In this provocative essay, Michael Hogan introduces the vision for his Rust in Peace trilogy. His three intricate novels, Man Out of Time, Burial of the Dead, and Sistine combine in a powerful triptych of mystery, conspiracy, and moral uncertainty. Get swept away by his prose and his plotting by diving into the novels here.
“Rust in peace, fellas. You done good.”
Say “rust belt” and people know what you’re talking about. Say “rust belt” and you got your run-down main street, store fronts boarded up, bricks and black factories, abandoned, useless, old, remnants of the industrial revolution that swept through town and left all of a sudden without so much as a wave good-bye.
After the second world war these towns had done pretty well for themselves. With the invention of synthetics the New England textile mills might have felt the first pinch of change, but most of the cities and towns from Lowell to Detroit and beyond enjoyed the wealth consequent to an industrial base that offered full employment and affirmed the proposition that America ran the world. What was good for General Motors was good for the country. So, step aside Britain and Europe, and don’t even try it Chairman Joe with your iron curtain and atheistic ways, because the USA has the game sussed, sown up and won.
I grew up in a town of thirty-thousand people, most of whom were employed in one of the four factories that turned out ball bearings, needles, copper tubing and gaskets. The fifties were ostensibly safe and easy and even meaningful if you could get with the program, conformed to the rule, joined the club, rooted for the right team, kept your head down, married the corporate logo, surrendered your mind and will to the superior wisdom of group-think, the wisdom of the clan, the wisdom of the tribe as personified in management, the clergy and government officials.
But then things began to change. By 1960 boomers who’d become teens to the soundtrack of one white boy with a voice from the hot and libidinous south, listened and took it to heart when Kennedy said: “Ask not…” Elvis might have unleashed America’s long repressed id, but JFK sought to channel all that untapped energy into the service of efforts more noble than “I, ME, MINE.”
All of this made Management a little squirrely. It ran a little pink. The powers that be, the ones in charge of the industries that were good for America, monitored their seismographs to measure the little upheavals across the contiguous forty-eight. Unions wanted more. Workers threatened to strike, and the Coloreds, the Negroes, were getting a little uppity, thinking they could ride in the front seat, thinking they could eat any damn place they pleased, thinking they were equal.
And all of this was backdrop to another drama taking place at such a pace so as to be almost imperceptible.
Just as civilization had moved in a westward arc for twenty-five hundred years from Greece to Rome to Europe to Great Britain and then to the Americas, the industrial revolution, the most recent manifestation of western man’s will to progress was on the move again.
Corporate executives in skyscrapers of iron, glass and steel, far removed from the day to day blue collar punch the clock world of their workers, figured they could relocate to other cities, other countries, where the demands on Management were less, where people worked for less, where medical costs were less, where benefits cost less, where pensions were subject to promises that could be foregone under color of law.
So what happens when iron and steel are left behind, untended, unused, not maintained, monitored or cared for, especially in the damp climate of northern cities?
Iron and steel rusts. Iron and steel take on that flaky coating, rendered black, brown, red and pale. Rust. And rust becomes more than a word to describe the chemical process of oxidation. Rust becomes the word that implies abandonment, disuse, something too old to value, something useless, to be set aside and looked upon with disdain or benign neglect. Rust comes with its ochre and burnt sienna flakes and speaks of rain, of chill, of melancholy, of perpetual autumn, of setting suns, of fourth quarters, of final curtains, of places no longer deemed important, of people who proved themselves to be inter-changeable, dispensable, disposable and easily replaced.
Rust. It carries cruel connotations and something else besides – the value of survival, of endurance, of loyalty, of playing the hand one’s dealt, of going on no matter what. As Beckett said: I can’t go on; I’ll go on.
I love rust belt towns and the people who live in them. I love those “meat and potato” cities where people are not unacquainted with self-deprecating humor and a humility that can only be gained through troubles experienced, shared and endured.
I grew up in a family that had defined itself as a family some years before my birth. They were members of the first half of the 20th Century and as such they were devoted to institutions, and more than that – to their idea of institutions, the big names, the church, the state, the all-powerful and particularly American fetish for the job, the ideal employer, the mentor and guide, nurturing and generous like Scrooge on the day after, like the God of our best hopes.
I might have felt like an outsider to my family, but by virtue of birth I was presumed to be a member of their tribe.
Imagine the archetypical Irish family sitting about the kitchen table circa 55: Ma and Da looking with pride on the gathered brood: Pat would be a cop, Dennis would be the fireman, Maureen would be a teacher, Katie would be a nurse and Timmy, the little baby Jesus himself, would be a priest, and if Finbar turned out to be as smart as the good Sisters said he was, then maybe someday he’d become a lawyer and run a car company in Detroit! All of them would grow up and become card-carrying, dues-paying members of the great institutions that had opened their doors to these verbal, pugnacious and hard drinking Irish. They’d do good (“You done good, son.”). They’d make something of themselves. They’d have families, raise families, feed, shelter and clothe their families. And wasn’t that the highest calling of all (excepting, of course, the gifted saint who’d forego the slap and tickle and become a priest)?
