Bruder’s main subject is Linda May, a 64-year-old former cocktail waitress, trucker and insurance executive who has taken to the open road with a tiny lemon-colored trailer, which she calls the Squeeze Inn. (“Yeah, there’s room, squeeze in” is the joke.) Terrible puns for vehicles abound; it’s a tradition among the “workampers,” as they call themselves. Bruder comes across Vansion, Van Go and Vanna White. She names her own Halen.
May is a resourceful and hard worker — and incorrigibly cheerful (she actually wears glasses with rose-colored frames). Nothing brings her down, not running low on food, not getting locked out of the Squeeze Inn. It’s a steely positivity Bruder finds alarming and deeply American, and one that she encounters repeatedly. In a Facebook group for Amazon warehouse workers, a member enthuses, “It’s easy to lose weight by walking a half marathon every day. Bonus: you’re too tired to eat!”
“Nomadland” is part of a fleet of recent books about the gig economy. More than most, it’s able to comfortably contain various contradictions: “The nomads I’d been interviewing for months were neither powerless victims nor carefree adventurers,” Bruder writes. Their lives are shown to be harsh and exhilarating, lonely and full of community. They swap tips for finding cheap dental care and “stealth parking”; they congregate at the “Rubber Tramp Rendezvous,” a kind of Burning Man for the elderly, mobile set. “When someone’s van breaks down, they pass the hat,” Bruder writes. “Around a shared campfire, in the middle of the night, it can feel like a glimpse of utopia.”
There’s always less romance by daylight, though. Amazon is one of the largest employers of the workampers — and the most notorious. Incentivized by federal tax credits for employing elderly workers (25 to 40 percent of wages), the company aggressively recruits them, especially during the holiday season. Jeff Bezos has predicted that a quarter of all workampers will pass through his warehouses, working 10 hours or more a day, sorting packages.
It’s crippling work. The workampers’ RVs look like “mobile apothecaries,” Bruder writes. Amazon’s warehouses feature wall-mounted dispensers of free painkillers. America runs on ibuprofen; it’s the…