Beth Macy’s ‘Factory Man’ deserves every accolade

The beer is excellent, too.

The beer is excellent, too.

Beth Macy has received too many thumbs-up reviews of her new book “Factory Man” to count. We’re talking not one, not two, but three glowing mentions in The New York Times alone. This book is on fire.

And the attention is so well deserved. This is an important piece of journalism on many levels.

First, Macy tells the story of Bassett, a company town in rural Virginia whose trajectory was inevitably linked to the family who named it — and for a good part of its history owned everything from the bank to the hospital. That family at times rivaled the patriarchs of Dallas for soap opera-worthy drama, and Macy chronicles much of it, in note-perfect prose that preserves respect and dignity for every well-drawn character.

Next, Macy paints a rich, layered portrait of JBIII, the black-sheep son of the family denied his feudal right to the CEO’s chair. John Bassett III is a character whose story needed to be told. When speaking at the “Factory Man” launch at Parkway Brewery Co. in Salem, Bassett seemed to revel in  a former employee’s description of him: “He may be an asshole, but when he’s your asshole, that’s a very good thing.” Strong-willed, hard-working and much smarter than even his own family gave him credit for, JBIII didn’t fade away when his brother-in-law took over the company and made it clear that the prodigal son’s role would be as minor as he could make it.

Instead, John Bassett took over another company in nearby Galax, Va. He turned it around and, when the illegal dumping of Chinese exports threatened the entire domestic furniture industry, he fought back at the International Trade Commission. He didn’t stop there, though. He made sure his company and his factories were nimble and smart, and he did everything he could to maximize the advantages of domestic production. The portrait painted by Macy is every bit as complex as the man must be.

What drove him? Resentment over his treatment by his own family? A burning desire to prove himself? Concern for the hundreds of workers he felt responsible for? Or the stubborn, cantankerous inability to back down from a fight? A bit of all, most likely.

Finally, “Factory Man” is the story of free trade’s losers, from  factory workers nearing retirement when Bassett shut down most of its domestic production to workers in China who would see themselves priced out to cheaper labor in Vietnam and Indonesia. Macy makes much of the fact that she’s not a business writer. And she talks quite a bit about her own upbringing as the daughter of a factory worker in a town not unlike Bassett. It’s no secret where her sympathy lies, though she is clearly not naive about the stark, painful realities of a global economy.

But where she succeeds beautifully — and where a business writer steeped in years of conventional economic wisdom might have never tread — is her vivid look at those left behind by the “rising tide” of free trade: older workers who can’t afford to leave but can’t find new jobs; younger workers who hired on as call center workers, only to see those jobs also outsourced; parents who must watch their children move away, with nothing to keep them at home.

“Factory Man,” in its depiction of JBIII’s determination and drive, makes clear that not all of this pain was necessary. If other owners had found John Bassett’s faith in and compassion for their workers, and fought both harder and smarter to keep American factories working, the flood of imports might not have washed away so many jobs, and so many lives.

American manufacturing is dying, and, as Macy writes, many economists and other big thinkers believe that’s just fine. But it isn’t. Unthinking devotion to the bottom line has robbed America of a great strength, stolen the economic vitality of a broad swath of the middle class, and made the economy exceedingly vulnerable.

For the most part, this is not the fault of American workers, but of  business owners and shareholders who, for all their talk of being job creators, have overseen a decline we may never recover from.

JBIII is far from a perfect man. He and his entire family became enormously wealthy thanks largely to the sweat of others. But no one can doubt his own work ethic, and his drive to keep his business going, not just for his own sake, but for the sake of the hundreds of others whose livelihoods depend on it.

There’s a lesson there, if anyone out there is willing to learn it.

“Factory Man” is an enormously important book. May the accolades keep coming.

The last Spenser

I’m nearing the end of the final Spenser novel. I know, someone else is going to continue the series, but without Robert B. Parker behind the pen, it just won’t be the same. Not that Parker has really been bringing his top game the last, oh, decade or so. In fact, I’ve often thought to myself while reading the last few Spenser novels that you could probably write a program that would automatically generate new Spenser novels, simply by pasting together key phrases and lines of dialogue. “We’d be fools not to,” I can hear someone say.

