Blessed Assurance -- just not from State Farm
Given all the trouble people on the Gulf Coast continue to have with insurance companies, I was recently inspired to re-read "Blessed Assurance" by Allan Gurganus, from his awesome short story collection, "White People." The narrator, Jerry, is a former funeral insurance salesman who put himself through college exploiting poor black people. When he starts to actually worry about the fate of his clients, he suffers a crisis of conscience that haunts him for decades. (The story -- named after the traditional hymn --also appeared in Granta.)
An insurance salesman with a conscience? Needless to say, this was a work of great imagination, and I think it ought to be required reading for every crash-course-licensed insurance adjuster who came down here after the storm to arbitrarily decide the fate of thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims. (I know, I know, they didn't actually sell the policies. And some of those policies actually held. But still). It's a great read for anyone else, too.
Apparently the story was adapted to film by Peter Bogdanovich and retitled "The Price of Heaven." It starred Cicely Tyson and George Wendt, among others, and although I haven't seen the film, I'm guessing Wendt played the part of Jerry's boss, the one who, in the print version, offers him the following advice:
"Now, times, you might get to feeling - nice boy like you, college material - like maybe you're stealing from them. You take that attitude, you'll wind up like...like me. No, you've got to accept how another type of person believes. Especially when there's such a profit in it...Plus, for all we know, they could be right, Jerry. Is there is the so-called next world, they'll turn up in it, brass bands to announce them. And us poor white guys who sold them the tickets, we'll be deep-fat frying underneath forever."
Gurganus, probably best known for his novel "The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All", is apparently working on a novel based on the post-Floyd flooding of his home state of North Carolina. Shortly after that event, he wrote an editorial about it for the New York Times, which concluded with a prayer as sad and sweet as his insurance salesman story:
If you're scared the world is ending in fire, reconsider. May we, the waders of North Carolina, (all these snakes!) half-reassure you? It'll probably be water. But, even in this catastrophe's toxic wake, we're inching toward the high ground of a glum communal hope. Some 19th-centurywillingness to act is yet there, if called upon. People are still imagining each other so they can rescue each other. A strange, radical thing, kindness. May we continually pray for a citizenry that, epic as the horrors visited on it, still finds itself able to row right off, to guess a quiet neighbor's whereabouts, to save that neighbor. Heaven keep us afloat and worthy of saving each other. And, as a nation, kindly keep us worth saving. Amen.
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