Rivethead: tales from the assembly line. By Ben Hamper. Estate; 234pp; £7.99. Review by Simon Caulkin.
Ben Hamper was destined for the assembly line as a wasp is for the jampot, a moth for the flame or a mouse for the inside of a cat. His father was a "shoprat", his grandfather was a shoprat, and he lives in Flint, Michigan. In Flint, Michigan (a town "that genuflects in front of used car lots and scratches its butt with the jagged peaks of the automotive sales chart") 66.5% of the working population owes its livelihood, in one way or another, to Messrs Chevrolet and Buick. Hamper would sit in his car watching the hordes spilling out of the plants, drinking beer and trying to figure out an alternative career."There weren't any. All I ever came back to was the inevitable admission that I didn't really want to do anything. And around these parts, in the fat choke hold of Papa GM, that was just chickenshit slang for asking 'What time does the plant start on Monday?"'
Hamper graduated through a variety of jobs until he found his calling (or one of them,) on the Rivet Line at the Flint truck plant. He found his second calling: writing about it. This transpired from life's usual combination of random chance and someone catching it in the fly, and soon Hamper was contributing an outrageous and subversive column, "Impressions of a Rivethead", to the Flint Voice, the local alternative paper.
Hamper's column was an instant hit. He nearly closed the paper when the proprietor of a rowdy local bar sued him for writing that "what the place lacked in ambience it made up for in ambulance", and he had more than his five-minute share of glory, appearing (to his cynical delight) in the role of blue-collar writer on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, in magazines, on TV and radio.
A more imaginative organisation than GM would undoubtedly have sacked him - he certainly gave it ample cause - but it needed him too: the ingenuity that went into goofing off, fooling around or doubling up meant that, when not asleep or somewhere else, he hit his quota of good rivets. Too inventive to be caught, be became an itch managers couldn't scratch.
And Hamper willingly accepted the Faustian bargain. Working the Rivet Line, he writes, "was like being paid to flunk high school the rest of your life. An adolescent time warp in which the duties of the day were just an underlying annoyance. No one really grew up here. No pretensions to being anything other than stunted brats clinging to rusty monkeybars. The popular diversions Rivet Hockey, Dumpster Ball (two lethal assembly-line games), intoxication, writing, rock 'n' roll - were just reinventions of youth."
Most people paid for the compact with their souls. Some ran amok, drank or drugged themselves into oblivion. Others simply vanished. Hamper himself became indignantly aware of its dilemma when a doctor advised him to stay away from the factory and concentrate on his writing. Doctor, he said, "in case you're not aware, all I do is write about the factory. In order to do so, it is absolutely necessary for me to work in a factory ... I have no other topics of interest I'd as soon give the factory one more shot."
He did. But GM won this particular battle. It couldn't sack him, but one day Hamper, too, started suffering paralysing attacks. Twelve years on the assembly line was enough, and he quit before it finished him off to go into mental care. We should be glad that he did, and that came through to exorcise his experience with this crude, brutal, funny and finally touching account of a love-hate relationship with the biggest, and possibly the meanest, company in the world.
As blunt and effective as Hamper's rivet-gun, Rivethead ought to be standard reading for anyone starting out in a big company with only a degree or an MBA for protection. Or for anyone, come to that, who has ever had the misfortune to work on an assembly line. Full of gruesome surreal humour, it is an authentic 1990s successor to Chaplin's Hard Times, the Marx Brothers remade by Scorcese. Bureaucracy is hell. Big companies are hell, and in their present form doomed, as the Fortune 500 is the latest to remind us, Ben Hamper is why.
Simon Caulkin is a freelance writer.