Random Shots: Thoughts on Rivethead

Against the Current, No. 36, January/February 1992

R.F. Kampfer

THE BEST PARTS of Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line (Warner Books, 1991) are those that provide us with a shop-rat’s view of General Motors. The behavior of the corporation seems ludicrous to the most dim-willed: What fiction writer would have dared to invent Howie Makem, the “Quality Cat”? The image of a man in a big-headed cat suit, wandering around the plant to inspire better workmanship, is enough to start the most incurable optimist studying Japanese.

We tend to overestimate big corporations because they have so much money. From the sharp end it soon becomes apparent that not only don’t they know how to run their companies, but they don’t care very much either. Rather than functioning like a well-oiled machine, management is split into hostile cliques out to advance their own promotion. One advances by grabbing credit and shifting blame. Success and failure come at random, like weather.

One suspects however that the publishers of Rivethead view Ben Hamper as the literary equivalent of a diving horse That is, they are not so much impressed by the quality of his writing as amazed that an auto worker can write at all.

Hamper’s style in fact mostly consists of piling on metaphors until they threaten to slide off the page in a messy heap. One of the benefits of assembly line work for a writer, aside from the fact that it pays well enough for you to tell the editor to take it or leave it, is that it leaves the mind free to spend half the shift turning over a phrase until you have come up with just the right word. Hamper on the other hand seems to have picked up the GM value system of quantity over quality; if he hasn’t set the record for packing the most adjectives into one paragraph, he has come close.

This reader can’t help being struck by Hamper’s ability to learn from experience, but without discarding his first impressions. He goes into great detail about how cynical and disillusioned his fellow workers are—but doesn’t seem to remember that he ever thought they were anything else.

In high school, Hamper assumed that the workers who endure horrible working conditions for thirty or forty years, never missing a day, were motivated by some serf like loyalty and devotion to General Motors. In reality, nobody has fewer illusions about GM than people working on the line.

They don’t work themselves to death out of loyalty to the company, but as an act of defiance—bound by a macho code that will not allow them to admit weakness, to admit they cannot handle anything the company throws at them. This is obviously a self-defeating attitude that the corporation fully exploits, but it’s very different from being GM lapdogs.

Hamper’s own ingenuity and creativity never go beyond changing conditions for himself, or at best his immediate group. His portrayal of the nightmarish life on the line is undercut by his propensity for doubling up on jobs so he can spend half the shift drinking. Despite belonging to a halfway decent local, which bails him out with monotonous regularity, there is nothing said about his ever attending a union meeting.

The book’s shortcomings may be due to limited experience. If he had spent much time in a really miserable environment such as a migrant farm camp, chicken processing plant or day care center, Hamper might be able to put the assembly line in a more balanced perspective. Instead he comes across Hamlet-like, unable either to resign himself to auto work, fight to improve it or move on to something else. He has given us a rare look at life on the line, but not set an example for anyone to follow.

The 500 Year Blues

IT WAS A stroke of genius to hold the Mideast conference in Madrid. What could do more to bring the Jews and Moslems together than their common grievance and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella?

When Lyndon Johnson was president he once made a ceremonial visit to the Alamo. Because of the crowd, he asked if he could slip out the back door afterwards. “There is no back door,” said the guide. “If there had been a back door to the Alamo there wouldn’t be any Texas.”

One of the main things the defenders of the Alamo were fighting for was to bring slavery, abolished by Mexico, back to Texas. They’ve failed in the cattle-raising part of the state, since a cowboy had to be provided with a rifle and a good horse.

January-February 1992, ATC 36