Near the end of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter,” Nina Mac-Laughlin quotes Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s assertion that “ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry,” only to disavow his claim that “with both you are working with reality.” Where carpentry produces something “real,” MacLaughlin argues, “words are ghostly and immutable.” Yet although this distinction is central to “Hammer Head,” the narrative of MacLaughlin’s journey from frustrated journalist to contented carpenter, it is also ironic, for her words make exquisitely real the wood she works, the rooms she builds, and the sweat and strain of her working body.
“Hammer Head” is a gloriously Boston book, bringing to life our neighborhoods and towns, from Jamaica Plain and the South End to Winter Hill, Davis Square, and Cambridgeport. Its first chapter opens with a detailed description of the Mass. Ave. Bridge, which immediately reveals that though MacLaughlin may be an apprentice carpenter, she is a master writer, with the rare combination of acute observation and astute word choice that characterizes writers like Annie Dillard or Joan Didion.
The bridge is, at first, insistently real, with its “364.4 smoots” and “streetlamps, headlights, taillights like embers, all blinking and sparkling up the road ahead.” But it quickly becomes a powerful metaphor, “a ferrying for my brain,” as MacLaughlin walks it daily to and from her job as a writer and editor at the (late, lamented) Boston Phoenix. Once a source of professional joy and pride, that job has lost its luster, devolving into the meaningless seduction of “screen” and “click,” “the clips and pics, the news and noise of the Internet.” Wanting “something that had a little more to do with reality,” MacLaughlin finally quits. Overwhelmed by uncertainty, she impulsively responds to a Craigslist ad for “Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply.” Thus she moves from conjuring words out of pixels to wresting things out of wood.
“Hammer Head” is both memoir and meditation. In chapters named after thematically-appropriate tools — tape measure (“On the distance between here and there”), hammer, screwdriver (“On screwing and screwing up”), saw, clamp, level — MacLaughlin tells the story of how she learned carpentry through the smaller stories of individual projects. These arc from the bathroom floor in Harvard Square that she nervously helps tile while trying out for the job, to the carriage house renovation in Lexington where, after dozens of attempts to trim the inside of an awkward closet, she triumphs: “When two pieces met in a perfect seam, when the pieces followed the bowed swell of the floor just right, gapless, steady, when it pressed in to fit tight and right, I exulted.” They culminate in a bookcase (the ultimate conjoining of literature and carpentry) that she builds for her father, the first project she attempts on her own — and successfully completes.
These lessons and jobs also provide the occasion for contemplating topics ranging from the history of tools and measurements (the foot isn’t the only unit that stems from the human body), to snooping in clients’ houses, the politics and sexuality of being a woman carpenter, and a family history of work, wood, and divorce. If these are largely enlightening, a few seem forced, the determined consequence of an ultimately predictable reminiscence-to-rumination structure. But Mac-Laughlin’s turns of phrase never falter, whether she is describing the challenge of drilling through Brazilian walnut, aptly known as ironwood, or the detritus that litters her boss Mary’s van.
“Hammer Head” can also be read as a platonic love song to Mary. A tough lesbian who doesn’t care if salespeople call her sir, she lives in an endlessly under-renovation house in Winter Hill, rolls her own cigarettes, hangs out of third-floor windows to pry off exterior trim, and refuses to wear a mask or respirator, no matter how much toxic debris a job produces. Not only does Mary know exactly what she’s doing, but she knows how to teach it, giving MacLaughlin repeated opportunities to try, fail, and try again, and making the right suggestion at the right moment, but never too soon. MacLaughlin earns her skills — and Mary’s pride and respect, along with the reader’s and, not insignificantly, her father’s (though she fell into her job by clicking on Craigslist, her father’s workbench and duck decoys surely gave her a push).
One refreshing aspect of this book is that MacLaughlin does not turn personal journey into polemic. “Hammer Head” will inevitably be compared to Matthew B. Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.” But where MacLaughlin is passionate about making something real in the world through “the physical act of doing,” she does not argue that we all need to get back to manual labor. Rather, she crafts a powerful brief for finding your passion — and writing about it.Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary”. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.