Last month, I was driving by White Whale, Pittsburgh’s best independent bookstore, noticed a sign for an author reading, parked, and walked in to listen to Tom Bennitt, a young Western Pennsylvania novelist reading from his first book. (Bonus: Stewart O’Nan, Pittsburgh Hall of Fame novelist and a mentor to Bennitt, moderated.)
Burning Under (which you can buy here) is a 182-page thriller about a young lawyer — Bennitt’s alter ego — who investigates a deadly accident at one of his company’s coal mines. In his fight for justice, he faces down the miner’s evil tycoon owners and allies himself with coal miners and their families.
What I loved about the book was — and why it’s worth mentioning on a blog about a movie about a small town — is how precisely Bennitt nails all the different geographical spaces of this part of the country, from coal mine and decaying industrial town to gentrifying city street and rich suburb.
Bennitt is from Butler, PA, a town of roughly 13,000, much like Moundsville (and you can still see our documentary film here), and the writer is sensitive to the tapestry of towns, cities and suburbs, interstates, rivers and two-lane roads, and farms, mines and gas wells that covers America between New York and Chicago.
Pitch-perfect descriptions serve the telling of the story, as characters drift from one locale to another; as the 2020 election evolves, they’re a valuable addition to the conversation about so-called Trump country. The hinterlands are not a monolith. There’s endless variety out here, in places and in people.
Visiting his hometown, based loosely on Butler, Simon, the protagonist, drives “past the empty Woolworth’s building, Phat Matt’s Tattoos, the Elks Lodge, and Thompson’s Funeral Home.”
Once a vibrant town of immigrants, mostly from southern and eastern Europe, today it was a strange mix of churches and bars. Another notch along the rust belt. Some meth house had sprung up on the edge of town. There were a few Amish communities in the western part of the county, but they weren’t hardcore Amish: you’d see them at Wal-Mart, or eating Blizzards outside Dairy Queen.
The suburbs are endlessly diverse in income and appearance. Simon visits a friend who works at The Parlor, a high-end furniture store in a sprawling McMansion neighborhood: “Framed by large white columns, the store’s exterior had a Southern antebellum aesthetic.”
These were not homes, they were estates, flanked by mature trees and big yards. Some orthopedic surgeons lived back here. She wanted to peek inside their homes and see what happiness looked like. On Saxonburg Road, more modest ranch houses. Steeler flags on porches and Support the Troops ribbons on mailboxes. She passed that creepy old house on the bluff with the basement window light one. Home to a squatter, maybe, but she pictured something more depraved, like a surgeon cutting up young girls.
On one trip out of town, he drives through another kind of suburb.
He gazed out the window as the bus chugged up Route 8, past a glass factory and The North Park Lounge, once a great watering hole before it turned into another cheesedick sports bar. They passed Hilliard’s Truck Sales and the Chevy dealership, owned by the McConnell Brothers: two high school football legends who played at Notre Dame. Almost home, he thought, as the bus raced down Armco Hill and crossed Hansen Avenue Bridge.
Big cities are prospering again, thanks to hospitals, universities and tech companies.
Pittsburgh: The Steel City. The City of Bridges. The Paris of Appalachia. During the French & Indian War, it was a tiny frontier outpost called Fort Duquesne. When British troops invaded, the French decided to burn their own fort, rather than surrender it to their enemy Simon admired the purity and passion of their hatred. But Pittsburgh today looked far different. Since the turn of the century, the city had greened itself – cleaning rivers, erasing industrial blight – and transitioned from a blue-collar steel town to a center of finance.
Young, wealthy white-collar workers are moving into offices and buying real estate, a gentrification Bennitt captures in a succinct paragraph, when a character cuts
through East Liberty. A century ago, home to steel barons. Now Section Eight housing and vacant buildings. Recently, they’d built a Home Depot and Trader Joe’s, part of the urban renewal project, and a row of colorful town homes. On Negley avenue, church was letting out. Black families, dressed in colorful suits and dresses.
And outside the city, there’s also the farmland, whose soil is plowed, mined or fracked, depending on current technology and the demands of the global economy.
Passing into Seneca County, she whizzed by the mushroom farm, picking up the same foul odor that clung to her skin during the summer she worked there. She remembered the cold dark tunnels and helmet lamps, crouched over the mushroom trays, slicing the stems with a paring knife. She crested a hill and glimpsed a fracking well above the tree line.
And finally, there’s the coal mine — an economic engine of towns for the last 150 years.
The Sarver Mine was one of the last underground mines in Pennsylvania. Most companies had switched over to strip mining, using machines – rippers and hydraulic shovels – instead of human labor. Sometimes the land above would subside, and some old farmer would have to be compensated for the damage, but this method was still cheaper than underground mining. And while strip mining could not be considered eco-friendly, it was child’s play compared to the mountaintop removal mining – scalping the tops of mountains with gigantic dozers and front-loaders – done in West Virginia and Kentucky. Down there nothing was sacred.
In an interview last year, Bennitt describes his emphasis on place:
I think setting is an underrated craft tool in fiction, and I admire writers who describe place with vivid, sensory details. Burning Under is firmly rooted in western Pennsylvania. It’s a unique ecosystem, physically and culturally, that includes the Rust Belt, the coal mining region, rolling farmland, mountains, and deep river valleys. I grew up in Butler, a steel mill town north of Pittsburgh, in the eighties and early nineties. I also lived and worked in Pittsburgh for six years (2004-09.)
Most people know about the new-and-improved Pittsburgh, yet the Rust Belt is misunderstood. There’s a pretty sharp divide. If you drive along the Ohio or Monongahela Rivers, you still see a lot of empty Main Streets and rusted-out mills. In the novel, the (fictional) town of Millburg captures the pulse of the Rust Belt, or I hope so.
The changing geographic quilt Bennitt describes is the result, mostly, of forceful economic change that lies beyond the control of people doing their best to earn their bread, enjoy their ballgames and beer, and rear their families. We’d all be well-deserved to be as careful and precise as he is in noting the reality of, and differences between, all these different places.
John W. Miller