Steel Dreams and Rusted Nightmares: Remembering Small Town Industrial America

Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month
Ralph went out lookin’ for a job but he couldn’t find none
He came home too drunk from mixin’ Tanqueray and wine
He got a gun shot a night clerk now they call him Johnny 99
Down in the part of town where when you hit a red light you don’t stop
Johnny’s wavin’ his gun around and threatenin’ to blow his top
When an off-duty cop snuck up on him from behind
Out in front of the Club Tip Top they slapped the cuffs on Johnny 99

“Johnny 99”

Released in 1982, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska remains one of his singular works. Even hipsters, many of whom dismiss Springsteen as maudlin, overly earnest and devoid of irony, lay claim to the ascetic, dark album it embodied. Stripped down to its basic essentials, Nebraska deconstructs the American dream, portraying a rusting American economy suffering deindustrialization and rising social dysfunction. The album’s title song relates the tale of a small town American couple gone on a Bonnie and Clyde killing spree (inspired by Terrance Malick’s movie Badlands). The violence of their acts explained succinctly to the presiding judge by the male killer: “I guess there is just a meanness in this world.” The above quoted “Johnny 99” recounted the actions of a laid off mill worker, drunk on “Tanqueray and wine.” Facing sentencing, Johnny 99 appeals for a special brutal mercy: execution. Why? Johnny lays out his reasoning fairly simply “judge I had debts no honest man could pay/The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they were gonna take my house away.” None of this made Johnny innocent, but as the distraught former plant worker lamented, “it was more `n all this that put that gun in my hand.”

Without a doubt, the protagonists of Nebraska express a stark despair. In “Atlantic City,” the speaker once again alludes to crushing debt (again, “I got debts no honest man can pay.”) and the kind of desperation that results in acts of illegality.

Now, I been lookin’ for a job, but it’s hard to find
Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t
get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well, I’m tired of comin’ out on the losin’ end
So, honey, last night I met this guy and I’m gonna
do a little favor for him

Darker than a hipster’s heart

Beginning with Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), continuing through Nebraska (1982) and Born in the USA (1984), Springsteen tracked the decline of working class American life, simultaneously damning the industrial labor that forced his father and his father’s father into mills and steel factories while also lamenting the disappearance of this kind of employment. The emergence of violence in rural areas and Pennsylvania–Ohio–New Jersey mill towns served as subject matter for Springsteen and movies like All the Right Moves (1983) . So if deindustrial decline seemed novel in 1982, why do new fictional works like American Rust (2009) and Empire Falls (2002) receive critical acclaim for essentially covering similar territory? What makes these novels exceptional given that they were both written twenty years after the decline of American steel and mill towns had already served as backdrop for a Tom Cruise high school football movie?

Mill Town Life 

Well, I’m living here in Allentown
And it’s hard to keep a good man down
But I won’t be getting up today

— Billy Joel, “Allentown” (1982)

Few cities remain tragically fixed in popular memory like Pittsburgh, PA. Though Pittsburgh adjusted to industrial decline by engaging universities, hospitals, and tech firms as means to rebuild the City of Champions’ economy, many people retain the sad pollution filled images of struggling steel workers amid 1970s stagflation and deindustrialization. This kind of historical memory did not confine itself to large metropolises like Pittsburgh but included smaller towns ringing metropolitan areas like Detroit and the aforementioned capital of Western Pennsylvania. The fate of countless steel towns dotting the Pittsburgh regional landscape drew plenty of negative attention. In addition to movies like All the Right Moves, noted former boxer turned 1980s crooner, Billy Joel also took a stand. Joel reflected bitterly on the fate of these industrial nodes in the song “Allentown” (1982).

(Editor’s note: you have to check out the video. Favorite scene? The workers showering after a hard day, obviously. When one worker exits the shower, his boss immediately presents him with his pink slip. Leading to nude discontent among his still showering peers. It defies logic but it tastes like pure 80’s.)

The song opens with a matter of fact statement of struggle:

Well we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line.

For their parents, life had been different. Their fathers had come back from the war, vacationed on the Jersey Shore, and danced with their future wives at USO events. However, the steady pay of steel mills and coal mines faded in late 1970s America, such that the narrator concludes that the Allentown described by their parents existed in a Pennsylvania “we never found.” Joel’s attempt at social commentary won him a top twenty hit in 1982. Apparently, depressing stories about unemployed miners and steel workers set to a catchy mid tempo melody stirs something in the American soul. Even Allentown’s own residents eventually greeted Joel warmly. Allentown’s mayor registered her opinion simply, “Allen town is a gritty song about a gritty city.” In a 1983 appearance Joel returned the favor when he told the audience, “Don’t take any shit from anybody.” Inspiring words from one of Long Island’s finest performers.

