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).

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