Monday, February 22, 2010

Book Report, "This Coffin Has No Handles," by Thomas McGrath

With a title like "This Coffin Has No Handles," you can't help but know what you're in for.

Thomas McGrath's depiction of working class, west side Manhattan in the days immediately after World War II is told in a noir style not uncommon to mid-century American literature.

Its tone is tense and grim, the prose dense, the plot thin.

There is a labor action going on -- the 1945 longshoreman's strike -- but the real conflict takes place inside McGrath's scattershot collection of characters. None of whom are particularly happy, settled, or comfortable in their own skins.

It is a rare book that understands or properly depicts the crosscurrents of lethargy and hyperactivity that characterize an industrial strike (one provokes authority and then takes a metaphorical seat on their ass), but "This Coffin Has No Handles" is one of them.

McGrath's tome is passport to a time when American cities were home to factory workers and wharf rats. Where people lived stacked atop one another in crowded warrens shot-through with the smell of someone else's cooking and a soundtrack of baby's crying and married couples fighting.

McGrath's characters are desperate, caught in dead-end alleyways with thugs, "metal gleaming in their hands," blocking the escape route.

Blackie Carmody must choose between joining the rackets in order to pay for his mother's cancer treatment, or take the work-a-day job he knows will make the woman happy while sealing her fate.

McGrath's cast is led by one Joe Hunter, a card-carrying Communist Party member just back from a turn in the European theater with the U.S. Army.

The other characters revolve around him in greater and lesser arcs, although sometimes the author follows a different tortured soul on their individual rounds for a bit.

There is a crooked union leader. There are rank-and-file strikers, each standing in for the various degrees of commitment typically found in such industrial battles. There is misbegotten hitman and a teenage girl growing up too quick.

Tremendous, if petty, violence and racketeering abound. There is a grim, philosophical striving from some of the players in this tale and directionless ennui from others.

The Communists are the good guys, incorruptible, committed, diligent as an army of ants in their well-organized and underfunded effort to secure worldwide justice for the working stiff through countless shop-floor scuffles.

The positive portrayal landed McGrath before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, where an unhelpful turn as witness cost him his job as professor at Los Angeles State University.

The point being, you have to understand where the poet was coming from.

In "Manhattan '45" Janet Morris opens with ebullient soldiers returning triumphant from World War II to a New York City at the height of its power and prestige.

Her New York shimmers with possibility and prosperity, McGrath's "iron city" is a decidedly darker place:

"Black cliffs rising into the dark sky to the south were expensive hotels. They were hung with ladders of light and were crowned with the aureole of luminous mist. To Hunter they looked as if they were enormous chunks of black ice, rotted loose from the bottom of some great ice island, rising slowly from the depths of a cold midnight sea hung with chains of freezing phosphorescent light."

McGrath, who died in 1990, was fine writer and the book maintains a nice tension that succeeds in pulling one through the thicket of ruminations that, at times, veer off into authorial exposition.

This is especially true at the end where this poet's sharp and complex mind draws a portfolio's-worth of conclusions from the strike's outcome.

For the Big Apple buff, students of unionism, and scholars of the American city, this "political noir" serves of plenty of good "Red" meat.

(The photo is of Rep. Vito Marcantonio at strike headquarters during the 1945 longshoremen's walkout).

Sunday, February 21, 2010

highwayscribery Launches "Book Report" blog

Friends, Fans, and Fellow Citizens of the World,

This post is to announce the launching of highwayscribery's "Book Reports" page where the reviews covered at the flagship blog are gathered under one URL without the interference and noise from intervening posts. It represents a small effort on the scribe's part to make some money as an associate of When readers click on the links embedded in the reviews, the scribe gets a pence, or shilling, or farthing (or something, not much). Such an arrangement might lead some to suspect the scribe will go soft on a particular text in the hope that someone will press on to purchase it. Those people have not been reading highwayscribery very long. In any case, the highway scribe has always made it a practice to go against type as a writer and respond with kindness and look for the achievement in the work of his fellow craftsmen and craftswomen.

Those Not-So-Civil Congresses Past

The present universal longing for collegial congresses past conjures Oscar Wilde's observation that, "Memory is the diary that chronicles things that never happened and couldn't possibly have happened."