Much like Allentown, Buell Pennsylvania, the setting for Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, struggles to keep its bearings amid debilitating economic decline. Meyer’s protagonists (the story has several as its told from six different viewpoints) must deal with the reverberations of the kind of violence that has come to grip Buell and other neighboring towns. The unlikely young duo of failed high school football hero Billy Poe and the town’s intellectual bright light but social misfit Isaac English stumble into an act of violence facilitated by the very failure of the local steel mill. Sheriff Bud Harris, on again off again paramour of Billy’s mother Grace Poe, represents the only force left in Buell not driven narrowly by economics. Yet, Harris saw Buell and the surrounding valley for what it was, a shadow of its former self.

The Valley’s population was growing again but incomes were still going down, budgets still getting smaller, and no money had been put into infrastructure for decades. They had small town budgets and big town problems … The week before a man had been shot in the face in broad daylight in Monessen. It was like this all up and down the river and many of the young people, they way they accepted their lack of prospects, it was like watching sparks die in the night. (AR, 120)

In general critics hailed Meyer as an exciting new writer in vein of Richard Russo or Russel Banks capturing “the emotional verisimultude” of declining rural towns in Upstate New York (Russo’s Empire Falls) and downstate New Hampshire (Banks). New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani summarized Buell much like American Rust’s aforementioned Harris. Kakutani described Buell as “a place where the jobs have disappeared, and foreclosures and meth use are on the rise, a town that makes longtime residents feel trapped and young people eager to flee, the sort of town profiled in newspaper and magazine articles about the fallout of the economic downturn on middle America and the tarnishing of the American Dream.”

Within this matrix of economic depression, unsurprisingly no force divides Buell like class. Throughout the novel, characters reflect on their hardscrabble lives, denigrating those they believe have experienced social mobility in ways they disapprove. Some in town blame its dysfunction on the “HUD people”, an allusion to Buell’s public housing. Still, most have come to see the town for what it has become. Harris discusses the local economic and social decline with fellow residents at the town bar. Some locals seem internally divided personally and collectively. Initially, Chester, an acquaintance of Harris argues there is more than public housing to blame. “We could walk three blocks in any direction and score whatever we wanted,” commented Chester, “No offense to Johnny Law, he’d need about three hundred guys to get this place under control. So you can’t expect kids to grow up here and not do dumbass shit.” (AR, 276) Yet, a few moments later government owned housing serves as an easy scapegoat, “Aside from all the HUD people … this is still a good place to live.” (AR, 276)

What about America’s long storied tradition of local kid doing right, scraping through university to emerge the other side a solid middle class citizen? In the semi coherent words of Jeff Spicoli, “No Shirt, No Shoes, No dice.” College won’t save Buell townies. Those who completed college find their jobs outsourced. Frank, another Harris acquaintance reflected on this dynamic noting that “those people didn’t have much sympathy for us twenty years ago, I can remember it was asshole after asshole going on TV and saying it was our faults for not going to college.” (AR, 274)

To be honest, this reader found American Rust a bit pedantic. Granted, T of M’s founders admit to being horrible writers of fiction. Organizing a work as complex as American Rust demands a skill set that many, including this reviewer lack. Yet, while Meyer deserves praise for his attempt, there are moments where whole passages sound less like honest discussions then political statements. When former football star, Billy Poe reflects on the American economy circa 2000 one wonders where he drew such insight. “There would be no record, nothing left standing , to show that anything had ever been built in America,” reflected Poe, “It was going to cause big problems he didn’t know how but he felt it. You could not have a country, even this big, that didn’t make things for itself. There would be ramifications eventually” (AR, 289) Philosophical words from a character defined by impulsive rage, self-loathing and resentment, but not really intelligence.

In fact, the novel’s most arresting passages don’t occur in Buell. Instead, many of American Rust’s most insightful moments occur during Poe’s stay in jail. Though Meyer refracts prison through the experience of the white Poe, an atypical approach considering the disproportionate numbers of black and brown inmates, he effectively illustrates the between a rock and a hard place existence of incarceration. Throughout his ordeal, which ends in his stabbing, Poe’s experiences effectively convey the severe racism of prison. When told he must attack a correction’s officer that has run afoul of the prison’s white supremacist group in order to stay under their protection, Poe hesitates, but eventually agrees. Fellow inmate Dwayne lays it out simply:

“Alright,” he said to Dwayne, “I’m in.”

