Sayles, John (Vol. 10)
[Union Dues is a] long, well-written, ultimately formless tale about a kid from a coal-mining family who in 1969 leaves West Virginia for Boston to find his brother, a burnt-out Vietnam veteran. The guts of the story concern the boy's haphazard entree into a radical Boston commune that defines itself somewhere between early Weatherman and present-day U.S. Labor Party. The desperation, pretentions, honesty and hopelessness of such politics are captured cleanly and without much condescension, which makes Union Dues virtually unique among the political novels of the last ten years. (p. 119)
Greil Marcus, in Rolling Stone (© 1977 by Rolling Stone Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 247, September 8, 1977.
John Sayles's second novel [Union Dues] is a story of flight and search….
The omniscient narration moves back and forth between the two protagonists' "searches." But several scenes are shown from the viewpoints of peripheral characters—who are about to meet up with Hunter or Hobie [the protagonists]…. [The] writer's ability to hear the way real people talk (also evident in Sayles's gritty first novel, Pride of the Bimbos) imparts a very special conviction to scenes involving mine- or factory-workers. There's a wonderful set-piece in a Boston saloon, where cronies rattle on about "pure, above-bawd patronage politics," and a lugubrious barfly mourns the passing of "poor Joe" (Kennedy). Sayles packs the book with irreverent, combative, funny and dirty songs and stories, as well as a flinty-eyed affection for the people who love to spout them.
The only real flaws show in Third Way's interminable "conferences." As Hobie observes, "argument seemed to be the language they spoke." I suppose the point had to be made, but Sayles overemphasizes their self-defeating absorption in round-the-clock talk and circular reasoning. It isn't credible: if the '60s radicals had been quite that disorganized, the Jesus Freaks and Young Republicans would have taken over the country, and buried them.
Besides, the ironies are manifest, and don't require authorial underlining. The people who try to...
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John Sayles's Union Dues is a disturbingly well-written novel. I'll begin by praising the book's obvious merits, before I deal with what disturbs me so much about it.
The plot in itself should guarantee reasonable interest. A miner's son, Hobie McNatt, runs away from his home in desolate West Virginia coal country, in search (he thinks) of his older brother Dar, a burnt-out Vietnam veteran. He comes to Boston where he falls in with one of the "revolutionary collectives" that proliferated during the late 1960s. His father, Hunter McNatt, reluctantly leaves his buddies in Joseph Yablonski's insurgency against the United Mine Workers' Boyle machine to look for his son in the Brave New World of the Boston-Cambridge axis circa 1968–69: a good mix of materials—working-class hero meets the New Left.
Fortunately, Sayles is too serious and skillful a writer to succumb to the temptations of the facile and topical. He manages to create a compelling American tragedy, the dissolution of a family, and then to extend it to our nation's desperate search for lasting roots and personal ties. This theme is suggested on the book's first page with the description of a strip-mined hillside Hobie sees on his way out of town: "The trees were all gray up by the dozer-scraped highwall, tilted at crazy angles with their roots poking out into space." As the book continues, the theme takes root and spreads….
Sayles, a Williams graduate who has worked at several blue-collar jobs, has written a realistic novel of working-class life. He understands the petty but intensely personal politics of the shop floor and the union local. He captures the physical sensations of moderately hard menial labor and he has an uncanny ear for the dialogue of diverse working-class subcultures….
Hunter McNatt is a brilliantly wrought character, but Sayles is considerably less kind to the middle-class radicals who appear in his narrative. He captures their Movement jargon and their presumptions in devastating dialogue. (p. 408)
No one who was involved in the political activism of the 1960s will read this book...
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[Union Dues] is a bleak story, relieved only by occasional flashes of humour in the dialogue and by the (not wholly credible) possibility that Hunter may marry a sympathetic widow. It is also very much a book of the 1970s: which is to say that it reviews the 1960s as someone with a bad hangover might consider his binge the night before, applying to that decade the old-fashioned value judgments that prevail today. The cops are no longer pigs, though they do get a bit cheesed off now and then. The older generation, matured by their experience in the Second World War, care about their kids, in an inarticulate sort of way, and make the best of a bad job at work. By contrast those of the younger generation who have been to war have been unmanned by it, while their noncombatant contemporaries are stridently articulate and care for no one. Of course, these clichés of the 1970s are no more satisfactory than those of the 1960s. On the other hand, John Sayles never loses his grip on the dialogue, or his interest in the detail of people's work. Indeed, at times the reader seems to be chewing through great, enriched slabs of Studs Terkel's Working. The book jacket says that Union Dues "has a solidity nearer to that of nineteenth-century novels than to those of our day": this is right.
Stephen Fender, "Working Model," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), April 21, 1978, p. 433.