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Reviews Mon Jun 10 2013
Muscular Prose about Muscular Men: Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland
By Jenny Gavacs
If you want an authentic history of the Rust Belt — told by UAW members, not East Coast pundits or DC politicians — read Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland by Edward McClelland. McClelland is a native son (from Lansing, MI) and writes about the rise and fall of manufacturing in the Great Lakes region through the eyes of people who were there. It's the on-the-ground, gritty reportage this saga of sweat and tears deserves.
Nothin' But Blue Skies is a tapestry of vivid writing and living moments. Like a tapestry, the narrative isn't always clear — the book betrays its beginnings as a collection of articles spanning McClelland's career — though there's a general chronological arc from the 1930s to the 2010s. The single-article roots probably caused some of the seeming contradictions throughout the book (in separate places it calls both Detroit and Flint, MI America's murder capital), and claims that seem shallowly researched (where did McClelland find evidence that "Cleveland swiped [the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame] from runner-up Memphis by stuffing the ballot box"?). But the bumpy narrative ride is worth it for sections where humanity pours forth from people like Oil Can Eddie, ex-president of Steelworkers Local 65 in south Chicago; Moose, the Flint worker Michael Moore wronged on camera; or spitfire Mayor Betty of Homestead, PA. This book takes a line worker's-eye-view, and a line worker would hate to get academic on the fine points.
So Nothin' But Blue Skies is not only a history but a personal book for McClelland. The author isn't shy about lamenting his city's decline with the industrial furnaces that went cold; how he took menial jobs (like clerking at a video store) to stick with his city, and the guilt he still endures because he couldn't make it work — mixed with pride at seeing his old high school, mired in financial problems, peopled with talents like a Gates Scholarship winner and a preacher principal. Sometimes McClelland's sportswriter-like verbal flashiness causes him to jump between topics and people, but his linguistic energy drives home the impact of bureaucratic minutiae on real people's lives (one great sentence: "General Motors had scheduled the Flint autoworker for extinction and was knocking off shoprats as rapidly as western pleasure hunters had exterminated the buffalo.").
McClelland explores factory ruins in Detroit with the underground men who live there, watches a small-time crack dealer living in his mother's basement work and get high, worships with a motorcycle preacher (then converses with another proud of his concealed weapons permit), and attends a vacant lot blues jam. Multiple local voices color detailed histories of the Homestead, PA and Decatur, IL strikes; the expansion and contraction of the American auto industry (especially GM); Dennis Kucinich's rise to fame (or infamy); and the current crises in cities like Flint and Detroit, whose resources have flowed to black markets for lack of legitimate activity. Trivia pops up — know where REO Speedwagon got its name, or that there's a handbook for exploring urban decay? He takes a chapter to explain (with some irony) why most Midwesterners born since the 1980s "end up in Chicago." After reading this book you'll see from a worker's point of view why unions are a mixed bag, why some Detroit residents fight urban farms and "ruin porn," and why racial diversity can keep cities anchored even after the factories close.
Buying this book will trigger McClelland to give back to the places he's covered. Over coffee McClelland told me he plans to give 25% of the royalties he earns to Rust Belt organizations like Recovery Park (Self Help Addiction Rehabilitation's farming operation), Slavic Village Development and Love INC. They sparked several of the hopeful glimmers McClelland reports in the current portions of this epic of the decline and fall of the industrial empire. Highlights include new tech-industrial partnerships in Syracuse, NY and Lansing; the artists and urban homesteaders of Detroit; and the new crop of young civic leaders in Syracuse and Youngstown, OH.
Gapers Block regulars will already know McClelland's byline from the excerpts of his book The Third Coast the site posted in 2006. Fans of his work will also know his hilarious story about challenging Richard Marx in a Rogers Park dive. McClelland is one of us: a Midwestern guy with blue-collar roots who wants to make it big enough (that's right, in the Midwest we know what "enough" means) to return to his city and offer it something. This is a great book to dip in and out of between El stops, read with your Intelligentsia coffee, or relax over with a Goose Island brew. McClelland muscles in and bangs around our industrial history like the workers who shaped it.
Jenny Gavacs has moved away from Chicago multiple times only to have her cheatin' heart called back. Her sustenance in life is writing, editing, and reading.