Whatever else, too. You want me to stab the guy, whatever. Sometimes it just takes me a while to think.”

“I was the same way,” Dwayne said. “Took me a while to accept what was happening.” (AR, 252)

Poe and Dwayne’s interaction could be simple subtext for the same predicament that Buell and like cities found themselves. To his credit, Meyer does a good job inserting the kind of tragedies these mill towns endured due to structural economic change. Any anti-New Right reader will enjoy passages that skewer the deregulation of the 1980s. The reflections of former steel worker and father of Isaac English, Henry serve as one example. Broken down and disabled by a brutal mill accident years earlier, Henry’s life remains a daily struggle just to get dressed in the morning. The tension between his need for care in an institutionalized home which he resists by tethering Isaac to Buell, and his self dignity provides a clear vision of Meyer’s ability to convey the emotional interiority of his characters. In one memorable scene, Henry thinks back to the bargain he and others struck with his employers:

At first he hadn’t minded being nonunion, like Reagan said, the labor costs were out of control, it was a problem with unions, you voted for him.  Except it was not just that.  Penn Steel hadn’t spent a dime in their factories in fifteen years, most of the other big American mills were the same, the places were all falling apart, plenty of them were single process right up to the day they closed, whereas the Germans and Japs hadn’t all been running basic oxygen since the sixties. That was what you didn’t hear till later: they — the Japs and Germans — were always sinking money into their plants. They were always investing in new infrastructure, they were always investing in themselves.  Meanwhile Penn Steel never invested a dime in its mills, guaranteed its own downfall.  And all those welfare state, Germany and Sweden, they still made plenty of steel. (AR, 348)

Despite the fact that his own accident had been facilitated by shoddy maintenance and clear violations of OSHA standards the company only had to pay a 30,000 dollar penalty. Two men dead and another permanently crippled. Henry’s memories of the incident serve as some of Meyer’s best writing in the novel. Meyer pounds home the message that America’s recession from an economy with a healthy manufacturing sector has had spiraling social costs. The novel’s strongest and most arresting narrative arcs occur in its latter half. Poe’s incarceration and Henry English’s pained existence illustrate men at opposite ends of the generational spectrum forced into choices with equally dim outcomes. Each makes a decision and each knowingly pays a price.

It looks a lot safer than it is

Typically, steel/mining town life consists of distinct gender divisions: the dutiful wife and the hard working husband. One might wish to include the hell raising/troubled son. Unfortunately, with one or two notable exceptions, daughters get short shrift. Meyer pushes against this tradition employing two prominent female characters: Grace Poe and Lee English, Isaac’s sister. American Rust deserves credit for attempting to give depth to both Grace and Lee and on some level Meyer achieves stronger characterization. The brother sister relationship between Lee and Isaac proves refreshing for a genre that tends to focus on father son and brother – brother bonds. However, Meyer succeeds to a lesser degree with Lee who knowingly abandoned Isaac to care for her father to grab her chance at Yale and a different life. To be fair, one could argue Meyer successfully subverts traditions regarding dutiful female characters by making Lee the one to escape and not Isaac. While at Yale, Lee’s experiences prove predictably riven by class based insights:

But of course they hadn’t done anything. They’d all been born to the right parents, in the right neighborhoods, they went to the right schools, had all the right social instructions, had taken all the right tests. There simply was not a chance they would fail. They’d worked hard but always with expectation they would get what they wanted – the world had never shown them anything different. Very few of them had earned their places. Everyone admitted how spoiled they were but underneath, there was always the presumption they deserved it. (AR, 294)

Lee’s observations do not lack merit, they just seem unsurprising. Middle class kids could have similar moments at places like Yale. Her extra marital affair with Billy Poe seems like a dysfunctional version of Sweet Home Alabama. In contrast, Grace’s character, a single mom burdened by an estranged worthless husband who checks in now and then for sex, merits greater distinction. Her dilemmas ring truer as she resorts to morally questionable methods to spare her son’s life. Yet, even Grace falls into a predictable trope. Grace’s character spends far too long rationalizing her attraction to her estranged husband, which can be summarized in the old adage, “we all want what we can’t have.” Again, not really a new insight, one imagines more could have been done with both characters.

Loving the Mill

Derek Zoolander{coughing}: I think I’ve got the Black Lung, Pop.