The tribe’s first rule for any new member is that he must take on the tribe’s ideals and ideology, its enemies and prejudices, its good and its bad. If he or she fails to do this, chooses not to do this, goes one’s own way, then the tribe, literally or figuratively, will cast out the ungrateful little bastard, and his family will be semi-ostracized, talked about, denigrated, looked down upon. “Hey, kid, you wanna’ be a fruitcake troublemaker, well, you can go eat berries! And after that we’ll fuck your family, too.”
When I went to college in 68, during Vietnam and the riots, after LBJ, after they killed Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, after Chicago and Gestapo tactics on Michigan Avenue, anybody with a pulse knew the world was changing, and nobody knew what was waiting around the corner.
When I wasn’t thinking about meeting Scott Fitzgerald’s unattainable girl, some ice-princess from Fairfield County, I couldn’t help but notice that Vietnam was a lost cause, a false endeavor, a slaughter of innocents, a war (like Iraq in ‘03) based on a lie. Yes, Nixon was the One, alright, and wooden music and three part harmonies promised to save the world, but those of us with deferments or high lottery numbers lived on a changeable surface, subject to the whims of youth, magnified by the coincident upheavals of a country that threatened to come apart at the seams.
So, we tossed our uniforms and belonged to nothing except the group that belonged to nothing (a “theory of sets” problem worthy of Gödel, Escher and Bach). We talked about “balling.” We tried our hands with guitars, drum kits or keyboards. And we grew our hair. Hair – the measure in an empiricist’s nightmare, the leading indicator of where a young person might stand on every issue from the military industrial complex to the beneficial effect of hallucinogens to bands that didn’t have the goods to put out double albums.
The late sixties was a time when I and others played at the fringe of a counter culture described as “radical” (even though it was more like a theme park’s rendition of “Radical World”). I was less than a true believer. I’d been put off by the smug self -satisfaction of the youthful Left, the arrogant SDS, the criminal Weathermen. So, as I began my journey from the TV room in the house in my hometown where I watched the Mod Squad and The Avengers, I was sure to drop breadcrumbs all the way to those political rallies where second rate bands deadened their lyrics with the killing directives of an all-knowing ideological purity. Stalin would have been proud, and then he would have executed us.
Appearance portended more substance than was really there, and once they pulled those ping pong balls with dates and corresponding numbers, two-thirds of the antiwar crowd started checking sports scores again, thought about years abroad and graduate schools and a future with long hair appropriately styled for interviews.
And the tribe, resilient as ever, which had yet to be fatally abused by the ungrateful youth who’d gone off on their fling, waited, some ensconced in big cities, others resident in rust belt towns, and knew that “time would come today.” After all, prodigals return home. It’s in the book.
I have a working hypothesis that Romantic movements are born and grow in the wake of lost wars or some other trauma society visits upon its members. Be it a lost war, hyperinflation, the apparent random terribleness of assassinations pulled off with precision in a random world, all of it is credible evidence of the failure of institutions and the authority they imply, a failure of the all-confirming “group think” of the military, of the corporate culture, of the church, of the nuclear family, hierarchical, judgmental, conforming, often unforgiving, exclusionary, a truly classical mode of procedure.
But when citizens feel threatened at the food-shelter-clothing level of their needs, institutions that are non-responsive and distant, can also become very vulnerable. In the extreme they invite revolution, because politics follows the stomach and revolutions follow empty stomachs. However, in America where a majority of the populace goes to bed with reasonably full stomachs, failed or failing institutions generally invite disdain, disregard and criticism. And it’s in this critical atmosphere where renegades question the ostensible brilliance of conformity and group-think, that Romanticism is born. One and then another and then another (individuals, not teammates) turn away from the general consensus, the committees, the ostensible norm, the old standard. They go off on their own to make their own way, to look to themselves, to see the world from a deeper sight, with fewer preconceptions, biases, prejudices, all of it as Romantic and heroic and solitary as Casper Friedrich’s man against the wind, standing on a mountaintop, staring without shades into the rising or setting sun, whispering, like Byron, paeans to Greek independence, murmuring passages from Goethe, the apotheosis of the one and only individual.
Romanticism is usually a short-lived movement (thank God, or none of us would survive it) – an intense pulse of energy that drives the individual inward to countermand his too-long apprenticeship in the external world of commuting, cubicles and water-coolers.
Inside, in the darkness of a soul’s interminable night, the individual hopes to meet his inner artist, his inner musician, his inner writer or orator, his inner spirit, his higher self, his inner genius.
As movements go, Romanticism has little truck with Wall Street. The inner-focused monk is decidedly ascetic, non-material, apparently unconcerned with the commerce of goods and money.
Poverty, a hallmark of the rust belt, is also a hallmark of the disenfranchised artist, starving for his art, for his giftedness, gifts that in a prior generation would have provided him with an artisan’s income and livelihood. Nonetheless, this society, our society and the media that proclaims our society still values the lowest denominator in a misguided notion of a democratic state and an egalitarian culture. It prizes conformity and is hostile to the loner who decides to color outside the lines. Predictably this hostility confirms the artist in his quest. The former prom king, the former “good boy” aligns with his prototype, the James Dean anti-hero, the outsider, the alien, abandoned and disenfranchised …. until …. until the inner artist paints nothing worthwhile, until the musician within proves to be tone deaf, until the writer can’t write, until the over-lauded genius peering upward from the bottom of it all begins to get very, very hungry.
