Writers on Writing #102: Jackson Connor
The Novel and Our Lives
I never first set out to write anything about the steel mill. Rather, I came home from a twelve-hour shift one day, scrubbed the grease and dust from my elbows and ears in the kitchen sink and sat down at my Brother 2500 Word Processor. I hadn’t thought about what I might write or planned to describe the cavernous pores in the watershed. It never occurred to me that I might mention the time that Paul Slaughter walked into the Corner Pocket, thirty-eight-years old, slammed a tiny manila envelope down on the bar, and asked if anybody wanted to buy a drink for a guy who had just lost his last tooth. I had never thought about writing that, because it had actually happened, and I’d been learning how to write fiction, which, I was lead to understand was made up.
And, yet, this place, the steel mill in which I grew up, my thinking of the mill, my writing of the mill, I worry, has become a parody of itself. That, I suppose, is when I know it’s gone on long enough. Was it Bahktin who insisted that a book could be any length, but a novel wasn’t a novel until the language of the book becomes a parody of itself? It is for this reason (and eight or ten others), I am certain, that I’m bound to novels; I’m bound to the form. For example:
I wrote a twenty-five page story one time that I called “Letter to an Old Friend” (it was, in some ways, a letter to an old friend, but it was much less than that, because it grew out of a particular sigh my old friend had let out the one day, so it was about my old friend, but it was about much less than that as well – love, the world, etc.). It was the kind of noncommittal sigh folks let out from time to time that the rest of us should all just let slide by without comment, but I, in response to that sigh, I got up and stomped out of our apartment, such as to say, “What’s that supposed to mean!” The kind of question that demands an exclamation point.
This letter to an old friend was about loss, clearly. It contained elements of the wasp-nest-thin walls of a tiny apartment behind a little garage, the garage itself behind a little house, the house cramped between other houses in a tight neighborhood full of narrow one ways streets which, well, when snow fell in the city of Erie became more like toboggan runs. “Letter to an Old Friend” is about a journalist of sorts who has taken to writing short essays about particular parts of his old friend’s body – not even necessarily the interesting parts or the parts that “count,” but usually things like the small bones in his wrist or a particular baby tooth. Eventually, the narrator writes an essay about a particular sigh his old friend once let out. The essay is called “An Eschatology for Your Breath” – it focuses on that particular sigh’s career and dissertation.
That piece of fiction is now called “An Eschatology for Your Breath.” Because the piece is only twenty-five pages long, if anybody else ever reads it, she’ll probably call it a short story. Me, I think of it entirely as a novel – precisely because it concerns itself with novelistic ideas through which the language learns to parody itself. But I might be wrong. It might not have been Bahktin who said that about parody. It might, in fact, be something I made up. The story, at times, is written like a letter, but, taken as a whole, it is actually an ekphrasis of George Bataille’s Visions of Excess, which includes, of course, his own ekphrasis of Salvador Dali’s The Lugubrious Game.
This is, I’ve found, often what happens to one in grad school. One learns what the word “ekphrasis” means, then one is willing to say any damn thing that comes into one’s mind. Me, most of the time, I use “ekphrasis” and “homage” interchangeably: see! see what I mean? Who would say something like that in real life?
Meanwhile, the very first steel mill story I ever heard was in the break room of the merchant/shipping department at Franklin Industries Steel Mill. Late June 1998. It was my first day on the job. I was a temp along with a dozen or so other college students – most of whom were my buddies, most of whom were badass enough that we all fit in alright in the break room but knew not to push our luck on the mill floor, most of whom knew how to sit contemplatively smoking a cigarette during break while Lacy Bullion told his story.
Lacy said, “My wife came up to me the other day and told me to stop hitting the kid. I said, ‘I ain’t hitting him, honey.’ I was just smacking him around, you know. She said, ‘It just ain’t right. It hurts him and he don’t like it.’ I said, ‘Honey, I’m just smacking him around a little bit. You know, peppering him. If I don’t, the kid’s gonna grow up to be a pussy.’” I can pull off a decent Northwest PA accent to this day, but the mill is a subculture within a subset, and I’ve been gone too long to try the accent face to face. Still, if you could have heard Lacy tell that story that day, you would have laughed, too.
There is something awful about the mill. I haven’t put my finger on it yet, and I’m not even sure what kind of metonymy I mean by “the mill” – or is it synechdoche? – when I’m talking about something much more specific than the mill. When I say “mill,” I am, always, talking about Lacy Bullion, who peppers his kid, no doubt, partially in response to growing up in a rough-and-tumble world, a rough-and-tumble kid, with rough-and-tumble folks who gave him a girl’s name. But I’m also talking about something much larger than the mill – capitalism, for instance, which peppers the vast bulk of us every first of the month, Lacy and his boy included. I’ve probably heard that story another hundred times: from Lacy, from Dan, from my buddies who stood beside me with their arms crossing their chests, smoking cigarettes, and looking fiercely at the white hats, from my mirror and its hateful misrepresentations. “If I don’t,” my buddies and I would often chant, “the kid’s gonna grow up to be a pu-ssy.” There’s the mill accent there: I almost had it . . . if you will permit me: the making of an insult into two words, the elongated u such that it’s almost an oo: poo ssay. Yeah, that’s it. Something awful in that place.
