– A Review by Nick Gardner
When reading about work, and by work I mean hard manual labor, and by this I mean hacking in the coal mines, servicing cars, running a factory press, and by this I mean coming home dirty, sore, and growing older only to find that the work has left lasting damage, a permanent stoop or carpal tunnel, arthritis — when reading about this type of work, and especially the near feudal system of industrial economics, I often cringe and scowl. But I can’t give up reading.
William Trent Pancoast tells real stories of real work. They are grungy, wild, and often violent. They are something anyone can relate to, with love and hate and characters who live and breath… but these stories can also be relentless. They sucker-punch you, knock you to the ground, and kick you till you can’t feel the kicks anymore, till the pain is finally replaced by outrage.
I decided to read William Trent Pancoast’s oeuvre in a week. I had read Wildcat before and much of his short fiction so I knew they would be quick reads, all but Crashing taking only a 4-5 hour stint. I moved through the books in the order that Pancoast presented them to me over the last couple years: Wildcat, Crashing, and most recently, The Road To Matewan. I wanted to see if there was something deeper that tied these varied stories together. What emerged was a new understanding of this subject of work.
First, I reread Wildcat, a story featuring a General Motors stamping plant as its protagonist. It is set in fictional Cranston, Ohio and proceeds as a series of short biographies and vignettes about the characters that work at the plant. As the reader learns the history of the factory through the lives of the workers, through PTSD, amputations, alcoholism, and the general alienation and disassociation of industrialization, there is also a sense of the factory as a whole, the people being only members of the factory body. If the machines are muscle, the laborers are the vital organs, performing specific functions to urge the factory on. The union serves as ligaments holding the workers together with the management, and the building houses them all. Through this series of symbiotic beings, the factory struggles, overworked by its general managers, CEOs, and the capitalistic structure in general to always produce more, to win a race with no definite finish line. Finally the workers give up and the factory topples. In GM’s death throes, the owners survive, jeering at an empty cement slab.
Wildcat reads like an introduction into Pancoast’s other works. I next read Crashing which could best be described as a bildungsroman, but while most works of this category show the coming of age and social, spiritual, educational growth from youth into adulthood, this novel couples coming of age and compares it to midlife crises.
The story is centered around a country club. It is post-Vietnam. Mark Holtz, a young man from wealthy parents who is utterly confused about his future falls in love, fights with his father and gets messed up with his Appalachian friend Frank Baker. Together, these two boys-qua-men identify the struggle of the male relationship, a sort of battle between affection and society’s rejection of male intimacy.
In the background are the factories. These are the locus about which the characters move. Mark’s father is a wealthy businessman in charge of the factory where Mark’s friend Frank Baker, a transplant from Appalachia, works.
As the young men work, drink, and stumble through indecision, John, the father, and Jean, the mother, spiral out of control, finally separating when John causes a vehicle collision. He is wealthy, unable to understand the working-class mentality of his son or the creative bent of his writer wife Jean. But he is shown not as evil for this, but as a victim of his own close-mindedness and lack of understanding. As he drinks himself nearly to death and struggles with the meaning of his life now that his family is falling apart, a human aspect emerges from the so-often-dehumanized wealthy capitalist who made himself rich by crushing the lives of those less fortunate.
Frank Baker, being from coal town Appalachia serves as a tie-in to Pancoast’s most recent novel: The Road to Matewan. While Wildcat’s protagonist is a factory, The Road to Matewan depicts the land as the primary character. While the novel may appear to follow Thomas Greene, he is only the narrator, serving as the lens through which this land in seen. The land I speak of is, of course, coal mining country, West Virginia. Similar to Wildcat, each stratum of the big business apparatus is depicted. The mine workers are mistreated by foremen, underpaid, attacked and killed, at the very least, fired, blacklisted, and removed if they do not bend to the rules of the mining company. The foremen, the managers, the rich men in charge are shown in varying lights. Most are evil, one is good, but the good boss is ultimately removed.
And this is the story of Thomas’s life, the life of all workers. He attempts to fight back against the indefatigable force of greed. As workers resist they are gunned down in the streets, removed from homes and family, removed from their cultural place. Even when Thomas returns to his bottom land, his old home at the foot of the mountain, he is brought face-to-face with the reality that the land will never be the same again. The land has become valuable and is thus nothing more than the handful of dollars one man gives to another for its possession. As Thomas is defeated by factory work and the destruction of place, the land is stripped, mined, collapsed and abandoned. Both Thomas and the land are defeated.
This is the fact that holds true all three of Pancoast’s novels: that man is definitely and tragically defeated. It’s sad, sure, and apparently hopeless. Rich and powerful men (because they are rarely women) build empires with the broken backs of those less fortunate. They seek out the vulnerable and waste them for money. It is an ever-repeating cycle of the few powerful people destroying the earth, humanity, affixing values and taking possession without second thought.
But Pancoast is not a doomsayer. All of his stories are about a fight to get back one’s agency, one’s right to their place in the world. It is the very quality of this fight that Pancoast gives the reader, this fight that is a glimmer of hope.
In both The Road to Matewan and Crashing there are scenes where Thomas Greene and then Mark Holtz respectively stare up into the sky and attempt to find the “bluest spot”. It is up there and they know it, something untouchably theirs. It is this connection that signifies the worker, a shared secret, an understanding with the land that those who seek to dig it up will never know. There is community in the bar at the end of a shift which can outshine with goodwill even the largest charitable donation. You can’t touch this bluest patch of sky with any skyscraper and it is out of reach of the banks. It cannot be bought with money. It is the hope that we will keep working and keep fighting for our right to the land, to our cultural place.
William Trent Pancoast will be hosted at Main Street Books for a book talk and signing of his most recent novel Road to Matewan on Friday, April 7th at 6:00pm.