‘Don’t Want to Die’ Isn’t Poor on Prose

If there’s one thing Michael Arceneaux isn’t, it’s coy.

His second collection of essays, I Don’t Want to Die Poor, minces no words as he talks about the dire financial straits he found himself in after college and the various ways debt has made his life harder. Through that lens, he talks in about sex and sexuality, race, family, and the future with equal frankness (and all with a good sprinkling of expletives).

A fantastic writer and he’s this gracious to a complete stranger.

The candor is welcome against a backdrop of Millennial angst and effectively gives not just color but real, visceral stakes to all the Boomer jokes about avocado toast and killing the napkin/cable/divorce/casino industry. Arceneaux is also not afraid to own the mistakes he made that made his circumstances worse but also points out the systemic paradoxes that ensnare thousands.

Consider, from his first essay, his first and greatest mistake: taking out student loans to begin with–but, he asks, what else was he supposed to do?

“There’s no relief for my wallet or my self-esteem. Every time I fork over another
payment, I think about all of the other ways I could have financed my education. … I
blamed myself, thinking that if I had just worked harder and sacrificed more, I
wouldn’t be in this situation. But the truth is, a lot of this was always out of my
control. … I was trying to do the right thing for myself, and I believed that doing the
right thing for myself would ultimately benefit my entire family. Despite the cost,
going to the college I chose seemed like the best way to get where I wanted to be. I
understand now how naive I was; how uninformed I was; now my naivete and my
ignorance made me an easy mark for a predatory industry boosting a higher
education system set up for us to fail.”

The bulk of I Don’t Want To Die Poor is not this sincere, nor this on the nose. Most essays are largely funny, even when Arceneaux is addressing serious topics. When addressing the challenge of affordable health insurance, Arceneaux describes the kind of doom Googling that many of us go through when trying to decide whether an ailment is worth the cost of healthcare. “My stomach truly antagonizes the everlasting hell out of me. Do I have IBS? Or is it the copious amounts of caffeine I drink all day, every day, in order to work obsessively to cover my ass (barely) and not turn into a blob of a man? I made the mistake of going to WebMD to see what my symptoms suggested. At last count, I believe I died four years ago.”

In discussing the cognitive dissonance that can come from comparing the curated snippets of others’ lives to the messy whole of your own, he writes, “Instagram can teach me how to make dishes that aren’t as complicated as I initially thought—though I will make it a point to add seasoning to my food because I wasn’t raised to deny myself flavor. But I like learning about other cultures. How else would I have known how much white people like big blocks of white bread and cheese (the yellower, the better) for their quick meals?”

Me, neither, man.

And just as fast, he can take you back to heartbreaking. Getting his first book published, I Can’t Date Jesus, was a dream come true, he writes, but finishing it up and then promoting it also took up too much time to maintain his regular freelancing pace. A misunderstanding with a customer service representative resulted in his meager bank account being overdrawn by several hundred dollars. The day he found out, he was making his first appearance on national television to promote his book and an essay about coming to peace with his student loan debt was about to run in The New York Times. “This was supposed to feel like the beginning of a triumphant transition. I was supposed to begin to feel the benefits of all those years of going without and struggling. Yet here I was doing some of the things I had long wanted to do and at the same time drowning in debt and so unstable that one mistake had made it extremely difficult for me to eat. How pitiful. How embarrassing.”

Later on, he considers other career options, a section mainly detailed for laughs, but an overall message lingers. In Arceneaux’s world, the only way to advance was to go to college. He was told for years and years that if he worked hard and followed his dreams, he would succeed. He did work hard and he did follow his dreams and he did succeed, but in almost fifteen years since graduating college is still being chased by the naivete of his youth. We as a society love art and expression. We purport to value it. Yet someone who is doing just that—and excellently—cannot live comfortably in this society. If we truly value art, why are we so unwilling to pay for it? Arceneaux welcomes every ounce of blame he deserves but refuses to apologize for the world he was raised in and the things he was told by those in authority. And with every missed payment and every job he’s had to pass up because it did not pay enough, he asks again and again: what else what he supposed to do?

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