22 September 2008

Middlesex Update

All my kvetching of a couple days ago notwithstanding, I'm continuing to read Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex and getting quite a bit out of it. Admittedly I'm skimming over the bits where J.E. tries to get all literary on us, but now that he's managed to transport his first couple of protagonists to 1920s Detroit, there's enough period detail to keep me enthralled.

I especially liked his introduction of the Ford Rouge plant, or the Rouge, as it was known then and during my own 1950s childhood, when it continued to tower balefully over Downriver and with billowing clouds of black, acrid smoke blot out the sun and the sky and most other signs of life, love or hope.

I never actually worked at the Rouge, though I was taken there several times on school or Scout tours. Since it was assumed that half or more of us would probably end up there, I suppose they thought it made sense to get us used to the idea. If you ever get a chance to see the Diego Rivera murals in the entrance hall to the Detroit Institute of Art - the Sistine Chapel of the factory classes, I always called it - you'll notice the portrayal of tour groups who from balconies observe the assembly line workers who in Rivera's rendering have begun to inelectuably merge with the machinery. Local auto magnates tried to have the murals erased when they saw that implicit message, but in one of the rare times in Detroit history where art triumphed over philistinism, were unsuccessful.

Another aspect of Eugenides' portrayal that rang true - despite it being obvious that it had all come from assiduous research and that he himself had never set foot in the factories except possibly as a tourist - was that of the black workers being consigned to the hellish environs of the foundry, where they worked mere inches away from flames that blazed high above their heads. By the 1960s, blacks had made their way onto the assembly line and other less dangerous and more comfortable positions on the factory floor, but in the steel mill where I worked in 1969, the crew shoveling coal into the ovens was still almost uniformly black, and I remember marveling when I learned that for this work - which almost no white man, even the most recent immigrant, was expected to do - they were actually paid less than those of us who did the somewhat cushier - "cushy" being an extremely relative term on Zug Island - jobs upstairs.

Anyway, while I'm still slightly bristling over the Briggs Stadium/Thanksgiving Day parade cockups, I must give credit where it's due: Eugenides has done his homework and looks to be constructing a mighty fine portrait of that often less than mighty fine city (but we love her anyway), Detroit.

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