Them Ol' Walking Blues
Union Dues By John Sayles Little, Brown, $9.95, 385 pp.
PERHAPS AT THE VERY BASE of American society, underlying both its problems and its achievements, is the urge to move. The spirit of restlessness pervades our literatire, from Melville's Ishmael to Pynchon's search for V. It's what animates us all, even if sometimes against our will--an instinct for the new, the wish to leave behind old codes and traverse charted boundaries, to look for a better life, or, at any rate, a fresh one.
But if this instinct for movement is an essential part of the American psyche, so too is its antithesis--the idea that it is bad, even wrong, to run. Running, our elders always tell us, never solved anything. It horrified most Americans to think that young men who opposed the war in Vietnam would escape to Canada. Yet as some of us read and thought about the hundreds who did just that, we say that they were right, that they were heroes for running. The lesson was brought home by the fate of the thousands who, either out of ignorance or sense of patriotism, did go to fight in Southeast Asia. The ones who wrote home, as does one character in this fine novel: I seen some pretty awful things. I done some pretty awful things. I really can't talk about it. They come home to find that they aren't heroes at all--that America has already pushed them into the back corner of a drawer of the nation's history that people now just want to lock up and forget.
Hobie McNatt, the protagonist of John Sayies good and sometimes brilliant second novel, is a runner. Literally, he is a flanker on the football team of his small high school in southern West Virginia coal country. Hobie has speed to burn. Folks remember him as not as strong and bullish as his brother Darwin McNatt, whose fatigue jacket he always wears--Darwin, the boy who hung up his pads to join the army, and came back from Nam a little wacky. But when Hobie is cutting and stepping on the gridiron people scratch their heads and wonder when it was they ever saw a white boy run so fast. Not at all like his daddy, Hunter, a quiet fellow who works the evening shift down in the black shaft of mine No. 7--Hunter who lost his wife a few years ago to cervical cancer, contracted, she was sure, because she had committed the sin of enjoying sex too much. Hunter had been slow on the football field, if a sure tackler, and as he gets up around 50 he's even slower, broken down after 25 years in the mines with a bent left arms that won't straighten out all the way and a wheezing in the mornings from lungs full of high-grade bituminous coal dust.
Hobie's really not like his father, not like any of those people, and when he feels life in his home town closing in on him, swallowing him up the way the mines have swallowed his father, he cuts out. He leaves for Boston, where the last letter received from his veteran brother was postmarked. Hunter, who has already lost one son to the tide of history, figures there is only one things to do--follow Hobie, and bring him back. Failing that, to find out why he ran.
THE TIME IN THE BOOK is 1969, and the story takes place against the events that colored that sad year. Hunter McNatt leaves West Virginia just after he and others start their efforts to replace the corrupt United Mine Workers president Tony Boyle with Joseph Yablonski, one of their own.
In the air is the death stench from Farmington No. 9. where 78 miners lost their lives in the worst mining disaster in recent times. Ahead is the murder of Yablonski by Tony Boyle's thugs. These are the last-gasp days of the New Left--SDS has splintered, and when Hobie gets to Boston he falls in with one of the wayward factions left by the rupture, a remnant that went neither with the Weathermen or Progressive Labor which Sayles calls "Third Way." Hobie's adventures with these self-styled urban guerillas as take place in the shadow of the Harvard strike and the B.U. take-over that started out as a demonstration against G.E. recruiters.
Sayles describes with devastating satire the endless meetings it takes Third Way to arrive at the required "positions", both Huey Newton's Panthers and Mao's China require the two-hour discussions. He reminds us just how silly most of those innocent revolutionaries could sound. But at the same time he makes us feel sympathy for them despite their astounding naivete--makes us known what it was like when people really cared about politics, no matter how misguided their tactics might be. Third Way comes to an end when its members try to liberate a stitching factory for the factory's mostly-Puerto Rican workers. The workers, who don't understand a lick of English, are terrified, and instead of joining the students' assault on the factory, are on the sidewalks looking on as interested by-standers when the cops move in.
The funniest and most acid part of the book comes when Grant Parke, the clown of the otherwise uniformly self-serious group, meets Paris Green, the local Panther leader:
Grant Parke III remembers Green from the hardwood courts of Phillips Exeter, from the Eastern Preppy League, when he was often the only black body to be found on the court or in the stands, back when leather was for whitetrash townie dropouts and all Paris' shirts had a crocodile on the left tit. The days of covert co-optations and a credit to his race. Shanghaied off a street corner on the basis of a high I.Q. test and a higher shooting percentage for his ninth-grade five fixed up with a minority-athletic scholarship and a battery of tutors, and a summer-in-the-country boarding program to instill a taste for the good life, Paris was a fox in the hen house. It was days of sit-ins and Freedom Riders, when SNCC was still Salt and pepper, days of the first push for voter registration down in Darkest Alabama and if you were one of the chosen ones, one of the lucky knee-grow winners in the Great White Liberal Guilt Sweepstakes you could do no wrong. Of course, shooting a righteaous game of hoop...didn't hurt any either.
Parke had blown it, flunking out of some unnamed Ivy School, and there they sit, adversaries from way back, proving that it took egos as well as convictions to make a movement.
But lest you think this is a story of radical baiting in Cambridge, circa 1969--which is easy enough to do--it's not. Sayles has an astoundingly accurate ear for speech, in this case the speech of 20-year old Americans in 1969 trying to sound like Lenin in Zurich in 1917. Skillfully interwoven with the story of Hunter McNatt's search for his son are also the stories of people who run across one or the other along the way, and their speech is wonderfully correct. Vinny and Dom, his Boston cops, are a little too pat ("Pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd") but they still sound, well, like Boston cops. Sayles also captures the peculiar accents of Appalachia, especially the banter of men who work hard, as when one tells another, "You're so ugly you have to tie a pork chop around your neck just to git the dawg to play with you."
But most of all, Sayles pins down in dialogue and detail the special bond that exists between men who work too hard. When one miner comes home coughing and can't get his breath from the black lung, let alone sleep, his father-in-law tells, him, "Just a little miner's asthma. Had it all my life," advises him to sleep with an axe-handle under his arms, and rocks contentedly beneath the pictures that line his mantle--Jesus Christ, the Kennedy brothers, and John L. Lewis.
At the end of Union Dues, Hobie has his leg broken by police in the aftermath of the factory take-over, and Hunter prepares to join the Steelworkers and marry a South Boston Irish widow, still having failed to find his son., This conclusion may seem unsatisfying, but this does not obscure Sayles' achievement--he has written with simple grace and sympathy a moving story of a working-class family split by social forces it cannot begin to understand. We are left with words of Darwin, Hobie's older brother, when his father contacts him about his runaway brother: "Go back. Forget about Hobie, he doesn't belong to you any more. Go back." Darwin is right: Hobie and his father are as estranged from each other as Darwin is from them both. But he is wrong about one thing. They all belong to the land. The America of interstates and McDonald's does not belong to these people, nor does the Boston of the Combat Zone or Harvard Yard. Although they may adjust to it, they will never be a part of it; they don't belong here.
THAT IS WHY, come Thanksgiving, all the runners will begin to return home from the Appalachian ghettoes of Cleveland, Dayton, Akron, and Detroit, from the Chevrolet assembly lines and the Goodyear rubber plants. They will pour out in their new cars, filled with their new children, to show off in front of family and old high school friends, to make the narrow mountain roads a bit more dangerous for a few days. Union Dues captures this spirit; Sayles knows, as they do, deep down, that they are interlopers almost anywhere except the hills. As for most of us, beneath their restlessness and urge to roam is the desire to come back home.