It's 1937 in the Mon Valley, and this is the world that journalist and author John Hoerr will invite readers to enter when he speaks Saturday at Munhall's Pump House. He'll read from his new novel, Monongahela Dusk, published by Pittsburgh-based Autumn House Press.
The Pump House, which figured in 1892's historic Battle of Homestead labor conflict, is an appropriate site: McKeesport native Hoerr spent decades as a labor reporter -- back when there was such a job, and big labor made big news with national strikes and contracts.
Hoerr is best known for his 1988 book And the Wolf Finally Came, which chronicles the decline of the U.S. steel industry -- particularly in the Mon Valley. The book is unparalleled as a nonfiction account of de-industrialization. If more auto executives had read its analysis, things might have turned out differently in Detroit.
Though that 600-plus-page tome defined an era, Hoerr believes it didn't tell the whole story.
"I had set down technically all the facts I knew ... and I still felt I really hadn't explained what had happened to the mills and the towns in the Mon Valley or anywhere," he said in a recent phone interview. Hoerr had worked as a reporter for outlets including United Press International and WQED. He also covered labor for Business Week. Now retired, he lives in Massachusetts.
Hoerr said he wanted to write a story about people in the Mon Valley "that in the end would, metaphorically anyway, try to give my explanation of what happened in the Valley. Not in its actual terms, but I think, metaphorically."
The story revolves around two characters -- union activist and all-around rabble-rouser Joe Miravich and his unlikely companion and ally, businessman Pete Bonner. One night in a drunk tank, the two overhear a plot to kill a union leader. The tale follows Miravich and Bonner -- and their McKeesport community, families, love interests, workplaces and union -- for more than a decade.
Unlike his first three books, Monongahela Dusk is a work of fiction. But readers will find plenty of familiar ground, from Hoerr's thoughts on how workers -- not just managers -- can make steel better; the ubiquity of gambling rackets in mill towns; and the red-baiting Hoerr details in his labor chronicle Harry, Tom, and Father Rice.
Hoerr seeks to capture his memories of McKeesport in its heyday, as well as his recollections of summers working in the U.S. Steel National Tube works there. He vividly describes the bustling downtown, and the orange-red glow of the sky lit by molten metal, while not forgetting passages about milkmen and movie houses.
"When you grow up in a mill town, you are just besieged by sights like that, the odor, the noise, the pyrotechnics of steelmaking," he says. "Those memories were impressed on me forever."
Hoerr said he strove to keep the book from being "overly literary," and indeed his straightforward style makes for an almost-too-easy read. Parts of the story seem a bit far-fetched, such as Bonner and Miravich's initial meeting, or the villain and his dastardly plot. Moreover, Hoerr's predilection for inserting facts into fiction can be distracting, like when Bonner is driving down US 40 and Hoerr notes that it was "America's first national toll road."
Hoerr admits it was hard to shake his old reporter's habit of cramming a story full of information. Nonetheless, readers will still find Hoerr one of the most passionate chroniclers and advocates of manufacturing and the Mon Valley.
"I show what happens in a fictional situation in a particular fictional steel mill in a community in the '30s and '40s," he says. "Those who wish could project that forward to other towns and other industries, other plants, and get a sense of what might have happened."
Portions of the interview with Hoerr were first published on Rustwire.com.
A Dusk Dawn
A nasty Saturday morning, overcast sky bellying down, grinding the mill's sooty effluvia into every inch of street and sidewalk, every building, every dwelling place, and every creature out and about at the dawning of this unusually cold October day. Numbed hands cupped to his mouth, Miravich turns his back on a gust of wind that bursts through the narrow passageway from the millyards, preceding what will be a similar explosion of night turn workers out of the main gate when the 7 o'clock whistle sounds. He and a half-dozen other organizers will circulate among them and ask for contributions to a CIO organizing fund ("Spare a dime, buddy, for the good of all working-men?")
His gaze falls randomly on a black-clad figure on the opposite corner, who retreats around the corner. He has seen her before, the loony lady hanger-on at the fringe of CIO activities, who always seems to have her eye on him, observing him -- spying on him? -- at rallies, meetings, and on picket lines. He hurries across the street and turns the corner. But she has disappeared, possibly concealing herself in one of several doorways. At the moment the mill whistle begins its monotonal beat, and Miravich must abandon his search or be swallowed in the flood of men surging through the mill gate. "Hey, buddy," he says, approaching the first man out. Intent on catching a bus, or belting down a shot and a beer, the man knocks aside Miravich's canister and hurries on his way.
-- excerpted from Monongahela Dusk, by John Hoerr
John Hoerr reads at 1:30 p.m. Sat., Aug. 29. The Pump House, 880 East Waterfront Drive, Munhall. Also reading is poet Robert Gibb. 412-381-4261 or www.battleofhomesteadfoundation.org.
- Steel roots: John Hoerr