Paul Hertneky’s new book Rust Belt Boy (Bauhan Publishing, $21.95) is a nostalgic account of growing up in Ambridge even as the narrator senses its coming decline.
Before even opening the book, the reader is struck with what one hopes is an intentional metaphor: The grinning face of Hertneky as a child graces the front cover, while the back of his head is on the reverse. This evokes the two-faced Roman god Janus, ever gazing into the future while simultaneously looking to the past.
That theme is key to Rust Belt Boy. Hertneky delves into the historical significance of events he had no inkling about as a kid, sometimes going on tangents that lead a little far afield, but making us appreciate why he’s heading there.
Hertneky uses one of the hardest-hit cities in Western Pennsylvania to tell the familiar story of the baby boomers, who left cities in droves as manufacturing jobs declined only to return with a better appreciation for their hometowns.
Hertneky offers wistful, almost reverent descriptions of the people and places of his Beaver County hometown, from the smell and noise of the hot mill at Armco Steel to the mysteries of the Laughlin Memorial Library.
And the chapter on pierogies — or as he refers to them, pirohi — is as vivid an example of food porn as you’ll find. At the same time, the adult narrator acknowledges the cultural significance of the buttery treat the child protagonist is devouring:
“I cut the firm potato pillow in half, exposing the fine filling placed there by ancient hands, refined through generations of argument, fulfilled by sunlight, pitchforks and cauldrons of boiling water … the first bite made me close my eyes.”
This hindsight appreciation of history and the importance of preserving ethnic identity is woven throughout. The writer, now a lecturer at Chatham University, tells of his failed attempts at football, law school, even as a steel worker. None of his defeats are for lack of trying, but are informed by a kind of ennui that represents the mood of what was soon to become the Rust Belt. Getting the work done was never the problem.
By the end of Rust Belt Boy, as Hertneky turns his gaze toward the future of Ambridge and the region, we have a greater appreciation of their industrial past, a place Hertneky left but never really left behind.