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Punching Out

January 22, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I mentioned last Monday that I had just finished Robert Crais’ crime novel The Sentry and that I was expecting the next morning to get Paul Clemens’ new book Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant on my Kindle the next morning. It is, as I noted, a sequel to Clemens’ superb Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir, which I had read, and written about, just over a year and a half ago.

The new book arrived Tuesday as scheduled, and I finished reading it last night. It did not have the emotional intensity of Clemens’ memoir, which so beautifully evokes life in a working class family in Detroit, with an especially powerful portrait of his father. And, as Dwight Garner noted in his review of the book in Wednesday’s NYT, the title is misleading, since the book is about not the final year of the plant’s operation but the dismantling of the plant in the year following its closing. Nonetheless, Clemens once again writes with passion about the loss of the manufacturing working class in this country.

The plant in question is the Budd Company’s Detroit plant, which was bought in the 1970s by the German giant Krupp, which in turn merged with Thyssen, so that when the plant closed, it was owned by ThyssenKrupp Budd. As soon as I read that, just a few pages in, I realized I knew the plant. I have written about our Detroit sojourns elsewhere. I’ll be brief here.

In June 1999, we made a short trip to Detroit on the way to New York in order to see the Tigers play in Tiger Stadium before it closed. We did much more, including visiting the great building that once was GM headquarters, the Motown Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Greenfield Village.

Our first outing, though, after arriving at our hotel and eating dinner, was a drive eastward on Jefferson Avenue, paralleling the river, to get a taste of the area. This was just past the middle of June, the sun set late that far west in the time zone, and so we had lots of light for a long, leisurely drive. And what a drive it was! The surroundings got worse and worse as we headed east. And suddenly there was this immense industrial plant that I couldn’t identify, seemingly filling our view to the north. And just as suddenly, few blocks further east, we were in a different universe, having left Detroit behind for the wealthy Grosse Pointe suburbs.

Two years ago, when Gail and I were back in Detroit, we took a similar drive, returning from the Grosse Pointes, on Mack, which parallels Jefferson to the north and forms the northern border of the plant. This time I saw the ThyssenKrupp sign. I didn’t know it, but the dismantling described by the book was then nearing its end. All I knew was that it looked like an industrial wasteland. In some small way, this allowed me to imagine I was there as I read Clemens’ account.

Here’s one representative passage from the book, taken from Clemens’ description of a conversation he had with Duane, an electrical foreman brought in to dismantle machinery that would be shipped to Mexico and rebuilt.

There was reverence in his voice. . . . Duane was a product of Detroit’s once-extensive system of Catholic schools, and he liked the idea — an error that wasn’t mistaken — that the Budd plant was a sacred site.

“My dead relatives would be honored that I’m here taking this place apart,” he said. “It’s a crowning jewel. We’re not the king of England, but it’s something they passed on, and it’s something” — the disassembly work — “that needs to be done. You can’t leave this here, to rot in history. There’s still life left in these machines. It’s real important that they keep doing what they do, because a lot of people gave a lot of sweat and equity that has gone into these machines. You can’t measure it. You can’t measure the lives, you can’t measure the lunches, the allowances, that people were able to give their kids.” It’s “what these kinds of machines do,” he said. Duane hoped that Mexican families might now benefit as much as his own had. “It’s why we’re taking such care getting this thing out of here.”

Unions, protectionism versus free trade, the move of manufacturing jobs from the US to Mexico, Brazil, and beyond — these issues and more hover in the background as one reads Clemens’ meditation on the decline of an industry, a city, and a nation’s working class.

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Categories: Automobiles, Books, Economy
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