Then, it’s time to grow up.
Time to be an adult.
Time to be responsible.
Time to sleep when it’s dark and wake when it’s light.
Time to be a big boy.
Time to cut the shit.
Time to get with the program.
Time to return again.
But what happens when the prodigal returns and the kind, grateful, generous, forgiving, loving father who was slated to run down the dusty road to greet him with rings and robes doesn’t show. What happens when the prodigal meets a committee of Darwinian middle managers who’ve spent their time keeping the company alive, keeping the institution intact, shuffling its papers, keeping it all in the safe haven of a locked box, a corner office where value is assessed in numbers by those who score the game through the veil of self-interest.
The prodigal returns to his homeland and seeks to surrender to the greater wisdom of the group, hoping, no, more than hoping, expecting to be welcomed back, hailed even, like Prince Hal, the nascent Henry V, who jettisoned his drinking buddy, Falstaff, to take the reins of a kingdom in turmoil. But surprise, surprise, the institution once disdained and dismissed isn’t so eager to attend the welcome home party.
Yes, he’ll be allowed entry at a level commensurate with his loyalty. He’ll be allowed on the field, but only time will tell if he can stay.
So, the hero goes to work. New suits, new thoughts, new desires, new beginnings. He takes on the “hey this might work” frame of mind, as he looks out the window of the No. 6 Express bus to lower Manhattan and wonders how all those people out there can afford to live in New York City.
This, then, is the job, the American job, his job, the workplace, the whole corporate thing, the last and most entrenched institution with its millions of employees stretched across the globe, each with their dry devotion to the company, the employer, the anonymous person who signs a slip of paper twice a week and puts food on the table.
Our hero works hard to convince himself that he’s finally on to something. Maybe the old folks were right all along, he says. Put the head down, don’t leave before seven, laugh at the asshole’s jokes, don’t drink on the job, shuffle paper, kiss up, kick down, make the boss look good (be a fookin’ magician if you have to, but make the idiot look good), take the money, buy a house, marry the almost pretty girl, have some almost remarkable kids, become your parents in the process and don’t kill yourself, be grateful for all the abundance that shines just out of reach and get on with the rest of your miserable life.
O yeah, that’s gonna work.
The institutions that once supported us, that once contributed to our sense of identity, that have grown distant from us and from that distance would now rule us, have failed us terribly.
My trilogy is comprised of three books with three main characters who share many characteristics. Each is a reluctant Romantic, disillusioned, disaffected, disengaged, disenfranchised by dint of their talents, intelligence, their obdurate failures to compromise or to respect authority, their willfulness, their Blakean mental illness and anybody’s alcoholism. My characters are the adult children of the Greatest Generation.
The three novels that comprise my trilogy RUST IN PEACE are Man Out Of Time (the failure of family echoed in the failure of the workplace); Burial of the Dead (the failure of family and the failure of the state); and Sistine (the failure of family and the failure of a corrupt church).
I was born into a clan that was a proud member of a proud tribe, and I never desired to be disenfranchised or particularly Romantic. And yet, as a writer who’s enjoyed little support from clan or tribe, I’ve made my way in what I consider to be a hostile world and culture, a world for which I was poorly designed, a world in which the institutions that had been created to provide support and identity fell away in the ruins of their own making, of their inner disease, of the seed of corruption that is the genesis of all downward journeys – the lie.
Joyce, and yes it is unforgivably presumptuous to even murmur the name, but Joyce, who was a Jesuit-schooled and disaffected Catholic, exiled himself with Nora to Trieste to escape the oppressive bonds of family, church and state, employing the tools of cunning, silence and exile to forge in the smithy of his yadda yadda soul etc., etc., etc., because he knew at the center of the genius that was his soul that he had to escape in order to breathe, to live, to write. He had to gain distance from the very institutions that had failed him and oppressed him so that he could see them with the clarity necessary to write about them. He needed foreign soil to walk the streets of Dublin. I only moved to Ohio. Is it far enough away? I don’t know yet. Let’s read the books and find out.
The birth of genius occurs on a burning road where illusions evaporate, chimeras disperse, and cruelty clothed in the promise of support reveals its evil self.
The best people I’ve known from my generation are truly lost. I know Gertrude Stein labeled another generation as lost, but they weren’t lost; they were drunk, and alcohol is the anesthetic one employs to the bear the burden of having been found. To be truly lost one has to be sober and still unable to find one’s way home.
Each of my characters, Dennis Wertz, Matthew Wyman, and the unnamed hero, carry the melancholy dusk of their rust belt hometowns like a burden and badge of honor. They too are lost and given their memories of home they’d probably forego the opportunity to return even if they could. So they remain in a dangerous world for which they were not well designed, successful in that they have survived, each waiting upon a future that promises nothing other than the fact that there is such a thing as a future. In short they live, and because they live, they endure and will endure until the final curtain.
“Rust in peace, fellas. You done good.”