— Of Work and War, by William Trend Pancoast (Blazing Flowers Press, 2021)
Literary critic Anis Shivani once pointed out how “working-class writers writing about working-class people for working-class people is almost an impossibility.” When one surveys most of the major American writers of the last few decades, their concerns seem to reflect those of the middle class or sometimes the more affluent segments of society. This was not always the case — in the 1930s America saw a robust movement of so-called “proletarian writers” publishing novels, short stories, poetry, and even dramas about the workplace, union struggles, and the daily battle of those men and women whose toil is often overlooked in both the news and entertainment media. The end of World War II and the ensuing economic prosperity of America also saw working class writers like Michael Gold, John Dos Passos, and Grace Lumpkin disappear from bookshelves, as fictional stories about something as omnipresent in people’s lives as work became a rarity.
William Trent Pancoast (born 1949) is one of those rare authors who still writes about the workplace and, more specifically, blue collar jobs like assembling auto parts at a General Motors plant or seeding a golf course. A former die maker and machinist, as well as the editor of a union newspaper for 20 years, Pancoast has published his short fiction in numerous print and online literary magazines, including Night Train and Monkeybicycle. He is also the author of the novels Wildcat (2010), about life in an auto stamping plant in Ohio, and The Road to Matewan (2017), which takes place during the West Virginia Mine Wars of 1912 to 1921.
Of Work and War is Pancoast’s first story collection. Through short fiction, blue-collar workday vignettes, and character sketches, he returns to familiar themes while also delving into another defining experience for the American working class: the scars and trauma left by war-time military service. In “Vietnam. Fucking Vietnam,” an autoworker reminisces on the derailed life of his father (an “Army Infantry grunt from the Battle of the Bulge who got through the rest of his life by consuming a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of alcohol”) as he drinks at the American Legion Hall with coworkers and veterans. In “New Hire,” the first women ever hired for factory work at an auto plant in the fictional town of Cranston, Ohio have to deal with everything from sexual harassment to the hostility of their reluctant colleagues. A different kind of workplace friction, this time fueled by racial tensions, sets the backdrop for “Oxford Town,” where a stressed-out college student splits his day between teaching and managing a commercial laundry as he tries to keep the peace between two of his employees.
A Collective Voice
Discussing the work of renowned Italian working class writer Nanni Balestrini, British novelist Hari Kunzru once observed how Balestrini had the ability to “individualize the universal, and universalize the individual.” In his mostly first-person narratives, Pancoast does something similar when telling the tale of individuals whose personal experiences are representative of a collective story. While on the surface many of his characters are battling on their own, whether it is paying their way through college or simply trying to adjust to civilian life after war, theirs is a shared struggle. This is best exemplified in the story “Wildcat,” a vivid depiction of a so-called wildcat strike, a labor stoppage undertaken by workers without the consent of their union, let alone their employer. Written in a spare prose that matches the plain-spokenness of their characters, the stories in Of Work and War have an authenticity that can only come from the lived experience of a genuine blue-collar writer.
Born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, Gonzalo is a fiction writer with books published in Spain, Italy, and Chile. His stories have appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review.By Gonzalo Baeza