FACTORY MAN: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local — and Helped Save an American Town
By Beth Macy
Little Brown, 464 pp., $28
When J.D. Bassett and his brother C.C founded the Bassett Furniture Co. in Henry County, Va., in 1902, a chest of drawers they made of local hardwood by local factory workers sold for $4.75 — cheaper than the Michigan-centered industry could then match. The family’s business acumen, as well as the economic advantage of cheap labor and abundant local lumber, soon made them rich and shifted the entire industry south to Appalachian hill towns like the eponymous Bassett, Va. By the time Bassett’s grandson, John Bassett III, came of age, he was poised to take over at the new epicenter of furniture manufacture. It didn’t happen that way; family infighting exiled the younger Bassett from the town and factory that shared his name. By the time he acquired his own company, American manufacturing itself was being run out of town — squeezed by ever-expanding conglomerates, then undercut by cheap labor overseas. In “Factory Man,” Beth Macy paints a heroic picture of Bassett’s fight to keep his company afloat during an industry meltdown and worldwide economic recession.
Macy brings to the story a keen understanding of life among factory workers, informed by her own family experience as well as her years of reporting for the Roanoke Times (this book stems from an award-winning feature series there). At its best, “Factory Man” traces the intertwined stories of a family, business, and town: the complex, paternalistic relationships, the shared secrets, the vexed bonds of interdependence. Macy writes movingly about what happens when workers in these factory towns face not only closing factories and skyrocketing unemployment but the loss of their community identity. But these threads can be hard to follow through a book that feels overlong and often convoluted (it doesn’t help that the Bassetts’ “insanely twisted family tree” is a tangle of recycled names and married second cousins). Worse, Macy’s finely wrought portraits of the local people and places are overwhelmed by tedious tales of regulatory machinations, phone calls between lawyers, and business executives talking about “protecting the brand.”
By Andrew Meredith
Scribner, 192 pp., $24
“I assumed I would learn how to be an adult from proximity to the adults I knew,” writes Andrew Meredith in this powerful debut memoir. But when his professor father suddenly loses his job amid scandal, the previously happy, close family turns sad and distant. For Andrew, who grew up worshipping his father, a new duality intrudes: “He was my hero and the man who had killed my mother emotionally.” His father starts teaching high school; for extra money, he takes on a second job working as a remover, the person who transports corpses to funeral homes. Soon enough, after dropping out of college, Andrew joins him. “Maybe picking up dead bodies together could be our chance to hang out,” he figures.
Meredith writes with plainspoken grace and easy humor: The first body he and his father remove “looks like any napping retiree, except he’s purple.” The smell is inescapable, horrific, but Meredith sticks with the work for far longer than anyone expected; his inertia owing, perhaps, to “a certain gift of mine — becoming okay with anything that happens even as I am powerless to change it.” Meredith meditates on failure and family with an honesty so raw it’s almost painful. What makes this memoir ultimately rewarding is its steadfast testimony of Meredith’s progress toward becoming the kind of man he wants to be.
JUST MY TYPO: From “Sinning With the Choir” to “The Untied States”
Compiled by Drummond Moir
Three Rivers, 192 pp.,
Why is it that intentional wordplay — puns, for instance — often makes us groan, while the unintentional wordplay in a typographical error can be sidesplitting? Perhaps it has something to do with the accidental nature of the typo, a joke freed from effort or planning, goofy and absurdist, a kind of verbal slapstick. Typos don’t have to mean anything at all (although some might argue they represent Freudian or other slips); they seem to exist only to please the reader — and mortify the writer or editor. The silly typos compiled here by Moir, an English publishing veteran, represent only a tiny tip of an enormous (and replenishing) iceberg. But they are well-chosen, amusingly organized, and really just plain funny.
Aside from the obvious lost-in-translation menu typos (“Roguefart”), some of the silliest come from newspapers, such as when the Albany Journal published this inadvertently useful advice: “Keeping all food under cover is the first step toward ridding the house of aunts.” Others arise from television news, as when a caption mistakenly told viewers that then-Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan was “in the hospital with an enlarged prostitute.” Smartphone autocorrect features cause some of the most outrageous typos of all; sadly, most of them are too salacious to print here.