Thursday, January 11, 2018

It Was Supposed to Be a Walk...

‘Red Baker,” by Robert Ward, 2006

Recent working-class fiction is certainly hard to come by in the U.S., but it does have various forms, small as they are.  Political working class fiction is the rarest of all, as we live in a de-politicized country.  A recent book by C.G. Gibbs comes to mind as an example of political proletarian fiction.  Some is lumpen-proletarian, dwelling on really dysfunctional people – the work of Charles Bukowski or Chuck Palahniuk.  Others relate in a realist way to the working-class and their psychological and personal lives in a trailer park or small town, as done by Russell Banks or Richard Russo.  Recent black fiction reliably carries many ethnic and class points, as evinced by authors like Guy Johnson & Toni Morrison.  This book represents another variation – directly related to the impact of blue-collar layoffs, so implicitly political, though touted as being ‘character-driven.’  There is a similar book to this, Iain Levison’s “Since The Layoffs,” but it is a comic novel.  This one is not.

Closed Sparrows Point Steel Mill - Baltimore

Red Baker and all his union buddies lose their steel jobs in Baltimore and the impact of this event forms the basis for all the subsequent mayhem.  Fights, alcohol, pills, racism, stress, anger, infidelity, crime, suicide, loss of identity and respect form the tapestry of their post-layoff lives, as they attempt to survive and find decent paying work.  The period is late 1983, when the local football team the Colts abandoned Baltimore for Indianapolis – a somewhat fitting parallel event.  The fans all yearn for “Johhny U” and the stable, storied past that is over.  This is a period of massive factory closings in the U.S. under Reagan, which continued under Democrats, and it rocked Baltimore and every other industrial city and town.  At that time, it was bi-partisan policy to export work to the South, then Mexico, then China.

 In this book, cheaper but modern Japanese steel under-sells the outdated U.S. Larmel Steel mill, and results in its closing.  No money had been invested by the owners in an upgrade of their means of production and this impacts everyone who works there.                                                                                                                        

Red has a temper and a history, and a massive friend Dog, with a worse temper and heavier unhappiness.  Red was a high-school basketball hero, a respected steel-worker, but after being laid off is now relegated to poorly paying jobs like car parker and garbage collector. Red’s tired but loyal wife Wanda has to find a job at the crab shack waitressing, while his sexual crush Crystal is a stripper at his favorite bar. Red has to endure the humiliations of the 1980s unemployment office, but also the joys of his young musical and basketball-playing son, Ace.  Surrounding him are hostile bar owners, a friendly parking ramp owner, a helpful union officer and a frightening, nose-less homeless man who terrifies Red with his possible future.  The upscale yuppies that populate the Baltimore riverfront and whose Beemers and Mercedes he parks piss off Red, but he can’t really retaliate.  Until he does.

This is the story of a destruction of a way of life and of working-class neighborhoods.  The only solution, like so many, is escape. Dreams of the Sun Belt intrude on the gritty hopelessness of 1980s Baltimore for many.  Lies are a basic way to get by and survive, not some moralistic failure. Alcohol is a familiar form of obliteration, which has its own consequences. Anger must be muzzled. Friends disappear.  Politics is invisible.   

A familiar story for many workers during this time, but still ignored by the literary powers that be.  After all, most NY literature critics or agents have never done anything but push paper. Red, instead, worked on the steel for the car they drive.  Let's decide who is really disposable...

Prior reviews of books with similar topics:  Gibbs’ “Factory Days,” Kolm’s “Night Shift,” Macaray’s “Night Shift – 270 Factory Stories." Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought it at May Day’s excellent used book section!

Red Frog

January 11, 2018

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