College-educated, with a romantic and humanistic bent, Lewontin signs on as an apprentice sawyer ut a Vermont sawmill and finds himself in a time-warped world dominated by an elderly, tyrannical mill owner and staffed by a constantly changing cast of coworkers as strange and fascinating as visitors from another her planet. Owner Henry Parsons' idea of training a new hand is to demonstrate an operation once and then disappear into his office. He is contemptuous of questions and furious when inevitable mistakes are made. A flinty, taciturn Yankee, he curiously favors loudmouthed macho types: an ex-Army sergeant who brags of his sexual exploits; a truck driver who bullies the other hands and preempts the only pillow at lunch breaks. Lewontin's ability to learn the different operations—the trim saw that makes dowels, the ripsaw that cuts boards into smaller pieces—and his relative equanimity when given the nastiest jobs seem to infuriate the old man. When Lewontin is fired after six months, only one man—the affable, alcoholic Charlie—has a longer tenure. "Parsons," muses Lewontin, "could not reconcile his need for laborers with his own belief that every real man ought to be independent. . .and in his furious rush to hire and fire, he meant to show them their true worth." A writing debut characterized by wondrously detailed descriptions of difficult and hideously dangerous work, performed by a vanishing breed of artisans soon to be rendered extinct by automation.
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