The Bookshelf: A Look at Life in the "Rust Belt"

Jul 8, 2016

The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features Paul Hertneky, who grew up near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania at a time when the steel industry kept many families afloat. His town, Ambridge, was a place full of the working class people including immigrant families from all over Europe that found themselves down on their luck when the steel industry fell apart. In his new memoir, Rust Belt Boy, Hertneky writes about how this town left an indelible mark and still has a pull on him, even now as he lives hundreds of miles away in Hancock, New Hampshire. Scroll down to read Paul Hertneky's top five reading recommendations and read the transcript of his conversation with All Things Considered host Peter Biello. 

Paul Hertneky's Top 5 Book Recommendations:

1.   Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata... "stands as a masterpiece of Japanese literature and I’m drawn to fiction of other cultures. It is one of the most startling depictions of place and culture I have ever read, revelatory in its exposure of customs, and a real hallmark of empathy for individuals and the strictures of society. Plus, it’s my favorite example of Nobelist Kawabata’s elegant imagination and outright gorgeous prose."

2.   Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. "Although only one of Wallace Stegner’s brilliant books, I see Angle of Repose as the most affecting, memorable, sweeping, yet restrained novel ever written about the American West. Even as I write that statement, I see its shortcomings, because, although the West is the setting, it’s more about resilience, adaptability, character, and love as a paragon of faith."

3.   Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy. "Autobiography of a Face, for me, sets the standard for book-length personal essay. I am no fan of cancer-tragedies, but Lucy Grealy’s account and astounding insight into her life with bone cancer in her face, is utterly compelling, moving, and life-changing. Without slightest sentimentality, her voice ranges from dispassionate to angry, from grateful to playful and wry. I have recommended this book to more fellow writers, students, friends, and self-conscious teenagers than I can remember. Grealy was a true master of the form, and this contribution to literature will never be forgotten."

4.   Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. "For me, American literature took a turn with the publication of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, breaking the bonds of form and what had been considered public decency to present a jagged, relentless reality. The way he inhabits his narrator and presents complex views of his characters – through a prism of exuberance, bitterness, desperation, and lust makes them both harshly real and otherworldly. He does for literature what Picasso did for painting. Reading it makes me feel like a Cubist figure traipsing through the labyrinths of Paris encountering people and situations that, in my own life, would frighten and irritate me, thrill me, and tickle me to the point of pain and self-loathing. Its careening prose harmonizes with the voices of mad, eager intellectuals, the artists, poseurs, and sensory shock that I imagine as was Paris in the 1930s, simultaneously attracting and repelling me. My favorite books seduce me to turn away and write while seizing me by the eyelids and refusing to let go – an elegant tension – and Tropic of Cancer produces that effect."

5.   Ask the Dust by John Fante. "John Fante’s Ask the Dust draws me into Los Angeles in the way Tropic of Cancer wraps me in Paris, and I am a sucker for novelistic travel, not only in setting, but in ways of living previously outside my imagination, escorting me into an existence I would never choose nor go alone. Fante’s alter-ego, Arturo Bandini, an Italian immigrant in 1930s became my traveling partner after reading Fante’s Wait Until Spring, Bandini, and I can’t help but hover over him as he makes choices I would never make in Los Angeles. He practices devotion beyond reason, feels compassion so hot it could burn him to a crisp, and touching, unfailing love that is meagerly rewarded. In spare language and precise imagery, Fante shines a kind but too-bright light on Bandini, making him both sympathetic, idealistic, and amusing. Fante’s is one of the few immigrant voices to penetrate literature in 1930s and it stands alone in its power and frame of reference."

I wanted to ask you start us off by reading a brief portion of your book, a paragraph from the chapter called, “Where Stories Went to Die.”

“From the time I was a toddler, my father slowed the car as we passed Byer’s twin Bessemer converters that were open to Duss Avenue. I would stand on the back seat and watch the giant thermos-shaped smelters tip skyward and shoot flames, sparks, and gobs of molten iron into the night air. Thirty feet tall and girded with heavy iron, these twin behemoths exhaled the sulfurous cloud that bathed the Ford in a warm wave, like standing in front of Godzilla when he’s really pissed off. And I saw that show and felt that breath every week. Awesome. It ignited something in me that still burns.”

What is that something?

I think it’s the heat of industry. I’m a fan of factory tours; I like seeing things being made. It’s the cooperation of people making something that’s far beyond themselves. And I think that once you see the spectacle of heavy industry—whether it’s the giant rooms of clattering textile looms, or it’s this kind of scene—there’s something about the noise, and the awe of it all, that takes you beyond yourself.

You’ve seen more than just a tour of these places; you took some time away from college to actually work in one. Tell us about your experience working in an industry like this.

