I love reading good books – especially good books set in New York. I’m guessing you do to or you wouldn’t be here. And, I’m guessing that, like me, you love discovering book stores built over basements bursting with used books and then hunting and coughing your way through the dusty stacks.
I even have a recurring dream of descending into an imagined basement in a Manhattan slum and finding the used book store of my dreams. (Literally of my dreams.) For years, I’ve been returning to this seemingly limitless catacomb.
The great joy of being a book hunter is stumbling over a new author, subject or world. Here are some of my most treasured discoveries –
Psychic Dictatorship in America
by Gerald B. Bryan (1940)
- An insider’s exposé of The Mighty I Am. This spiritualist cult was popular in the 1930s and is still around. The money-mad Ballards gave birth to many imitators and set the template for the entire New Age movement complete with fairies, fruitcakes and frauds. On orders from the Ascended Masters, adherents murdered their pets. No foolin’.
Instantaneous Personal Magnetism
by Edmund Shaftesbury (1933)
- Tips published by the International Magnetism Club based in Manchester, England. Chock full of lifesaving information on nerve tensing, magnetic foods, wet clothes, thin shoes and fidgets. Hey, these guys were from Manchester and that’s good enough for me. Betcha they were Masons, too.
Adventures with Vending Machines
by Ray Burkett (1967)
- The “straight skinny” from one-who-knows on how to make millions stocking gumball machines in garages and paperback book racks in drug stores. With special chapters on, condom vending machines, pay toilets, the salted-in-the-shell peanut racket and the ever-fraught subject of vending in negro locations.
Analism Among the Poor
by Preston Harriman (1970)
- Harriman’s oeuvre includes: Analism Among the Poor, Analism Among the Rich, Anal Girl, From Adultery to Analism and Oral Aunts. (Preston was either hungry for a change of pace, or had a very friendly aunt.) Sadly, I’ve found only the one work by Harriman but I live in hope. Still, I’m not sure I’d shake his hand at a book signing.
But what does all this have to do with Joe the Engineer, I hear you cry. This –
You know how it is – your moving down the used book aisle, head tilted sideways, giving yourself scoliosis, scanning the book spines when a title catches your interest. You never heard of the author. The cover and blurbs intrigue you. You read the first sentence and next thing you know the clerk is telling you the store is closing. You blow the mildew from your lungs, brush the cobwebs from your clothes and head up to the cashier clutching gold-in-print.
That’s how I found Joe the Engineer by Chuck Wachtel (1983). I stumbled over it in the used book basement of the original Sam Weller’s in Salt Lake City. I found Francine Prose, David Markson, Charles Portis, Sam Lypsyte and Tom Perrotta in similar basements around the world. (They haven’t written any “Brooklyn” books so I’m not featuring them on this blog. But, if you are a fan of dazzling prose, do yourself a favor and read them. Trust me. Just do it.)
Anyone who has read my memoir Boy Outa Brooklyn will know that my opinion of the neighboring Borough of Queens is not high. Since Wachtel’s book is set in that hellhole, it’s not a “Brooklyn” book. But, since I grew up surrounded by “Joe the Engineers” and might have been one myself, and since it validates everything I’ve written about Queens and since it is so damn good and since this is my blog and I can do whatever I wanna do – I’m gonna do you a favor by making it my Brooklyn Book # 5. (So there.)
Joe the Engineer is quite simply one of the truest and most moving novels of working-class life ever written. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Joe is a Vietnam vet stuck in a dead-end job reading meters in Queens basements and living in Richmond Hill – the same dead-end Queens neighborhood where he grew up.
Joe is saddled with half-assed intelligence and half-assed dreams. And, Wachtel does a masterful job of capturing the mind of a person who isn’t fully conscious of the “how and why” of his miserable state but senses that something is wrong somewhere. The working class is full of such “canaries in a coal mine.” The media loves to mock them when they are inarticulate in their rage and confusion but I’ve always heard them loud and clear.
I’ve heard them because I am one of them. My antenna has always been finely attuned to pick up snide condescension from the elites. (That’s what cost Hillary Clinton the election. White workers ain’t dumb ya know.) So, I appreciated how “working-class Wachtel” applied his writer’s eye to our shared caste without snobbery or sentimentality.
I especially enjoyed listening to Joe’s thoughts as he read his customer’s lives while reading their basement meters. I saw him as a blue-collar Howard Carter mining the minutiae of ancient Egyptian life from hieroglyphs though in Joe’s case it is from ancient wall calendars and broken toys.
I found a 1983 radio interview with Wachtel – the year Joe was published. I was pleased but not surprised to learn that one of Chuck’s literary models was Hubert Selby Jr. whose Last Exit to Brooklyn is one of my Brooklyn Books. I was less pleased and surprised that Wachtel sounded prissy and academic. And when he blithely stated that America was a “mulatto” nation, my antenna started twitching. “Mulatto” is code for White genocide. It’s shorthand for “Death to Joe the Engineer.”
Happily, in 2020, “mulatto” is still not the norm in America and race-mixing is frowned upon by the vast majority of all races. (Don’t believe me? Listen to minority talk radio.) And, it was certainly not the rule fifty years ago despite Wachtel’s best wishes. However, due to the subversive work of those condescending elites (whom Wachtel chastised) and their fellow-travellers like, ironically, Chuck Wachtel himself, the Joe the Engineers of Richmond Hill and the world are being replaced.
Yes, the solidly White working-class Richmond Hill, Queens to which Joe returned after being used as cannon fodder in Viet Nam is now not open to his kind. For Richmond Hill, Queens is now known as Little India-Guyana-Trinidad and Tobago.
I eagerly sought out and read Wachtel’s other works which include poetry but, for me, Chuck is a one-hit-wonder. Still, as with those other liberal half-wits I’ve reviewed, Alfred Kazin and Pete Hamill, I’m gonna cut Chuck Wachtel some slack coz he wrote a beauty. Do yourself a favor – read it!
There seems to be a movie in the works but I fear they’ll kill the book with politically correct crap. Betcha the supermarket check out girl is Black or Muslim. And, probably cast with Chuck’s approval. Never mind – “I hereby pronounce Joe the Engineer an honorary Brooklyn Boy.”