A collection of short stories documents the beginning of the end of a western Pennsylvania steel town.
Furnass, Pennsylvania, runs on steel mills: “The mills were a fact of life in Furnass, any part of Furnass, the same as the hills and the river and the trees; there was always the rust-covered smoke drifting over the valley, the steam from the coke ovens billowing up like huge genies to dull the sun.” In these 13 stories, set from the early 1950s to the early ’80s, the town’s citizens live and learn in the relative comfort of the steel economy—despite persistent rumors that it might all be going away. A 12-year-old boy buys a set of toy soldiers from a military antiques shop, intrigued by the rumors that surround the store’s handsy owner. Afterward, he encounters a different sexual ritual playing out in the woods near his home: one that ends, inevitably, with territorial violence between the town’s teenage gangs. Three former high school football players—now steelworkers—reminisce about a teammate who made it out of town with a mix of admiration and resentment. A Furnass mechanic is called to work on a Porsche that has broken down on the outskirts of town, which leads to a bit of class tension with the foreign car’s owner. Snodgrass (Across the River, 2018, etc.) shows how the fault lines that exist in any society—between men and women, friends and strangers—are only exacerbated once economic anxieties begin to rear their head. In the final tale, the eponymous “Hold On,” mill closures and layoffs haunt a social occasion involving three co-workers. A restored motorcycle appears to provide a welcome distraction from the uncertainty, but it proves to be a painful metaphor for the whole thing.
The author’s measured, plainspoken prose appropriately calls to mind the dirty realism of the ’80s. “I finally give up and go home,” narrates one damaged protagonist, a burglar and drug addict. “It’s been a while since I broke in there, and when I’m hanging out at Mikey’s All-Niter and the old dolly comes in, I’m careful to stay out of sight. Somebody put another sheet of plywood over that transom, so it’s better to lay low for a while and let things cool down.” Between the stories, Snodgrass includes a series of Hemingway-esque interludes, which follow two Scottish soldiers back in 1764 as they hack their way through the forest that will one day be Furnass: a de facto foundational myth that foreshadows the struggles of the region’s subsequent inhabitants. The result is a convincing meditation on the nature of work and manhood in industrial America (for these are tales about men and their particularly male insecurities; a weakness of the book is that women generally appear only as wives, mothers, or objects of sexual desire). The author makes great use of a linked short story collection’s ability to capture a time and place, with each piece shining brighter when reflected off the others.
A finely crafted, often haunting portrait of a steel town and its men.