Sen. Evan Bayh's (D-Ind.) decision to bail on all that Senate roughhousing implies that things have never been so bad and sparks nostalgia for a more civic group of players now gone from the national stage.

Oh for those civil congresses of the past!

Examination of a long-ago tete-a-tete involving Rep. Vito Marcantonio of New York (top) and Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi provides a little perspective.

Marcantonio's far-left politics and vanguard positions on civil rights often clashed with the "Pride of Poplarville's" views, but things came to a particularly nasty head in a 1945 letter exchange between the two elected officials.

It was then that Democrat Bilbo responded to an unpleasant missive from one Josephine Piccolo of 93 Garfield Place, Brooklyn, with letter of his own employing the salutation, "My Dear Dago."

Marcantonio, who represented East Harlem's 18th Congressional District, had, at different times, run on Democratic and Republican tickets, and sometimes both, in gaining his frequent, voter-stamped trips to Washington D.C.

But his political identity slowly merged with that of the American Labor Party, formed in 1936 by the needle trades unions in an effort at funneling New York's left-wing votes to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Along with his annual anti-lynching measure, persistent efforts on behalf of the Fair Employment Practices Commission, and feverish opposition to the Taft-Hartley labor reform bill, "Marc's" electoral success depended heavily on a unique, storefront, retail servicing of his Italian-American constituency.

Although Piccolo hailed from beyond Marcantonio's bailiwick, "dagos" anywhere could feel the sting of Bilbo's insensitivity. The radical congressman rose to her defense and wrote the Mississippian demanding an apology, "if you have any shred of decency left."

On July 24, Bilbo fired back. He confessed to being completely "astounded" at Marcantonio's "audacious, arrogant, and presumptious [sic] letter."

And he was only getting started.

Marcantonio's advice, wrote Bilbo in a fit senatorial decorum, would be "the last in the world to which I would give any consideration whatsoever."

He continued that, if Marcantonio's gang, --"and I dare say many of them are gangsters from the sin-soaked, communistic sections of the great metropolis of New York" -- had their way, "our great American dual scheme of government, with its freedoms and ways of life that have made this country great, would soon be a thing of the past."

And that was just the first page.

Marcantonio, a man House Speaker Sam Rayburn once called the third best parliamentarian he'd ever seen, kept his July 25 response short, but sharp.

He wrote that Bilbo had, "aided Hitler in the war by spewing out race hatred on the floor of the Senate." He called the southerner a "Nazi collaborationist" during the conflict, adding that since its termination, "you are Hitler's inconsolable political male widow."

And there was more. More than enough to make a present-day cable news anchor blush.

Marcantonio is something of a New York historical treasure awaiting an informed reconsideration. Bilbo, his white supremacist beliefs aside, did good things for his home state as both U.S. Senator and Governor.

But their hot Summer of '45 clash again recalls Wilde who noted that, "Arguments are to be avoided; they are always vulgar and often convincing."

Friday, February 05, 2010

Book Report: "Dishing It Out," by Dorothy Sue Cobble

Caution to flirts, cads, and ladies' men: "Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century (Working Class in American History)" will change the way you look at waitresses for forever.

And if you think a book about waitressing falls into the hum-drum category, "Dishing It Out" demonstrates how a well-researched idea, presented with passion, can bring seemingly less-enticing topics to colorful life.

Sometimes, subjects can appear devoid of interest because of their very neglect and let us note how Microsoft Works Word Processor spell-check doesn't recognize the expression "waitressing."

But Dorothy Sue Cobble's book suggests that, to a certain degree, the rise and fall of waitress unionism traces our evolution (devolution?) as a country.

highwayscribery first came across Cobble through "Lost Ways of Unionism: Historical Perspective on Reinventing the Labor Movement," one in a larger collection of essays entitled "Rekindling the Movement: Labor's Quest for Relevance in the Twenty-First Century" (Frank W. Pierce Memorial Lectureship and Conference Series, No. 11), wherein she challenged the widely held view that skilled craft unions of the American Federation of Labor were less progressive than the Congress of Industrial Organizations' mass unions.

