Books of The Times: In ‘Janesville,’ When the G.M. Plant Closed, Havoc Followed

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“Give us Cavaliers,” he begs. “Give us pickups.” Any model other than the unpopular SUVs the plant is currently churning out, he means. “You know you’ll destroy this town if you do this!” he yells into the phone.

Whether the closure of this fabled 4.8-million-square-foot facility does or does not destroy Janesville is for the reader to decide. Goldstein, a longtime staff writer for The Washington Post who was part of a reporting team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002, opts for complexity over facile explanations and easy polemics. (Neither Obama nor Ryan comes off looking particularly good; and no, she does not conclude that these layoffs put Donald J. Trump in the White House.) Her book follows a clutch of characters over the course of five years, from 2008 to 2013, and concludes with an epilogue in the present, when unemployment in Janesville is less than 4 percent.

Terrific news, you might say. But that number belies some harsh realities on the ground, as we learn throughout the book. Real wages in the town have fallen. Marriages have collapsed. And Janesville, a town with an unusual level of civic commitment, unity and native spirit — the Ryan family has been there for five generations — has capitulated to the same partisan rancor that afflicts the rest of the nation.


Amy Goldstein Credit Melina Mara

It was not the sort of place, for instance, where a beloved local politician might find someone unfurling his middle finger at him during Labor Fest — until 2011, which happened to be the year that Scott Walker, a flamboyantly anti-union and polarizing figure, took up residence in the governor’s mansion. The town is now riven by “an optimism gap,” as Goldstein calls it, with dispossessed workers on one side and bullish businesspeople on the other.

“Janesville” joins a growing family of books about the evisceration of the working class in the United States. What sets it apart is the sophistication of its storytelling and analysis.

The characters are especially memorable. This may be the first time since I began this job that I’ve wanted to send notes of admiration to three people in a work of nonfiction.

Readers will also finish “Janesville” with an extremely sobering takeaway: There’s scant evidence that job retraining, possibly the sole item on the menu of policy options upon which Democrats and Republicans can agree, is at all effective.

In the case of the many laid-off workers in the Janesville area, the outcomes are decidedly worse for those who have attended the local technical college to learn a new trade. (Goldstein arrives at this conclusion, outlined in detail, by enlisting the help of local labor economists and poring over multiple data sets.) A striking number of dislocated G.M. employees don’t even know how to use a computer when they first show up for classes at Blackhawk Technical College. “Some students dropped out as soon as they found out that their instructors would not accept course papers written out longhand,” Goldstein writes.

It makes you realize how challenging — and humiliating — it can be to reinvent oneself in midlife. To do so requires a kind of bravery for which no one gets a medal.

But perhaps the most powerful aspect of “Janesville” is its simple chronological structure, which allows Goldstein to show the chain reaction that something so calamitous as a plant closing can effect. Each falling domino becomes a headstone, signifying the death of the next thing.

Because the G.M. plant closes, so does the plant at the Lear Corporation, which supplied it with car seats and interiors. Because so many in Janesville are now out of work, nonprofits lose board members and contributions to local charities shrivel. Because their parents are out of work, students at Parker High start showing up for school both hungry and dirty. A social studies teacher starts the “Parker Closet,” which provides them with food and supplies. (Deri Wahlert: She’s one of the people to whom I’d like to write a fan note.)

The fabric of hundreds of families unravels, as an itinerant class of fathers — “Janesville Gypsies,” they call themselves — start commuting to G.M. factories in Texas, Indiana and Kansas, just so they can maintain their wage of $28 an hour. Those who stay home invariably see their paychecks shrink drastically. One of the men Goldstein follows, Jerad Whiteaker, cycles through a series of unsatisfying, low-paying jobs, finally settling in one that pays less than half his former wage and offers no health insurance. His twin teenage girls — to whom I’d also like to send awed notes — share five jobs between them, earning so much money for their family that they compromise their eligibility for student loans.

You will learn a lot about the arbitrary rules and idiosyncrasies of our government programs from this book. They have as many treacherous cracks and crevices as a glacier — and offer about as much warmth.

“Janesville” is not without shortcomings. It can be overwhelming at first, with many characters raining down on the reader at once — it’s a bit like getting caught in a hailstorm of pickup sticks. (Though there’s a cheat sheet in the front of the book, which helps.) There’s almost no discussion of globalization and outsourcing jobs to Mexico, which seems a strange omission. Surely, the residents of Janesville must have an opinion about this?

But these are minor objections, ultimately. “Janesville” is eye-opening, important, a diligent work of reportage. I am sure Paul Ryan will read it. I wonder what he will say.

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