A Preppy's Meat-Plant Education
STRAIGHT THROUGH THE NIGHT by Edward Allen, New York: Soho Press, 270 pp., $17.95Skip to next paragraph
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`ON worn tires, you feel close to the ground, and there is a jangling, wounded kind of weariness, that only people who did not finish college can feel.''
Books about young men meeting life head-on are a particular American type, and you can have them. But this is an exception. ``Straight Through the Night'' is enjoyable and riveting at the same time, smoothly written but flawed and asymmetrical as any really original creation must be.
Charles Deckle, prep school product, doesn't finish college. He finds himself working for his living in New York in the meat cutting district in lower Manhattan, where the restaurant owners buy. It's a frantic trade, conducted in a frenzy of narrow profits, amid razor-sharp knives, saws, and cleavers, and huge hanging carcasses. Men communicate at the top of their lungs, using the fricative lingua franca of working-class New York City. Survival in this world of shaky business credit and highly perishable goods depends on things no prep school ever taught.
He's on his own in a rough world that he never knew existed, which might as well be another planet. How he fares, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, is the heart of the book. He is working, real work, for the first time in his life, a life that now mercilessly depends on work. His co-workers and bosses are all from the great uneducated, and for Charles Deckle, unknown, blue-collar class.
They cut meat; they debone it; they slaughter and skin animals; they do the violent bloodstained things that an education can prevent you from ever having to think about. Sometimes he sees his co-workers as noble laborers, providing sustenance for the race; other times he sees them as animals cutting up other animals in a grim commercial danse macabre. He has additional experiences, but it is his work that runs his life, and that's a measure of the accuracy of this book.
This is Edward Allen's first novel, and you can't help being impressed with his gift for description and prodigious detail, and intrigued by the humor he discovers in his unlikely hero. He sees the dignity of the hard labor that Deckle and his co-workers are sentenced to and he's fascinated by the interplay of meat and men and money. He writes like a painter; he drafts the sweeping background and then points up the detail to which he wants to lead your eye. Underneath is Charles Deckle's emerging character, forced suddenly from years in protective prep schools and universities, into the workaday world, a world where there are no credentials to get you through when you can't perform.
``Straight Through the Night'' reminded me more of ``Down and Out in Paris and London'' than anything I've read in a long time. It's like a passionate Americanization of that marvelous George Orwell book. As with Orwell, the author explains by taking you with him to the job, with him in the delivery truck, with him in his beat-up car, with him to his tiny apartment, which is all he can afford.
Charles Deckle reaches the end of the book an informed innocent, sadder but wiser about the way huge numbers of his fellowmen spend their days. His experience also says some subtle things about education in this country: that it hides more of life than it reveals, and that it provides more opportunity to avoid than to accomplish. These are things well-educated people can spend their entire lives and never know.
Work has a way of shaping your physical and mental attitude. When I was in college, I delivered newspapers at night from 2 to 7 a.m. It was a miserable, cold job, and I was working for people who were home in bed. The one thing I learned was that I really wanted to graduate and do what graduates did, which was not delivering newspapers. Unless you've ever worked like this, you can live without knowing the real difference between the educated world and the vast but sometimes invisible world without degrees, the difference between being managed and being bossed.