In her, "The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (Politics and Society in Twentieth Century America)" Cobble posits that dominant feminist analysis passes over a generation of mid-century "labor women."

Picking up on a theme developed in that book, Cobble writes that, in contrast to the later wave of feminists, waitresses did not want to be treated the same as the boys, rather, "They wanted equality and special treatment and did not see the two as incompatible."

"Dishing it Out," kicks the can a little further down the path, by focusing on the specific craft.

"The craft of waitressing has always been, she writes, "one of the principal jobs for women, it was distinguished by certain characteristics that enabled female servers to formulate and sustain a culture of solidarity at the workplace. Most female food servers shared share a similar racial and ethnic background. The relative ethnic and racial homogeneity of waitresses fostered group cohesion as it has for other groups of workers, men and women. In addition, more than women in other occupations, waitresses lived outside a traditional family setting and hence turned quite readily to their workplace community for friendship and support. If young and single, they often chose to live apart from their families, frequently residing with other waitresses in small apartments or rented rooms. The high proportion who were divorced, separated, or widowed lived alone, with friends, or with dependent relatives or children. Unable to rely financially on their family of origin or on a husband, waitresses were often primarily self-supporting and attached to the work force in a permanent fashion."

Cobble fleshes out how these attributes lent themselves to a sorority-like adhesion that fostered unionization. The heyday of waitresses syndicates took root around the same time the larger movement took wings, back in the 1930s and '40s and the better part of this story takes place then.

She notes that, "The separation of workers by trade provided women with a space apart from male hostility and allowed the development of female perspectives and leadership."

The self-conducting nature of craft union locals allowed for "female autonomy" and were, generally speaking, "superior in sustaining female participation and leadership."

Rather than focus primarily on moving individual women into higher-paying jobs held by men, this generation of lady unionists opted for improvements in the jobs they traditionally called their own.

"Dishing It Out," details the restaurant industry's growth and is worthy of one's precious attention.

It comes as something of a revelation that the nation was not always strewn with "public" eateries and that a long march toward the "feminization of food service" brought us the hospitality model we're familiar with today.

Less surprisingly, early 20th century mores held waitressing to be an "improper trade," running counter to the reigning Victorian sensibilities as it did. The ladies, after all, interacted with males customers and labored where alcohol was served.


Discussion of the job's sexual component and its double-edged nature make for great reading and should deepen a reader's understanding of the person catering to their needs at "Hooters."

Not coincidentally, the craft was widely held to be rife with loose women and attitudes intimated a kinship with prostitution.

The ladies, with few options, rolled with it: "[Waitresses] acceptance of the sexual character of their work was rooted in their distinctive mores, but it also derived from their situation as service workers in an occupation in which their livelihood depended upon attractiveness and allure."

There was a kind of self-generating, autonomous effort to fight such perceptions by raising professional standards and forming unions were a way of gaining legitimacy.

"They spoke of their work as a skilled craft," says Cobble, "and they engaged in practices that have long been associated with craft unionism: organization along craft lines, emphasis on craft identity and specialization, restrictive membership rules, and union monitoring of performance standards."

As combative unionists, "waitresses could hurt business by suggesting the least expensive menu item, ignore the poor tippers, offer food and drink on the house, or simply provide lackluster, un-inspired service, even though it jeopardized their own tip income. Waitresses could also go out of their way to add that special attentive, anticipatory touch that would cement the customers patronage."

Which makes perfect (economic) sense.

The book dissects the unique and bygone arrangement whereby unions increased their members' value by cornering the labor market and parceling the work via hiring halls.

It turns out to not have been all bad for restaurateurs, "because culinary employers relied on the hiring hall for 'good and reliable' full-time workers as well as for the extras needed in emergencies"

The gals liked the hiring hall because "it gave them, rather than the employer, control over when and how much they worked. As long as they maintained their union standing, waitresses could quit a job and 'lay off' for however long they chose."

Lamentably, Cobble is obligated to tell her tale in the past-tense, waitressing unionism being more a study of history than a dissection of current events. The unions examined here were done-in by the same forces that have reduced organized labor's power globally.