But even though the quality of the novels has been uneven lately, there was never a Spenser novel I didn’t truly enjoy. Parker’s death last year felt like the death of a lifelong friend, even though I had never met him. I knew, though, that the death of a literary friend would have to follow. Thanks to the vagaries of the publishing business, it took well over a year after his death for the final Spenser novel to come out. It arrived at my house last week. Ordinarily, I can get through a Spenser novel in a day or two. I’ve been trying to savor this one.

A friend of mine, a fellow Spenser fan, texted the other day to say he only had 30 pages to go. I was only half-joking when I replied that if he only read a page a day, he could draw it out a month.

I stopped reading last night with 30 pages to go. I don’t know if I’ll try the page a day thing or not. Probably not. I may, though, have to go back to The Godwulf Manuscript, the very first Spenser novel, published in 1973, and start the series over from the beginning – all 40 novels.

If you’ve never read a Spenser novel, you might be wondering what’s so special. That’s actually kind of hard to describe. The writing is sparse, but crisp. Secondary characters are often drawn in shallow caricatures. The plots don’t always come together. Spenser’s love of his life Susan can be extraordinarily irritating (someone once even penned an ode calling for Parker to kill her off; if I can dig it up online, I’ll repost it). I think the appeal of the novel comes down to two things: Spenser’s character and the strength of the bonds he creates with others in his life.

Spenser’s a tough guy who rarely loses a fight. But he’s also thoughtful, deliberate and, above all else, moral – though his moral code is far from traditional. His word is unbreakable. He will do what he thinks is right, no matter the cost. He’s determined far past the point of stubbornness. That dedication earns him friendship, trust and undying loyalty from an incredible range of characters, from a Massachusetts State Police Captain to a homicide detective to a collection of honorable-in-their-own-way thugs and miscreants he has encountered along the way.

The two central relationships through the series are Susan and Hawk. The relationship with Susan can be irritating. A Harvard-educated psychologist (neither Susan nor Parker will let you forget that fact), she has long (well, for a Parker novel), repetitive discussions with Spenser about life, love, duty, what he does, what she does, etc., etc. But Susan is Spenser’s constant. As he says more than once, he’d be less without her.

Hawk is as amoral as Spenser is moral. When he isn’t helping Spenser out, he’s probably up to no good. The only people he genuinely cares about are Spenser and Susan. But his bond with Spenser is as strong in some ways as Spenser’s with Susan. The friendship between Spenser and Hawk, dating back to their time in the boxing ring together, is based on mutual respect and understanding, even of their stark differences. Of course, that rarely gets spoken. Most of their dialogue is funny, cutting stuff. That’s how guys are, you know, and it is a great antidote to the conversations with Susan.

Anyway, 30 pages to go. Then 40 novels to read again. If I read one a year …


Ok, maybe it’s easier to write about Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged than actually read it, but I did a double-take when I got to this portion of a review of the movie version of the novel that came out yesterday:

What’s most compelling about “Atlas Shrugged” is how it brings an ideological perspective to the movies that’s all but absent in today’s Hollywood. It celebrates risk and reward and the entrepreneurs who make this country not only great but a place where dreams, as hokey as it sounds, can come true.

Oh, yeah. None of today’s movies celebrate the risk and reward for entrepreneurs. Never mind that Iron Man and Iron Man 2 celebrate a man who makes Hank Reardon look like a complete slacker. Or that one of the most successful movie series in recent memory is about a billionaire who could teach John Galt himself a thing or two about how to deal with an unresponsive government.

The fact is that Hollywood has always loved entrepreneurs and other risk-takers because they make for good drama and interesting storylines.

Then I saw the review was in The Washington Times and realized that making a philosophical point, however invalid, was more important to the reviewer than the truth.

In any case, I’m guessing that Kristen wouldn’t count this as reading the novel, would you?