It’s hard to describe, because it’s been described in cliché ways so many times. It’s not always about steel workers being rough and brutal men; there were women in the mill as well, and it was a very well-organized system of hard work and productivity.

My part in it was a little bit frightening because I was in the mechanical labor gang, which meant that we were responsible for maintaining the mill. We had to go into difficult, dangerous places all the time. I was repeatedly asked to put myself into death-defying situations, and that’s when you realize you really need a labor union. A few times I had to ask for the union to step in and make a ruling.

One time in particular, I was standing on top of a 5,000 gallon tank with 50 foot walls. It was about two-and-a-half feet wide, and the wall went down into the tank, and there was a roof there that was supposed to be put over it. We were putting girders on top of the roof. I was asked to stand on the 50 foot wall with four inches of water below it, using a 30 pound jackhammer to “chip out the concrete.” If I’d lost the hammer, I would have gone to the bottom of the tank. And so they fixed it by bringing over a hoist crane, putting me into a harness, and having me chip out this space. But every time I leaned on the hammer, my feet came off the ground because I was on a hoist. So it was kind of a silly ballet of trying to get a job done.

Sometimes we were outside. I drove railroad spikes first. I still know how to split wood efficiently because of that, and then we drove spikes with the jackhammer after a while.

That’s the kind of work parents were doing when you were a kid. When you were younger, how aware were you of your parents’ dangerous work environments?

Pretty aware, since occasionally news of a critical injury would come down. Or even a death. I remember when our next-door neighbor, who was a production guy in the steel mill where we made pipes, slipped and fell down a mountain of pipe and was crushed. He lived, but he was never the same.

There was a period of prosperity when people had jobs—during the Vietnam War especially, when there was a need for materials that would support the war effort. But you write in the book that the one word that people tended not to use was “unsustainable.” What was it like living in a time when there was prosperity, but also the feeling that it couldn’t last?

It fed a kind of futility that we often felt, that forces bigger than us were in control of our lives. We could see that things were not going to be sustainable, that the face of the world was changing. But I guess there was a feeling that we would just chase one opportunity into the next, and it would keep coming.

My father knew better. He thought that plans should be made for the industry modernizing, but as it turns out globalism really had its way. We saw the handwriting on the wall. We saw the Asian characters written on steel blooms. So we knew that things were being done differently.

I don’t think there was a whole lot of innovation happening. They weren’t really thinking about sustainability. Most of the corporate entities, like U.S. Steel and Armco Steel, were thinking about expansion of their businesses through different products and different endeavors. U.S. Steel got into oil exploration, for instance. So that was the model. It was more of the expansion, and not the sustaining, of current industries. They didn’t reinvest in steel. That industry has a history of resisting reinvention.

Because that industry was the life-blood of so many people when you were growing up, you must have faced enormous pressure to enter that industry. You worked in in for a short time, but ultimately you decided not to. Tell me about what it felt like to choose the life of the mind, which was not predominant in your culture when you were growing up.

I think most people were pressured to go to trade school, so that they could do something that our parents and community understood. It was great if someone wanted to go to college to become a doctor, lawyer, or teacher. But when you go to college and major in English literature, you’re obviously just scratching an itch and following your curiosity, with the intent of possibly going to law school. But I was interested in English literature, and I was not interested in teaching it.

You pursued a life of the mind because, as you write in your book, it was just this curiosity you had about the world that seemed to push against the boundaries of Ambridge and steel towns in general. You wanted to know things, you wanted to know and travel the world, and that went against the grain of what was happening around you.

You asked how it felt. For a long time it meant that I was poor, relative to my peers. They went into the mills, and they made serious money. They bought houses, they bought duplexes, they bought boats . . .

This is when you were in your 20s?

Yes. And I was trying to make it as an advertising writer at first, and then went into the publishing industry.

And so you saw your friends taking the trade school route, and they got jobs right away. You almost took the hard path.

Yeah, they were killing it. They were doing great economically. But I looked up what they had to do every day, and I’d done that for a while, and I realized it just wasn’t for me.

Just because I couldn’t be compensated really well for what I liked to do didn’t mean I was going to give up my dream of having my curiosity be something that I could trade upon.

And you teach now, right?

I teach as a small part of my freelance career.

I’m wondering how your experience in Ambridge informed your teaching.

I never give up on anyone—I can tell you that. I think it makes me a curious teacher. I’m very curious about what my students bring to the table. And I don’t necessarily think I see it all the time, especially for writers. I feel like often they’re things they’re afraid or embarrassed to write about; they feel as though they have to fit into a particular form. I think that a non-conformist, non-conventional thing is what I’m after as a teacher.

Why do you think your students feel like that?

I think students feel that way because there are forms that writers feel like they have to fall into. Even if you hear poets today, eight out of ten poets will read in a particular way. I’d like to dissuade them away from those forms and into something else.

