The Electric Michelangelo: Find this Older Book!

Sarah Hall
Harper, 368 pp.
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Yes, this is an older book–one that that would have escaped my attention had I not gone to the wonderful Hartford Wadsworth Museum show  on Coney Island last winter, where it showed up on a list of memorable books about Coney Island. As it so happened, I had already been reading Alice Hoffman's wonderful The Museum of ExtraordinaryThings, and through the years have wended my way through fine works such as Dreamland (Kevin Baker), Requiem for a Dream (Hubert Selby, Jr.), and John Kasson's Amusing the Million, a non-fiction work I routinely assign to my classes. I also reckon just about everyone my age has read Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poetic collection A Coney Island of the Mind, or laughed at Alvy Singer growing up under the Thunderbolt in Annie Hall. Oddly, though, I had never heard of Sarah Hall, though The Electric Michelangelo was nominated for a Man Booker Prize back in 2004. The fact that it didn't make it to the U.S. until four years later might be why.

If you too missed out on Hall's book, let me encourage you to seek it through your local library, bookshop, used bookstore, or Web search. (I bought my copy from Half.com for 75 cents.) Though parts of it are on the gruesome side, it's an eccentric pleaser. Hall gives us Cyril Parks, who grows up in the English seaside destination of Morecambe on the eve of World War One. Although parts of Morecambe are fashionable, that isn't the case for Cy, whose mother runs a hotel for consumptives. Among Cy's boyhood duties is to empty the vile fluids deposited by guests in their bedpans and spittoons. Small wonder that Cy finds himself attracted to a misanthropic "scraper," Eliot Riley, who agrees to take on Cy as his apprentice. Riley has loads of dark secrets, but he schools Cy in the art of tattooing and teaches him quite a lot about the fine arts in the process.

Move the clock forward. After losing both his mentor and his mother, Cy shows up in Coney Island, where he establishes himself at The Electric Michelangelo—often to the envy and occasional ire of competitors. No one seems to know much about this upstart, but it's clear that he's an artist, not just a mere scraper. Cy stays to himself mostly–until he encounters Grace, a daredevil bareback rider. She's among the scores of sideshow performers, freaks, and hustlers that populated Coney Island between the two world wars, but she is like Cy in that she harbors secrets and unexorcised demons from her past. Cy falls in love with her before he even knows her. How will he honor her macabre request: to be tattooed over her entire body with a repeating motif of a black-framed green eye? Will her skin be Cy's greatest canvass, or will his needles puncture his final chance for hope and happiness?

An odd book? Yes indeed. It's also a heartbreaking one. The skin we inhabit is the body's largest organ, so what better setting to explore themes of art and desire, or flesh and pain? Is tattooing an art, a science, or a trade? One might naturally think it's all three, but don't be so sure. Another question Hall probes is whether we revel in the things that disgust. She does not turn her back on cruelty, nor does she glamorize pain. Many of Hall's descriptions are vivid and lurid, but they are never gratuitous or sensationalized. If I might, she pricks holes into quite a few assumptions, especially notions of why we choose to endure unpleasant things. She even dares suggest that self-chosen pain has less to do with compulsion or fashion, and quite a lot to do with psychological compensation.  Hipsters beware!

Rob Weir


Blue-Collar Labor: Stop, Hey, What's That Sound?

It stopped me in my tracks. What was that sound? Then it dawned: it was the sound of my youth. No, it wasn't some crystal-induced metaphysical past-life regression. I heard was the sound of work: of the blue-collar variety.

Remember this?
It happened on a day when I needed to be in my faculty office early, so I drove to work instead of taking the Five College bus. My parking spot is literally ¾ of a mile from my office, a journey I was happy to undertake on an unseasonably warm October morn. Bird songs greeted me as I left my car, but their chirps quickly gave way to the rat-a-tat-tat of rivet guns, the clang of hammers upon cold steel, the chug-chug of 'mud' (cement) being mixed, and the shrill commands, warnings, and "all clears" from construction workers shouting above the cacophony.

While it's not unusual to hear construction sounds on a college campus, I was taken aback by the realization that's about the only place I hear this sort of racket these days. Oh sure—earth gets moved, land gets scaped, buildings rise, and roads get patched (though the latter not so much any more), but the scale of what I witnessed is as rare in modern America as a kind Christian. The average road crew simply can't raise a big ruckus with a workforce that generally consists of a supervisor, an engineer, two traffic signalers, a cop asleep in a cruiser, and a handful of workers leaning on shovels waiting for the one person who operates all the heavy machinery to complete the job of the moment. On campus I saw a veritable army of workers: dozens upon dozens, sleeves rolled up, and attention turned to a common task.  Seriously—when was the last time you saw a hundred people working on a public project?

You'll get no romantic discursion into the nobility of toil from me. I'm not nostalgic for the days I worked on the factory floor, or the sticky summer days I baled hay on my grandfather's farm. The crews on campus were involved in hard, dirty labor—the kind that involves brawn, sinew, and muscle, not thinking, musing, and clicks upon a keyboard. But let's face it; the American economy needs more than retail workers, programmers, and professors.

What I miss are the days when things got built in America—the days before tax cutters, bean counters, and naysayers ran the Ship of State aground on the shoals of negativity. I yearn for the time when if something was broken, a crew went out and fixed it. The days when Americans said, "Can do," not, "It's too expensive," or, "It's an intractable problem."

If you're under 50, you probably don't recall when the United States bragged about its achievements and its productivity was the envy of the globe. You probably don't remember when we built new bridges instead of patching decaying ones with recycled steel and prayers. You didn't go to a school where the textbooks were replaced every two or three years and any town without a new school or one on the drawing board held its collective head in shame. You surely don't remember seeing "Made in the USA" stamped upon 90% of all that you owned, or hearing folks proudly call themselves members of the working class and labor unions. Those folks would have laughed at minimum wage Wal-Mart workers foolish enough to imagine themselves "middle class," or stupid enough to castigate unions.  

The rich would have you believe that blue-collar workers and labor unions bankrupted America. Nonsense! Bankers, grifters, and greedy investors stole America and fed the sheeple a rope of bologna they chewed and swallowed. The Devil's greatest trick was to get workers to blame themselves for paucity, poverty, and parsimony and to look upon robber barons as saviors. How's that working out?

I stopped in my tracks that fine October day because I heard the sound of prosperity and had forgotten its song. T'is a brash, strident, clamorous, clattering song, but it was sweeter than the warble of birds. As the songs of hope always are.

Rob Weir