Several years ago, Dan sent me an email asking if we were just getting old or if we were becoming a bunch of pussies. I’d been gone from Home for a long time, and his note was heartfelt if uncertain, his way of getting back in touch with me after a long stretch of no contact. He didn’t specify, but it probably had something to do with his first successful year of his second marriage, how much he loves his wife, the baby on the way, buying and rebuilding an ancient house. It might have had something to do with the fact that his old man was getting sicker every day, that feeling of out of control while the world shrugs its shoulders and says, “What-are-ya-gonna-do.” (That ever-helpless question that demands a period.)
Well, look, so, I wrote him back, and here’s the thing – I grew up there, right. I know my business about that place; those are my folks. I would have said the same thing a decade ago that he had said in his email. But, at this point, I simply can’t have the gendered language. I’m not going to rehearse, here, my religious belief that saying “bitch” is the equivalent of any racial, ethnic, religious slur, though we accept it because our culture, deep down, despises women. (Despises, absolutely despises: otherwise, why would Lacy care if the boy grew up soft, happy with who he was, womanly?) I’m not going to practice my learned theories, not here. But I did in a response to Dan. It was a nice letter I wrote him – and I wrote it to him because I know he’s a thoughtful human being who constantly seeks self-improvement, who, along with working sixty-plus hours each week pushing steel was earning a degree in language at a decent university – but, still, in retrospect, I kind of missed the point. And, yes, I know what that response makes me back Home – foreign to my people, among other things.
Two years after my liberated and pedantic response to his sincere if oppressive note, I stood with Dan in the driveway of his parents’ house, drinking a beer. We stood there, acting like this house was the same house it had been thirty years ago when he’d been born here, sixteen years ago the first time I’d stood on the front porch, thirteen years ago when I’d fallen out of a tree out back and fractured a vertebra, twelve years ago when we walked out of that house and into the steel mill for the first time, eight years ago when he’d moved back home after his first failed marriage, seven years ago when I left Pennsylvania for grad school in Utah, two years ago when we’d exchanged an email conversation separated by a shared language, or a week ago, when his dad was still alive. Dan and I were having a beer in that driveway, yes, but grief, sometimes, is sobering. We’d fallen out of touch or pushed each other away silently, slowly, without catastrophe. Just sort of both of us starting to turn away, and neither of us ever turning back, and never ever once, you know how we are, ever placing or taking any blame, never once acknowledging that one of us missed the other, never once talking about this. He’d been somber all day, dealing with his dad’s early death that we’d all seen on the horizon for years. He said, “You know, I resent your wife.”
I was in my fifth year as a PhD candidate. He’d been working the mill and finishing his undergraduate degree all this time I’d been in grad school. We’d seen tough times, held real jobs, bought cars, graduated college, owed debt, paid bills, had kids, driven across the country. I’d defended a master’s thesis about the steel mill, which was largely, let’s face it, about Dan. He’d sat in that break room all these years, listening to stories of tiny wars and rumors about stories about tiny wars. I’d towed a 7000 pound boat from Annapolis, MD, to Salt Lake City, UT, through one of the worst snowstorms in decades. He’d had reconstructive facial surgery after getting mugged. I’d married a woman with three kids shortly after her first husband had killed himself. All of which is to say: we’d done things, things had been done to us. We weren’t infants in so far as the “real world” was concerned.
I mean. His dad had just died. The world doesn’t get realer.
Still, when he said to me, “You know, I resent your wife,” I felt as though I were entering adulthood.
I held the beer at my side, watched my breath float away into another January sky, and said, “I know.”
He said, “It feels like she’s taken you away from us.”
I said, “I know it feels that way, but it’s not true.”
He said, “I didn’t say it was true.”
And I nodded. I stood there a father of four, full of debt and history, confident enough to walk into a faculty meeting or factory break room and take notes about either, but I am certain that was my first moment of adulthood. Or, let me put it another way, if most of us enters adulthood in our twenties, there must be more stages between then and a hundred and twenty (my ideal age, I believe), and that conversation brought me into some additional stage. I might even have felt as though that was the most sincere conversation I’d had since childhood proper. I’ve said before that the day I was accepted into a master’s program was effectively the end of my fifteen year friendship with Dan, and that’s still true, but that friendship echoes through my life, in my writing, in the mill. And that reverberation, at the end of the day, is what I mean when I say parody, that years ago, the narrator of my steel mill writing named Dan, (loosely based on my dear friend standing in the driveway beside me) had said, “I mean. His dad had just died. The world doesn’t get realer.” It’s just that, at that point, I didn’t know what was parody, the novel or our lives.
Jackson Connor builds, teaches, and writes in Appalachian Ohio with his spouse (the writer Traci O Connor) and their four kids. "The Novel and Our Lives" is a piece from his memoir manuscript Barely American. Other Barely American pieces have appeared or are forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, North American Review, AGNI, River Teeth, Post Road, and other journals. "Barely American" is the title of his guest blog at hillbillyspeaks.