Paul Clemens's new nonfiction book, Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant, was not at all what I expected.
From its subtitle, I expected this would be an investigative narrative in which Clemens somehow got a job in an auto plant right before it closed. I was wrong--Clemens was in the auto plant (the Budd Company, in Detroit) after it was already closed; he witnessed the disassembly of the massive machinery that used to be used to stamp out auto parts. Not only did he watch the machinery come down; he also watched it get packed and shipped out to plants across the world where such stamping work could be done more cheaply.
I was not alone in my confusion re: the book's subtitle. And I was a bit taken aback by the prologue and the first chapter, which seemed a bit too detailed and technical for me ("Where there is no die in a press, as is the case in a closed stamping plant, a straight-side stamping press forms an arch..."). But somewhere along the way I became enthralled by this title, sad as it was. I particularly enjoyed Clemens's interactions with a former plant worker turned security guard for the rigging company (the company taking down the large equipment) named Eddie, as well as with the various rigging workers and even the plant's former Union representative (these workers don't really appear in the narrative until page 90, which is when the book came more alive for me).
As Clemens himself points out in the Daily Show interview I posted last week, his book doesn't really have a larger theme. He learns about the history of the Budd plant, he watches it get dismantled, he hears some of the plant's history from former workers and explores it with its current skeleton staff, and he even makes the journey to Mexico to see where some of the plant's equipment ends up. And that is all. And that's enough. Because here's what got me: the subtitle made me think this would be yet another narrative about jobs going, which would have been sad enough. But the quiet genius of this book, and of Clemens's quiet observation, is that the jobs are already GONE.
It's not an expose, it's an elegy.* Read it, along with Matt Taibbi's Griftopia, and you'll probably have a pretty accurate picture of where the country's at.
*I was really proud of myself for coming up with this word, and then I saw it's how they described it over at Powell's, too. Originality, thy name is Citizen Reader.