the wire faces inwards: ‘the security is to keep us in!’

Sharon Borthwick reviews Rivethead, a ‘book of tales from the assembly line’

Revealing a talent for writing poetry at school does not relieve Ben Hamper of his birthright.  Duplicating his father and his father’s father he awaits, ‘to be pronounced fit for active drudgery’ by the medics. It wasn’t the plan. As a child at factory open days, he bore witness to his father’s crappy lot at the General Motors plant in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. But failed stints at other ventures led him through GM’s grounds, past the barbed wire. Later a fellow “prisoner” becomes absorbed by the fact that the wire faces inwards, ‘the security is to keep us in!’

Other means to incarceration are the good wages, ‘that pay stub was like a pair of concrete loafers.’ Not that the security lasts, the men are regularly laid off due to economic downturns, though Jimmy Carter tops up their dole packets to the extent they can make light and even party right in the face of unemployment. Not so in the Reagan years, of course. Back at the plant amidst the noise,’very close to intolerable’ and the heat,’one complete bastard’, the men are ground down by still more humiliations. ‘Quality’ becomes the company’s new byword and a man donning a cat costume becomes quality’s personification.

But lo, the workers are to be party in their own infantilisation. A competition to name the stupid cat is held; hence he shall be called, Howie Makem. And the men generously whoop and applaud when Howie makes an appearance on the factory floor. Not so the giant message board that eternally flashes up inane taunts at the ‘shoprats’ – ‘squeezing rivets is fun’ one of the more notably contemptible – and no amount of chucking spanners and like projectiles will stop the green neon’s idiot jibes.

So how do they survive, ‘the repetition as strangulation’ loadthey bare? For one they drink. They drink after work at the requisite bar opposite the plant, but that’s just to carry on the bender they’ve been on since clocking on. They fill all their quotas but they drink. They drink and arse about and do anything that may beat the ever-watched, tyrant clock.  ‘Rivet hockey’ is introduced – the object to with steady aim kick that deadly hard missile at your buddy’s shinbone, the resulting laughter may offer some minutes’ release.  If you really get lucky and find an efficient worker who can take on your job as well as his own, and you are able to do the same for him, you can each bugger off for half the day, your quotas still in tact. Ben Hamper made this deal with a couple of work-mates, his luck further enhanced in having a supervisor who would turn a blind-eye as long as the work was completed. Yes, well that couldn’t last, the work being done and some happy crew aren’t enough for GM company policy, naturally, and they move this supervisor away from his men for being ‘too close to his work-force’.  With a succession of arse-licking bosses, Hamper’s days are numbered. He starts to have terrifying panic attacks on the factory floor so needs to take sick leave and various medication as intense agoraphobia sets in. He’s among many driven insane by this bare existense. One of his colleagues befriends a mouse, building a little cardboard house for his pet and cooing at it through the windows. But the coos become taunts and then with ever escalating violence he shakes his captive rodent till his rage explodes and he ends in incinerating the poor beast with a blow torch. Another worker at the plant is headline news as he made a knife attack on the two waitresses who nightly served the men; they find him dead from an overdose.

Hamper’s interest in writing eventually resurfaces. Whilststill at GM he starts to send articles to Michael Moore, the then editor of The Michigan Voice. He introduced himself by writing about music until Moore persuades him to expound about life on the assembly line. For his column he goes by the title Rivethead. His articles prove popular and he is courted by the big American talk shows. The book leaves open what happened next as we leave him still recovering from mental illness. Hamper and other victims of drudgery have given rise to the genre, ‘The blue-collar writer’.  On the strength of this I may try out some more.

Rivethead put me in mind of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener (1853). The narrator of this story is Bartleby’s employer.  Other copyists in his employ cannot endure the whole long office day without acts of frustrated rebellion. One has morning bouts of ill humour, shifting his desk here and there, sighing as he tries this and that position over his papers while his colleague scrivener works efficiently but cannot hold out like this the whole day and makes blotchy copies by afternoon.

Bartleby is employed on sight for his quite demeanor, “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!”. He is set in his master’s office by a window with “no view at all” behind a high screen so to completely isolate him from sight. Here he writes on, “silently, palely, mechanically” but when asked to do anything at all on top like proof the copies with his workmates, calmly replies, “I would prefer not to”. He offers up this passive resistance unto death ultimately preferring not to sustain life further by food. Like Ben Hamper and his colleagues he has lost his own mind by the repetitive actions demanded of him by his wage slavery.