“Monongahela Dusk” By John Hoerr 2009, Autumn House Press, 871/2 Westwood Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15211 paperback $19.95 (available from Amazon.com)
Sex, political corruption, intrigue, conspiracy, bombing and confrontations with the National Guard and local police — a steamy beach thriller set in Baghdad, right? Well, not really.
John Hoerr, a former writer for Business Week best known for his seminal work 'And the Wolf Finally Came,' the Bible on the suicide of the steel industry, has just added a sweaty, gritty “who done it” novel to his important and growing list of nonfiction telling a controversial story — after all, the US Steel Tower, despite having a health insurance company emblazoned at its top, is still the tallest building in Pittsburgh. (The tallest building is not Mellon Bank.)
'Monongahela Dusk' simmers orange hot, like a caldron of steel. From the opening scene where struggling beer salesman Peter Bonner inadvertently runs down Joe Miravich, a blacklisted coal miner, on fog-covered Rt. 40, traveling from McKeesport, Pa., to Cumberland, Md., Hoerr carefully weaves everyday life into larger society and historic social change. The tension of that movement between headlines, the Great Depression, the reorganization of the United Mine Workers union, the emergence of the United Steelworkers union and the routine comings and goings of the neighbor next door, lends this mystery its unique dignity and strength.
Characters are real, smart and some are deadly. There are no cookie-cutter stereotypes or predictable solutions to conflict. One strong episode is the picture of racism on the job in the mill. The open hearth crew (steel producing) is short and the boss adds an African American steelworker to fill the vacancy. Until this moment, the open hearth crew is all white with no opportunity for an African American to move into a job. White steelworkers sit down, refusing to work with a Black steelworker.
But steel production does not wait for the humans to work out their foibles — it creates a vise with all the weight of a hundred-ton press. Now Joe Miravich, the local union president, facing re-election, arrives at the open hearth. The resolution is both creative and courageous — read this page turner. NOW.
Hoerr's first novel fits into a niche established by Bertoldt Brecht's 'Threepenny Opera.' Hoerr is not Brecht, yet, but he is on the way, with multi-dimensional characters and vignettes as real as the dust on your computer screen.