Books of The Times
A Touchstone of Detroit Is Dismantled
Published: January 18, 2011
The title and subtitle of Paul Clemens’s new book, “Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant,” are so misleading that they nearly constitute literary fraud. If I’d paid $25.95 for it — book critics get free advance copies — I’d consider calling, or inventing, the Better Nonfiction Bureau.
One Year in a Closing Auto Plant
By Paul Clemens
Illustrated. 271 pages. Doubleday. $25.95.
Excerpt: 'Punching Out' (pdf)
The title suggests that this book will be about the people, perhaps even the author, who punched the clock at a Detroit factory and are punching it no more. The subtitle implies that we’ll follow their stories over the course of its final year of operation. No, and no.
What “Punching Out” is about, instead, is the year after the plant, the massive Budd Detroit Automotive Plant, Stamping and Framing Division, has shut down. Everyone has gone home. It’s about watching the plant’s enormous press lines being disassembled by hired gangs of heavy-metal vultures and shipped off to flourishing factories in places like Brazil, Mexico and India, where the equipment is needed.
This is not a dull or unimportant story. But it’s similar to discovering that a book with the subtitle “One Year in the Life of a Terminal Cancer Patient” is actually about the harvesting of his organs. Caveat emptor.
Mr. Clemens demonstrated in his previous book, a memoir called “Made in Detroit” (2005), that he’s a raw, introspective, truth-telling writer. That book was about race relations in his native city, a story he combined with his own, and was in part about how books and literature changed his life.
That earlier book is worth finding for two reasons. One, it’s excellent. Two, it contains the autobiographical material that is missing, and missed, from “Punching Out.” A reader who comes to “Punching Out” cold, without reading Mr. Clemens’s first book, will wonder why this first-person narrative is so remote, why there is so little about the author or his parents, who both worked in auto or tire plants.
“Punching Out” has other problems. The biggest is this: Mr. Clemens never gets very close to the rowdy, tattooed, blue-collar guys he writes about, the scavengers hired to swoop down and dismantle the big stamping machines. When he sees a few of them in a bar, he writes: “I’d lost my nerve to approach them. This was their habitat, not mine, and I was out of my depth, sipping my Coke.” Mr. Clemens’s blue-collar credentials are close to impeccable, but around these hard men he’s a mewling yuppie.
All this said, “Punching Out” is frequently rewarding. Mr. Clemens traces the colorful history of the Budd plant, which manufactured parts for a variety of car brands and which once employed nearly 10,000 people. He is a lovely, mournful observer of Detroit’s people.
“The working class is to Detroit what immigrants are to New York, prospectors to California, prisoners to Australia,” he writes. “The people who put the place on the map, and who continue to populate its psychic space.”
He gets at a grim reality: there is more money to made in tearing Detroit down, around 2011, than building it back up. He summarizes his book’s primal subject better than a panel of gods and philosophers could: “The American working class, mopping up after itself.”
Mr. Clemens’s writing about Detroit’s unions is savvy and complex. “Pro-union and anti-union members of the working class can be as difficult to distinguish, for those who haven’t made a study of the schism, as Shia and Sunni,” he writes. He’s funny on people’s character traits. About a laconic worker from Bosnia, he cracks: “His speaking role was somewhere between Harpo and Zeppo.”
About two men from Arkansas: “Dave and Terry senior had dental outcomes consistent with the 19th-century English Midlands.” Another tells him two things that will make you stop and think for a moment. The first: “I drank 32 beers the other night.” The second: “Hell, I don’t even know what e-mail is.”
Mr. Clemens is at his best when he’s somewhat angry — that is, when he gets some dirt on his spade. He riffs terrifically on “ruin porn,” what he calls “the arty delectation of Detroit’s destruction.” He nails those who arrive “armed with telephoto lenses, French theory, and poetic notions.”
This would be an even better riff if Mr. Clemens weren’t pretty highfalutin himself. “Punching Out” is crawling with literary references, some quite nice, some forced. I’m not sure that it helps to know that the Budd Company’s official historian, in some dry corporate document, was “as fond of ellipses as Louis-Ferdinand Céline.”
It was also probably a mistake to write about Thoreau, as Mr. Clemens does near his book’s end: “What sent me back to Budd, again and again, was a wish to live deliberately. This sounds absurd — a cabin in Concord Budd was not. But I’m a product of my environment, and a Detroit auto plant would be my Walden Pond.” This wouldn’t be an absurd idea at all if “Punching Out” were especially personal or reflective. But it isn’t.
“Punching Out” is a lament for a dying city and a dying way of being a man in America, a time when “guys good with their hands didn’t have to worry about being good at much else, up to and including speaking.”
What I admired most about the book, I think, is the lack of sourness intermixed with its blue funk. Detroit’s loss, the author realizes, will be someone’s gain somewhere. As Mr. Clemens watches a piece of large machinery being disassembled, he listens to a man named Duane, who says to him: “You can’t measure it. You can’t measure the lives, you can’t measure the lunches, the allowances, that people were able to give their kids.”
Duane goes on to say, in the most uncommonly patriotic comment I’ve read in a long time, that he “hoped that Mexican families might now benefit as much as his own had. ‘It’s why we’re taking such care getting this thing out of here.’ ”