the day (I'm throwing it around blogland like candy) fascinating!! and with your creds, you are afraid of being homeless? funny, that I recently had the thought that if my world turned upside down, I could always teach English in a foreign country. I'm deluded, huh? You have a great blog - have I never been here before? shame on me.

Bybee said...

Oh, I know that since I'm an EFL teacher that I can work anywhere in the world. And I'm in a place where it's raining jobs. I have to turn down work. Still, this irrational fear persists.