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.