The first time Jeanne Marie Laskas went into a coal mine, she was shocked by how white it was. Laskas, who was on assignment for GQ, asked the man next to her why the mine wasn’t coal black. “They just paint this opening part white to cheer everyone up?” she wondered. “Irony? A little humor to start your day before you move into black?” The miner turned to the writer and said: “I think you’ll find there are no aesthetic choices, nor is there irony, in a coal mine.”
This exchange is one of many marvelous surprises in Laskas’s new book “Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work.”
HIDDEN AMERICA: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work
Other unexpected treats: Turns out that coal mines are white because miners throw powdered limestone, an excellent fire retardant, on all exposed coal; it also turns out that coal miners have fascinating things to say.
We might blame magazines for at least part of our surprise at this. Of course fascinating people exist in all sorts of professions. Yet we rarely read about them in GQ or The New Yorker. Instead, these publications focus on celebrities, on overachievers, on regular folks who have been sucked up by scandal or disaster. Down in that coal mine, however, Laskas has an epiphany: “My daily life,” she writes, “was intimately connected to these people — dependent on them — and yet, up until my time in that mine, I knew nothing about them or their world.” She decided to fix that, and the nine chapters in “Hidden America” cover as many neglected professions.
Laskas writes about workers who have mastered their jobs, and she too can lay claim to virtuosity as a magazine journalist. Start with her style, which manages to be energetic without seeking attention. She stretches for vivid descriptions, as when she calls the main character in her chapter on Alaskan oil rigs “a burly guy, a Weeble that wobbles but won’t fall down.” She spots the strangest details. (In her chapter on LaGuardia’s run-down, air-traffic control tower, there’s a red telephone that, in order to satisfy some color-based regulation, has a taped-on sign that reads “BLACK PHONE.”) She gets the perfect quotes. (In her chapter on an Arizona gun store, one clerk tells her that IHOP is the only place in town that asks its customers not to bring their guns: “Needless to say,” he tells her, “most of us won’t eat there.”) And she processes this material with terrific wit.
All of these elements combine to give Laskas’s prose its pleasure and authority. What gives it momentum, though, is her storytelling. And Laskas is never not telling a story. Her chapters often center on self-contained narratives, with the best example being the one about three immigrant fruit pickers who wake up one morning to a medical crisis — and who end up having a far more complicated history than one might initially expect.
But Laskas keeps adding depth and detail to her little professional worlds, and this too functions as narrative. In her chapter on cowboys, which is actually a chapter on cow breeders, a bull named Revelation tears his ACL and MCL, wide reciever-style, his breeder drives him to Kansas for 18 months of rehab and surgery. It’s partly nostalgia, but mostly it’s money, and Laskas goes on to show how today’s ranches rely on surrogate cows, frozen embryos, and assembly-line insemination with a long syringe called an AI gun.
Yet Laskas’s most important tool is her industrial-grade empathy. She never gets sentimental with her characters. “The trick for a lot of guys,” she writes about the oil rig employees, who start out at $70,000 per year, “is to figure out how to go home and not spend all their money on booze.” But in each chapter it’s also clear that she respects and even loves them.
At this point one might object and say, sure, Laskas seems like a terrific magazine writer, but aren’t we here to review a book? Well, “Hidden America” has a dirty little secret: It’s a collection of magazine pieces. Some of the pieces fit Laskas’s theme better than others. Her chapter on the Cincinnati Bengals’ cheerleaders certainly demonstrates how hard they work. But are they a group of “unseen people who make this country work”? Similarly, her chapter on a Los Angeles landfill is actually an issue-driven essay on the past and future of trash; her chapter about the gun store seems more like a mediation between gun-loving America and gun-loathing America than a peek at a hidden America.
All told, about half of Laskas’s book doesn’t match her title — and it’s worth noting that it’s the weaker half. Given that collections of nonfiction don’t really sell, even when they collect nonfiction as good as Laskas’s, one could certainly feel a little cynical about this. But I doubt her subjects will mind. When she first descended into that coal mine, Laskas expected to find some mystique — something primal, something patriotic, maybe even something heroic. Early on, she decided to run this theory past one of the miners. He responded with a sentiment shared by many of the people in “Hidden America”: “The paycheck is the reason we’re there”