But as either history or prescription for sound industrial relations, "Dishing It Out," sets the table beautifully.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Book Report: "An American Family: The Buckleys," by Reid Buckley

"An American Family: The Buckleys" is the story of a youthful and ambitious clan that grew great together with the young and ambitious country in which they lived.

We have before us a gaggle of children born with the 20th Century. Children reared by proper and upright parents who accepted nothing less than perfection from them. In exchange they gained lives on sprawling estates with names like "Great Elm," and "Kamschatka."

They pursued overseas educations and employed nannies who alternately taught French and administered castor oil. They rode horses, walked their property lines shooting quail and rabbits...

Of course, the Buckleys were not just any American family. the large brood of William Sr., and Aloise grew up to be a rather potent bunch who left their traces upon the thin ice of American culture.

This story charts trajectories of the famed conservative ideologue William Jr., the one-term Conservative Party senator from New York, James, and a bevy of other sisters and brothers in lesser, if equally loving, detail.

Nonetheless, brother Reid's real purpose here is scripting a Valentine to his parents. He crafts a recollection demonstrating the strength of their imprint on the offspring.

"Our bonding as a family of individuals has expressed itself in the social, spiritual, and intellectual dimensions in astonishing degree," the author writes. "Though we differ widely among ourselves, and almost always, when coming together, argue fiercely, it's often as though the ten of us were extruded from the same toothpaste tube."

Which is to say, not a single one of The Buckley's sprawling progeny strayed from the family's profound Catholicism or credo of self-reliance.

Buckley's mom has an interesting background out of old New Orleans, a sturdy character with positive energy, and discrete charms, and the author canonizes her in the way those of us who love our mothers do.

But the chestnut here is Bill Sr.

For those of you who thought the Buckleys were a blue-blooded crowd with fake English accents out of Connecticut, the family’s southern, even Confederate, roots may come as something of a surprise.

Big Buckley hailed out of deep south Texas and made his first bundle of serious money in, of all places, Mexico. There he successfully "wildcatted," for oil and helped develop Tampico before his catholic principles ran afoul of the new revolutionary (and anti-clerical) government, which threw him out of the country.

Dad was forced to "start all over," but not in the way most of us would, which is why his story is worth a read.

Buckley lived large for a number of years, popping children hither and thither, housing them in impressive realty, without letting on that his was a shirtsleeve operation. He eventually struck some more oil in Venezuela. Only then was the future security and prominence of the family America came to know assured.

The children's textured lives in Texas, Mexico, Connecticut and South Carolina make for worthy recounting and Reid, like all the lucky long-lived, enjoys the reserved grace of explaining a disappeared world to us.

An accomplished, if not widely celebrated novelist, Buckley's well-developed mind and pen combine to render credentialed insight regarding Mexico. He is, too, great at recalling the eccentric and authentic characters populating his past, delighting and reveling in them.

He is looking back on a fulfilling and eventful life.

The book's lure may dim for some when Reid Buckley steps aside to punch in an article written by one or another of his many siblings about the good old days, which they certainly were.

He declares conservatism, such as the clan purveyed it, dead. And the brainy Buckleys do not appear to have much in common with that breed of rural no-nothing carrying the banner today.

"On the ideological level, we inherited an anachronism that we have tried lifelong to defend and perpetuate," he writes of the family's run through American politics. "Vain endeavor. Our parents were the product of a nation that has vanished, and we, their children, have manned the ramparts in defense of that ghost. From this standpoint, our existences have been futile, our works folly."

Indeed, "An American Family," views the world through the dark lens of an aged fellow looking backward, weighed down by the loss of so much family and so many contemporaries. It is a tome that loves the past.

His parents' time, he notes, "was the age of American infallibility. How lucky they were, both of them, born to the simultaneous emergence of our country from its international status as an exotic experiment in a faraway and uncouth region of the globe to become economically and militarily the central power on earth."

Reid Buckley is something of a fuddy-duddy. He seems proud of it, and even makes it look good. He likes what he likes, and don’t be surprised if your lifestyle or personal philosophy doesn‘t meet with his approval.

The things he approves of, and the type of person he admires, are gone from the scene, and this book recuperates their memory one last time.