Mr. Zoolander: You have been working in the mines for one day, son. Try thirty years, then you can be concerned about Black Lung!

Commercial appears on bar TV which shows Derek swimming with a fish tail

Mr. Zoolander: Just swell. I am sure happy my wife is dead now, because she did not have to live to see her son grow up to be a mermaid!

Derek Zoolander: Merman, Father! {wheezing} Mer-man!

The mill/mining town dynamic need not be confined to the tragic. In 2001’s Zoolander, disgraced but “really good looking” male model Derek Zoolander attempts to reconnect with his unlikely coal mining roots, returning home to escape the glaring flash of the papparazi. Needless to say, things go poorly. Father Larry Zoolander resorts to angry mea culpas like “Damnit Derek, I’m a coal miner, not a professional film or television actor.” Later, during Derek’s brainwashing (ordered by a secret cabal of fashion designers worried about rising textile prices) Will Ferrell’s Mugatu complains that “the age old right for children to work is under attack,” demanding the fashion model murder the Prime Minister of Malaysia who recently took positions in opposition to child labor.

Obviously played for laughs, Zoolander still manages to offer a kind of comment on steel/mining town fetishization and the very forces that drove their decline. Others have used mill town life as a means for humor as well. David O. Russell’s The Fighter (2010) employed working class white Irish American culture and conflict through the family of main character, boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg). Again, The Fighter toyed with gender roles, placing Ward’s mother, Alice (Melissa Leo) , at the head of the family. A lioness in charge of a pride of daughters, Alice runs roughshod over nearly everyone. Only Ward’s relationship with love interest Charlene Fleming (Amy Adams) enables him to loosen Alice’s control on his life and career. The fights between Alice and her daughters and Charlene are wickedly funny and play on the parochialism and tribal nature often ascribed to mill town existence. Ward’s problematic half -brother, the once promising fighter turned crackhead, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale in a performance that justifies his attacks on gaffers and the like) revisits the wildchild archetype. As in American Rust, drugs have pervaded these towns, Eklund serving as only one more example.

We are women, hear us roar

Critically, one should be careful not to confuse downtrodden mill and mining life with that of shrinking farms. Sean Penn’s Indian Runner (1991) explored the dynamic between two brothers, Joe (David Morse) and Frank Roberts (a young Viggo Mortensen) in small town America. Inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman” off of the previously discussed Nebraska (keep in mind the album was inspired to some extent by the movie Badlands, so Nebraska was inspired by one movie while helping to create another), former farmer turned lawman, Joe struggles to save his brother Frank from himself. The New York Times Janet Maslin acknowledged the fundamental struggle in Joe’s task, “As Mr. Springsteen puts it, narrating desolately from Joe’s standpoint: “I got a brother named Frankie and Frankie ain’t no good.” Director Sean Penn (who one must remember in his youth embodied the earlier quoted Jeff Spicoli) fills the movie with references to Native Americans and the economic struggles of farm towns. Here the bank and the state serve as enemies as Joe’s father comments to his son at dinner “It’s a bitch ain’t it. The same thieves that took your farm now have you work for them.” Furthermore, the violence of American Rust feels omnipresent in Indian Runner. Once again, Maslin captures this tension best noting the movie retained a moodiness and volatility much like Mortensen’s character Frankie. “As moody and volatile as the problematic Frankie, The Indian Runner starts off with a killing and sustains a threat of possible violence throughout even its gentlest episodes,” writes the movie critic.

Unlike mining/steel town narratives, the declining agricultural narrative often applies an other worldly spirituality often connected to Native American traditions as in the Indian Runner or a hippy dippy earth mother tone like the now hysterically funny Kevin Costner epic, Field of Dreams. Embracing the problematic father son relationship (Isaac English and Henry English also embody this apparently timeless theme), Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) hears a voice telling him “If you build it, he will come.” So he plows under his crops and builds a baseball field threatening his family’s well being to obey this spirtual quest. Through a cirtuituitous journey, the “he” turns out to be Kinsella’s estranged and now deceased father. The movie seems more appropriate as a drinking game than an actual piece of filmmaking (drink every time Costner seems earnest; drink every time you find something unintentionally funny; drink every time someone mentions the 1960s; really the possibilities are endless and the probability of blood alcohol poisoning high) One exchange with writer Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones) captures this perfectly:

By the time I was ten, playing baseball got to be like eating vegetables or taking out the garbage. So when I was 14, I started to refuse. Could you believe that? An American boy refusing to play catch with his father.

