Flat Broke with Two Goats
The story arc of Jennifer McGaha’s memoir Flat Broke with Two Goats is relatively simple–McGaha and her husband are victims of the Great Recession having to give up their home and suburban upper-middle class lifestyle in favor of a rural, subsistence one commonly termed ‘hardscrabble.’ But there is a serious problem with this personal narrative, it is oblivious and self-serving.
McGaha isn’t a victim. Having willfully and repeatedly surrendered any participation in her family’s finances, she plays dumb on the decisions her husband made sending them on a massive debt spiral. Wanting but never asking or caring where the money came from, McGaha discovers she and her husband owe back taxes to the IRS and state in the high six-figure range. The reason? They didn’t bother to pay. Instead, they spent on themselves masking it in that common bourgeois lie of doing it for their children. So, when McGahas have to leave their foreclosed upon house, their solution is renting a cabin in the woods. However, this is less Thoreau and more hobby farm, and the book is about how McGaha finds happiness in her hobby farm.
This book was tiresome.
While McGaha attempts to mitigate her own culpability early, she fails to confront and thus to realize her class background has led her down the path it was designed to: “what I should have learned from living in a relatively privileged childhood was the value of hard work and frugality, what I learned instead was that money was not something with which I needed to be overly concerned. If and when I needed it, it would magically appear–like a genie.” Privilege doesn’t and has never valued or taught “hard work and frugality,” rather it has always treated money as magic. What makes McGaha’s memoir at times nearly intolerable is throughout she continues to treat money as a genie never explaining where the funding comes from for her new farmers’ market existence.
While readers expect the thrust of the book to be McGaha rising to the realization “Maybe things would stop happening to me, and I could start making things happen” and showing us just how she actualized this, we instead get a trifling tale of egoism in the woods of North Carolina buttressed with hypocritical animal loving and craft beer. McGaha thinks of herself as “Appalachian in a bone-deep sort of way” but she hardly is.
Many readers will find the recipes McGaha includes between chapters interesting. They are some rather solid inventions mirroring her story quite well. However, even in these recipes she betrays her own casual crassness and carelessness like her homemade yogurt recipe that consists of buying yogurt. For example, when she writes “my taco soup had all the qualities of a meal prepared by and for people in distress. It was simple. It was filling. It did not require overthinking. And it packed enough heat to jumpstart our endorphins.” Her’s is a good recipe but presented it in such a backhanded-compliment manner I can’t help but say, ‘That sounds good. Oh, and fuck you.’ Because as a prole, as someone whose life as always been working class swinging from unemployment to underemployment distress is the cosmic background noise of existence, so when McGaha slums it, I take exception.
Flat Broke with Two Goats would have been a forgettable, pleasant success if McGaha’s editor had cut about a third of the published manuscript and forced the author to focus solely on the hobby farm angle. It would have been inoffensive and mildly uplifting. Instead, we get the worst type of memoir–rambling onanism. Stumbling into the realization “Being poor means not having a lot of options other people have” is stunningly naive. However, McGaha was never poor, rather, she was facing the consequences of her actions, a penalty for being glib, and conflating it with what she guessed was the essence of being poor.
Although easy reading and clearly well crafted, the ultimate thrust of this memoir is petty and myopic–a bourgeois tale of roughing it where responsibility is never taken & the author is never able to see beyond her own nose. Nearly every meaningful moment is undercut by a skin-crawling, privileged point of view seeing working class existence as at once a burden and a novelty.
A native of Appalachia, Jennifer McGaha lives with her husband, five dogs, twenty-three chickens, and one high-maintenance cat in a tin-roofed cabin bordering the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina. Her creative nonfiction work has appeared in Brooklyner, Toad Suck Review, Switchback, Still, Portland Review, Little Patuxent Review, Lumina, Literary Mama, Mason’s Road, Now and Then, and others. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, running, mountain biking, sampling local beers, and playing with dogs.