At one time not so very long ago, American literature was rich with fiction about unions. Robert Cantwell’s Aberdeen-set novel Land of Plenty, which was recently revived by Jess Walter for local publisher Pharos Editions, is a good example of the genre. It makes sense that labor would mesh well with fiction; whenever you get a lot of people together in pursuit of a common goal, all sorts of interesting things happen. Then you have the dynamics of workers versus owners, the class issues, the drama of a strike. And writers love to write about work, too, because it provides an opportunity for them to lose themselves in research — think of those huge swaths of Moby Dick that lose themselves in the incantations of whaling life, and you’ll recognize an author who fell in love with his subject.
But ask me to name a novel written in the last decade that involves unions and I’m pretty much stumped. Which, again, makes sense: union membership has declined precipitously in the years since Ronald Reagan kneecapped labor laws. The workers who would most likely benefit from collective bargaining have been tricked by moneyed interests into loathing unions, and a whole new cabal of Republican presidential candidates drool and sharpen their knives whenever an interviewer brings up the possibility of weakening New Deal-era labor laws even further.
Really, though, shouldn’t authors be more likely to write about unions now that labor is so gravely imperiled? Don’t we need more novels about what unions are capable of, now that pencil-necked geeks like Scott Walker are eviscerating them in public? More than ever, we need examples of the wonderful things American workers are capable of if they work together. We need examples of what can be, and what has been, and what will be. The Great American Union Novel of the 21st Century has yet to be written, and someone had better get on that before it’s too late.
The thing that immediately grabbed me about local author Adam Rakunas’s sci-fi novel Windswept was the main character’s occupation: Padma Mehta is a labor organizer for the Santee Anchorage Freelancer’s Union. The thought that a sci-fi novel set in the far future, out on the distant edges of outer space, should center around someone whose job involves recruiting people to a union is incredibly optimistic in and of itself.
But it also establishes a fascinating dynamic for Mehta: by not taking the easy way out and making her something obvious like a private detective, say, Rakunas immediately added a layer of fascination to the character. What does she do all day? What kind of union does she recruit people for? She’s not one of those scary organizers that Scott Walker warned me about, right? Or one of those lazy union teachers that charter-school advocates are always blabbing on about, the people who get paid to sit at their desk and literally do nothing?
Well, no, she’s not either of those last two things — in part because neither the malevolent union bosses nor the lazy teachers who want to be terrible at their jobs really exist. Mehta is just another working stiff. She recruits people to join the union because she believes in the union, sure, but she’s also saving up for her early retirement. She wants to quit her job, buy a little distillery, and start selling rum. But that means she has to recruit 33 more people to the union, so when she gets a tip from a scurrilous no-goodnik about 40 immigrants looking for work, she jumps on the opportunity. Mehta probably knows, deep down, that this is a bad move, but she goes for it anyway. It turns out, to no one’s surprise, to be a bad move.
Windswept is a classic noir story shot full of space-rum and rocketed into the future. It’s not anything so simple as a thriller with a layer of chrome and some plastic ray guns tacked on; this isn’t a Chandler pastiche in nerd-drag. The future tech is integral to the story, and Rakunas clearly enjoys building out a science fiction world. But some of his descriptions could come straight out of the mouth of Philip Marlowe:
The main office loomed overhead, like someone had dropped a block of granite from orbit. It was one of the first structures to be built after the lifter, and it was a prime example of Big Three architecture: take the worst of native materials and turn it into the least functional of buildings. The only things that worked were the elevators and the atmosphere purifiers. The black caneplas doors squeaked open, and a blast of triple-scrubbed air from inside made my nose twitch. A pair of goons, their riot hoses at the ready, stood on either side of a battleaxe of a receptionist.
The plot sends Mehta skipping from place to place, following leads and talking tough and trying to chase down the person who double-crossed her. Gradually, the story opens up to encompass a strange and tenacious mold that’s consuming sugar cane crops with sickening efficiency. It’s unclear for most of the book how everything fits together. Mehta drinks a lot of rum, and applies her connoisseur’s nose to it, sniffing at one point that a certain brand “always tasted like rotten bananas.” Meanwhile, Rakunas is having a hell of a time laying out ideas that may or may not pay off later on, including a threat of carnivorous squids.
The strength of Windswept is in its details. Mehta might be a bit of a drunk, but she’s good at her job. She’s capable enough to cite “Section seventeen, paragraph eight, clause six, sub-clause two” of a contract when a deal goes south, and she’s well-versed in most varieties of blight that can strike down sugar cane. In other words, she’s a human being, with unique interests and a job to do. Just like me and you. Even hundreds of years in the future, Windswept argues, long after we’re all forgotten, there will still be people with jobs, and they’ll be looking out for each other. Solidarity.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant