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The Jungle
3.8.2004 by Nathan, every Tuesday.

The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair is a very famous novel. Famous to 20th century Americans. It is a story about the horrible conditions in the Chicago meat packing industry in 1906. Even though it is supposedly real information, Sinclair chose to make it into novel instead of one of those boring essays or articles.

The story centers around Jurgis, a FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) from Czechoslovakia, and his family, who have just moved to America. It follows their attempts to get work in the area of Chicago called "Packingtown". Packingtown is known for its fetid pools of water, piles of rotting wood, smoke-spewing incinerators, noxious rendering plants, and fields and fields of cows and pigs, waiting for slaughter. Also for its smells, low paying jobs, and smog.

Life is harsh and unbelievably shitty for Jurgis. Every instant is literally set up (by Sinclair) so that Jurgis loses. Which is a shame, because everyone likes to win, especially at life. But this guy is a born loser. Aside from problems with "the wife", shifty real estate agents, dirty doctors, corrupt lawyers, and sickly sicknesses, Jurgis also has a really crappy job. It's his responsibility to sweep the fresh, still-warm, animal guts up from the killing floors of the slaughterhouse. He gets a hole in the floor and a broom with which to push around the bloated innards of all sorts of large animals.

We also get an inside view of the rest of what goes on at the packing house. Even "J" pities his aged father, working in the pickling cellar, where he breaks out in sores and loses the skin on his hands and feet because of the caustic chemicals they use to preserve "not so fresh feeling" meat. And then there are the children who are used as unskilled labour loading canning machines in an unheated building in the middle of winter.

As the story progresses you hear less and less about bad food and more and more about bad country. It doesn't take long before Jurgis is attending political rallies, being helped by his comrades, and being a strike-breaker at the plant. Sinclair is known as a muckraker, a person so taken with the shit at his feet (that he's raking) he can't look up and see what's good about it. Which means it's a really depressing book. People can't be trusted, children are born dead, young girls become prostitutes, Jurgis becomes a mugger, everything is dirty and often sharp...

The one ray of sunshine in the book is when Jurgis loses his wife to childbirth, his newborn son to drowning, and escapes the rest of what's left of his family to become a hobo and a drifter. He hobos it up for some time, traveling across the US farmlands doing odd-jobs when he wants a meal or some money. His time in the country casts a kind of anti-industrialism on the story, where he escapes the monotonous drone-ship that he once was part of to find salvation in a more agricultural life. This makes for a strange contrast when he becomes communist, which is much more industrially based.

What really made me like/hate this book was how relevant it is today. Even though it's from almost 100 years ago it has a lot of parallels, and not just that work sucks! I'm not sure how many people recall the recent beef recall in Alberta (I think). It was discovered that cattle that had died before processing were being cut into meat and sold. So it's easy to imagine that other things in "The Jungle" go on today to some degree too.

If you're ever thinking of starting your own butchery/meat processing plant here's a few tips:

The bone in a ham rots first. So when a ham starts to rot:
1. Pull the rotting bone out of the ham.
2. Sear the hole.
3. Then sell it with the "added value" of being a "boneless ham".

Don't forget to use the cheapest meats in your sausages. You know, either stuff no one would eat if they knew what they were eating, or just stuff that has gone bad.

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