Who is John Galt? A genocidal prick, according to Scalzi

Yeah, Kristen, this one’s for you.

In honor of today’s release of Atlas Shrugged: The Movie (Part I), I have to call attention to John Scalzi’s classic critique of the mammoth novel by Ayn Rand. I’ve already admitted Ihaven’t read the book – though it is on my book shelf – but I have my excuses. One – have you seen the book? The paperback is more than 1,000 pages of tiny type. I’m not afraid of long books. I’ve read the extended version of Stephen King’s The Stand more than once (more than twice, actually – but we’re talking about Ayn Rand here, not me). But – until I met my Kristen (my brother-in-law’s very significant other) – the only people who had ever recommended the novel to me were wild-eyed conservative true-believers – like the guy to the right, who was named for the author*. And, aside from such recommendations, all I’ve heard about it are critiques like this: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

Which brings us to John Scalzi. I stumbled across his brilliant critique last year. Unlike me, he has read the book and says he enjoyed it, despite its literary flaws:

It has a propulsively potboilery pace so long as Ayn Rand’s not having one of her characters gout forth screeds in a sock-puppety fashion. Even when she does, after the first reading of the book, you can go, “oh, yeah, screed,” and then just sort of skim forward and get to the parts with the train rides and motor boats and the rough sex and the collapse of civilization as Ayn Rand imagines it, which is all good clean fun.

But for most fans – alas, he shrugged – the novel isn’t just a good read. It’s a political polemic to live by. That’s what Scalzi rips to shreds so effectively, by laying bear the truth about John Galt:

All of this is fine, if one recognizes that the idealized world Ayn Rand has created to facilitate her wishful theorizing has no more logical connection to our real one than a world in which an author has imagined humanity ruled by intelligent cups of yogurt. This is most obviously revealed by the fact that in Ayn Rand’s world, a man who self-righteously instigates the collapse of society, thereby inevitably killing millions if not billions of people, is portrayed as a messiah figure rather than as a genocidal prick, which is what he’d be anywhere else. Yes, he’s a genocidal prick with excellent engineering skills. Good for him. He’s still a genocidal prick. Indeed, if John Galt were portrayed as an intelligent cup of yogurt rather than poured into human form, this would be obvious. Oh my god, that cup of yogurt wants to kill most of humanity to make a philosophical point! Somebody eat him quick! And that would be that.

Maybe I’ll read the novel – or see the movie – just so I can appreciate Scalzi’s review even more. Oh, and to get Kristen – who got me a copy for Christmas – off my back.

* A friend informs me that, common belief aside, Rand Paul is not named after Ayn Rand. Rand is short for Randal.

Someone needs a thicker skin

I haven’t delved much into the burgeoning world of indie literature, but apparently it’s easier than ever to self-publish an electronic book and offer it for sale through Amazon’s Kindle Store or other ebook outlets. Some of the books are apparently quite good, and some self-published authors are doing better than those working through traditional publishers.

But … some self-published authors really don’t know how to handle criticism. That’s not entirely fair. One self-published author really doesn’t know how to handle criticism.

Big Al reviews books available on Kindle, including indie titles. He reviewed The Greek Seaman by Jacqueline Howett, a British self-published author now living in the United States. It was actually a kind review. He praised the compelling story, but complained about pervasive spelling and grammar errors.

Howett decided to comment on the review in the comments section. Big mistake. She went on about a revised copy she had sent the reviewer and claimed he must have read the original, which had apparently gone out with more errors. But the grammar and spelling in her comments quickly made it clear that, well, she’s a lousy writer.

This became even more clear after the reviewer posted two samples of problematic sentences:

“She carried her stocky build carefully back down the stairs.”

“Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance.”

Howett replied that she found no flaws in those sentences. “My writing is fine.” She then insisted he take down the unfair review. Eventually, she resorted to repeatedly telling the reviewer and other commenters on the blog to “F— off!”

Read the review and the comments. They are very entertaining. Which I’m sure is more than can be said for Howett’s book.

(h/t PepperMax on MetaFilter)