I also feel like one of the things that I bring to it, as a former blue collar guy, is that I know that there are majority of people out there don’t read any books. They maybe read one book a year. My model as a writer and as a teacher of writing is to never take for granted a reader’s time or attention. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, I pay attention to holding that reader through the entire thing. That’s how it affects most people.

On your tour for this book, you’ve gone a variety of places, including Ambridge. What was it like returning to Ambridge with this book, and sharing these stories with people who may have lived with you, or who lived under similar circumstances?

It was overwhelming, Peter. First of all, there’s no bookstore in my hometown. There’s never been one. But there’s the library that I actually wrote about in the book, and they were enormously welcoming.

The town turned out. There were teachers there that I’d had, there were fellow students, there were young people, older people, people who are characters in the book… it was overwhelming. I had a hard time keeping it together during the reading. But we, as is our culture, all went out to eat afterwards too, at a local bar.

At first I thought people would have problems with the way I portrayed their lives and this place. But it really helped me to bomb-proof it on a blog before I published this book. I put drafts in enough peoples’ hands that it became a little viral back there. I was waiting for the brick-backs to arrive, and they really didn’t. So I was overjoyed to go back there and read for those people.

I hear from a broad variety of readers of this book, in many parts of the country. The one thing that seems to be in common with them (and it’s not a deal-breaker by any shot) is if they’ve grown up in a mill town anywhere, whether it’s Fall River or it’s Great Falls Rhode Island or anywhere out west, they will have had a similar experience to mine. I’m surprised at how common that experience is throughout the country.

The experience of growing up in a town that’s seen its glory days gone by?

Or is based in manufacturing, even its glory days are still with it. Single industry towns, or company towns, or mill towns—something that manufactures. There were immigrants who built it. There is no evidence yet that counters the idea that a steady flow of immigrants expands an economy. It certainly expanded the economy post World War II, and we’ve had other instances like that throughout the country. And it was certainly the story of the Rust Belt, that immigrants were the ones who built.

I think that story has some residence today, when we look at the immigration problem. We haven’t learned quite how to see it and use it as an opportunity. I say we haven’t learned, but we actually have—we are doing it. But I’m not sure it has that public image.

Part of what your book seemed to be about was the question of “nature versus nurture.” To what extent is your personality given to you at birth, and to what extent is it created by your surroundings? And tell me if I’m wrong, but it seems like your book is suggesting that there’s a certain combination of nature and nature, rather than nature versus nurture.

I think it’s a dance, Peter. I think we step a couple of different ways because of our nature, and we move a couple of other ways because of our nurture. Our dancing partner will always affect the moves we want to make. We share the lead from time to time. I’m certainly a combination of those both.

I love having lived in New England for most of my adult life. It helps me see that New England really was the first manufacturing belt in this country to be abandoned. Lawrence and Lowell Massachusetts, or other big mill towns like Manchester or Nashua, are places that had to recover from a heyday of industry, and they’ve had close to a hundred years to do it. And they’re painful years. Pittsburg has bounced back big-time, but the towns around it…it may take a while for them to come back.

How often do you go back to Ambridge?

I tend to go back twice, maybe three times, a year. I still have family there.

Do you go back just for family?

I did for many years. I also go to see friends, because some friends there are still are my best friends. But also, I’m a student of the place now. I kind of always have been.

What do you mean?

I’m fascinated by what goes on in industrial development and post-industrial development. So the idea, for instance, of brownfields, which everybody who’s involved in urban development understands. I can’t believe it doesn’t get more notice. They are essentially small Superfund sites that exist throughout the country, and in many places it’s a large part of the real estate within an urban spread.

I went to a brownfields conference in Boston once, one of the big brownfields projects in Boston at Kendall square. If a developer takes interest in these polluted industrial lands, we have a brownfield fund in the federal government that will match the developer’s investment, dollar for dollar. That’s why these places become so successful. It also prevents developers from doing greenfield development. So instead of taking virgin land and building something on it, it’s an incentive for them to reclaim the land, which is entirely possible with modern technology, and build something new in an existing neighborhood.

To be a student and to study this place, do you need distance?

I think it helps. I write very little about New England, for instance, because I live here. I also found I used to do a lot of photography when I was doing magazine journalism in places where I’d otherwise have to hire a photographer to go. I’d shoot for my own stories. I found that I would very seldom do stories about New England, or about places close to me. Ambridge was a place I felt like I had to get away from for quite a while in order to see it not only objectively, but to see it in a way that people outside that place would understand. What’s important to a New Yorker about a place like Ambridge? What’s important to a Vermonter, or a Californian, even if they’ve had no brush with it? And I think I did need that distance.