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BOOK REVIEW : FICTION : Blue-Collar Anger Faces a Disappearing American Dream : CAMARO CITY Stories by Alan Sternberg , Harcourt Brace $19.95, 219 pages

October 24, 1994|CHRIS GOODRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A principal enchantment of literature is its ability to dash preconceived notions into a million pieces, to make the implausible seem inevitable and the contradictory consistent. Hamlet is both sage and fool; Ahab is madman and hero. Writers write to make sense of the apparently nonsensical, and readers read, often, to share the writers' discoveries.

Alan Sternberg isn't Shakespeare or Melville, and few stories in "Camaro City" are exceptional taken alone, but read together they throw into hard relief the internal conflicts of modern industrial culture in the United States. Just about every character in these stories is a blue-collar worker barely making a living, and in most of the stories the climax--if they deserve that term, for Sternberg isn't given to dramatics--occurs when these laborers begin to grasp, however vaguely, that they will never achieve the American dream.

In "Hober," the eponymous protagonist toils six days a week at a muffler shop he co-owns and in the winter often drives a city snowplow all night, but his hard work seems to create neither a better world for himself nor greater opportunities for his son. Hober is not merely a cog in an immense industrial machine; he's a diminutive, worn-out, easily replaced cog quite aware of his low status, and unable, furthermore, to find an acceptable outlet for the brimming anger that self-knowledge generates.

Anger is everywhere in "Camaro City." Central Connecticut, in which these stories take place, is an industrial region well past its prime. The mills and foundries and factories have closed, and the companies that remain--mostly smaller operations, such as rock quarries and construction firms--are struggling.

In "Moose," a landfill inspector--recently laid off from Pratt & Whitney--is shot by a trash hauler caught dumping out-of-town garbage; in "Bilt-Rite," a laid-off construction worker complains about having to clean out flooded basements for a living, only to be told by his friend and new partner: "I've been in wet cellars my whole life, and you do it one day and you turn into a goddam baby."

All this anger flows naturally into the characters' domestic lives; in "Airport Beach," a truant officer is heckled by students who would rather have no job than his job. And in many stories, couples argue over nothing, the husbands acutely defensive about their failure to live up to their promise.

Raymond Carver made blue-collar workers and ne'er-do-wells staples of literary fiction. He didn't apologize for them, nor, usually, explain them. Sternberg, on the other hand, wants readers to understand the bitterness and confusion found in his characters, and does so by describing the stress under which they live.

It's not enough that the main character in "Camaro City," Brunet, has been passed over for promotion at the family-owned quarry because he's not a blood relation. He also has to cope with the fire that burned down his home, a fellow employee who ran a cement-loader out of gas and doesn't know how to jackhammer the resulting mess, and the theft of his 1986 Berlinetta (just 22,000 miles on the odometer).

Brunet is annoyed at the policeman's lecture about Camaros--they're stolen in town all the time, apparently--but he completely loses his composure when Janice, his wife, agrees that he'd be stupid to think about buying another one. She's right to point out that Brunet, like many other locals, practices "self-defeating behavior," doing things as natives always have regardless of changed circumstances; but she's wrong not to see how difficult it is for Brunet to suspend his sense of natural right.

"Camaro City" is an atypical story in this collection in that Brunet shows, fleetingly, a rough side. The fire in Brunet's home had been inadvertently exacerbated by a neighbor who broke into the house to rescue any remaining occupants, and had thus fueled the fire with outside oxygen. After learning this, Brunet yells at his neighbor, whose name is Morjassian, and we know that some of Brunet's anger lies in the fact that the immigrants now living in this part of town are more often from the Middle East and Puerto Rico than from Europe.

Brunet isn't exactly prejudiced against nonwhites, but he can't quite make peace with the notion that they may be able to attain the American dream when he can't. It's a contradiction that Brunet has trouble living with--hadn't he played by the rules? Hadn't he worked hard, done everything that was asked?--and easy to see how his real-life counterparts might find their essential broad-mindedness deformed to the point where it felt important to blame somebody--immigrants, liberals, feminists, legislators, pointy-headed intellectuals, whomever--for the change in fortune.

Though not a political book, "Camaro City" is full of political implications, among them the notion that one can be liberal and conservative, tolerant and traditional, at the same time.

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