Actually, yes, it makes sense. Baseball is kind of boring. The movie of course ends with Kinsella tossing around a baseball with the ghost of his father. Cue tears. Anyway, the larger point here is that even when laughable the failed farm narrative features a sort of spirituality that mill/mining town stories lack. Instead, books like American Rust emphasize the loss of common humanity and community. Religion/spirituality may play a role but more as identity than force.

Deadly when mixed with alcohol

So why do musicians, filmmakers, and authors continue to repeat predictable narratives and why does the public respond so enthusiastically? Perhaps the physical obviousness of mining/mill life proves appealing. The mine/mill provided sustenance and slavery. Owners fed and fed off of workers. From the perspective of twenty first century life, the lines of good and evil appear clearly drawn. Though conditions often proved poor and labor exploited, writers and others look back with certain fondness. The fat cat mill owner seemed a tangible villainy when compared to murky and incomprehensible housing failures, financial bailouts, and Enron like shell games. Moreover, invisible economic forces like outsourcing and transnational capital flows may shape regions, but they do so less transparently. The boom in financial instruments and the myriad and confusing ways of making money on the Stock market and through debt syndication only deepened this invisibility. When the housing bubble exploded, writers like Rolling Stone’s Matthew Taibbi admitted that even journalists covering the field failed to fully understand the process that left millions of America in default. Then again, for some white Americans, maybe these stories harken back to an existence that seems more “authentic” than middle class suburban life. After all, hacking it out amid steel lava and dangerous machinery sounds more impressive than working summers at Baskin Robbins or Subway. Of course, Fordism and the wages it brought to blue collar families, for all its negatives – environmental degradation, labor exploitation, and inadequate safety measures to name a few – at least delivered a middle class existence for millions of Americans.

Could it be tied to ethnicity? Mill/mining life feels more ethnic. In the face of immigration from Mexico, Asia, and Africa, maybe white audiences especially, want to relate to the valued traditions of newcomers; new immigrants spurring thoughts about white native born Americans own passage to the middle class.

Others might suggest the heterosexual and masculine orientation of steel town narratives appeal to older people. Feminism, Gay Liberation, Queer studies, metrosexuality, transsexuality, and so on probably remain threatening ideas to many Americans. The stoic, tragic male bread winner, honorable but doomed, carries a great deal of cultural water. Along with the obedient, resilient wife, these gender roles provide a structure in which observers can place themselves. From All the Right Moves to American Rust, none of the above examples includes a gay character.

Or Maybe It’s Simple

We were tight knit boys
Brothers in more than name
You would kill for me
And knew that I’d do the same
And it cut me sharp
Hearing you’d gone away

— “Always Gold,” The Family Tree: The Roots, Radical Face

In “Always Gold,” Floridian Ben Cooper’s folk project Radical Face explores the dynamics of the troubled brotherly relationship so prevalent in mining/farm/steel town sagas. Though “Always Gold” could be about brothers trapped in suburbia it encapsulates the kind of tensions that emerge in American Rust and elsewhere. “Opposites at birth,” sings Cooper, he was “steady as a hammer” but as for his brother “they said you were the crooked kind/and that you’d never have no worth/But you were always gold to me.” Though Cooper’s speaker has grown to love his surroundings, he knows for his brother, “this place is shame.” They made youthful promises ((“our words would take us half way ‘round the world”) that ultimately went unfulfilled: “But I never left this town/and you never saw New York/And we ain’t ever cross the sea.” The earnestness of the speaker in his plaintive desire for his brother to come home, “But you can blame me when there’s no one left to blame/Oh I don’t mind”, pulses through the song. When the song ends, it does so in contradiction:

And I heard you say
Right when you left that day
Does everything go away?
Yeah, everything goes away.
But I’m going to be here ’til forever
So just call when you’re around.

Maybe everything does go away but not the singer’s love for his sibling. Perhaps, this basic humanity, the dynamics of family, troubled but real, remains the draw of these stories. As a historian, I would never say its primordial, but the repetition of this idea says something about how we become hardwired doesn’t it? In tough economic times, solidarities get boiled down to the most basic of allegiances. The decline of towns like Buell serve as fine backdrops for this kind of drama. For all its flaws, American Rust provides a twenty first century view from the bottom, one that employs tropes from the past but attempts to illustrate the complexities of the present. Then again, when you descend from a great height, it’s a long way down, so maybe it’s all just part of the fall.

Ryan Reft