Can a novel about a college professor have a working-class theme?
Yes, if the professor is a former welder/wrestler who teaches creative writing at a community college, as in Dave Newman’s East Pittsburgh Downlow (J. New Books).
“It’s a different perspective,” says the Trafford-based author. “There’s always an assumption from within the academy, at least from my experiences, that if you’ve done blue collar work you lack an intellectual life, a spiritual life, and that’s just not true. You may not use the same language as the academics, but it’s just as sincere, if not more sincere.”
Newman, who works as a medical researcher serving elderly people, has long explored working-class issues in fiction and poetry, including his novel Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children and The Slaughterhouse Poems. Universities, Newman thinks, tend to produce writers who are “PG” in nature, too cautious due to concerns about tenure and perception. “Once you get outside the academy, you can say whatever the fuck you want,” he says.
Newman does just that in East Pittsburgh Downlow. His character Sellick Hart teaches creative writing to students who are sometimes politically incorrect, often disinterested, and “know the world is not a great place.” His colleague, Berryman, is a privileged Ivy Leaguer and poet who wants to work with underprivileged students. His star student and the object of his desire, Megan, is a bartender with a penchant for mischief. Lawrence Riggins, a close friend and the greatest collegiate wrestler of all time as well as a former Pittsburgh Steeler, is involved in various illegal activities. Sellick’s mother is self-absorbed, and his grandmother swears as eloquently as Dave Chappelle in concert.
Newman cites Celine, the French writer best known for the 1932 novel Journey to the End of the Night, as an influence in how he writes dialogue.
“I started reading some books about Celine that talked about argot ... and how the idea of slang has the same value as any other language,” he says. “That just seemed really important to me, to hang on to that. When you lose the language you start with, you end up compromising yourself and compromising your characters and not telling the truth.”
The book’s setting changes from scene to scene, ranging from Johnstown to a few scenes in the city of Pittsburgh. But most of the book is set either in Westmoreland County or the Electric Valley, where companies such as Westinghouse long provided families with life-sustaining paychecks.
Much of East Pittsburgh Downlow deals with how residents, years and even decades after the demise of the industry, try to survive.
“I wanted to write not just a Pittsburgh book but a Western Pennsylvania book that reached out from Downtown,” Newman says. “You can go to the South Side, but you can end up in Wall or Wilmerding or Turtle Creek, those places that kind of get looked over in the Pittsburgh story.”