For many working-class folks, the job can become an integral part of who they are, a reason to be.  Yet when pressed to share his views on jobs as identity, Newman cuts against the grain, saying “I try to separate the idea of work and jobbing. Jobbing is what most of us do to pay the bills. Work is what keeps us alive and sane.”

By Fred Shaw 

The Same Dead Songs: A Memoir of Working-Class Addictions by Dave Newman, from J. New Books 

Dave Newman is no fan of $39 pizzas, pretense or being a poser. Instead, the Trafford resident and writer lives in what was once a western PA company town, “the last town in the Electric Valley,” founded in 1904 by George Westinghouse who built a foundry there in part because of its proximity to “human capital.”  Amid Trafford’s long labor history, it’s no surprise Newman’s writing would focus on the human toll that goes along with work, or in his words, “jobbing.” With a seventh book just published, his output includes well-received poetry collections like The Slaughterhouse Poems, with its expressive emphasis on the human element of that bloody industry, and the 2012 novel, Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children which drills into the sad realities of being an adjunct professor.  In his latest, The Same Dead Songs: A Memoir of Working Class Addictions (J.New Books, $18), Newman seeks to better grasp what his writing continues to explore: human empathy.

Built around a single inciting incident, The Same Dead Songs orbits its antagonist, Anthony Davis, a childhood friend who unexpectedly shows at the adult Newman’s home, “on Saturday, messy drunk and holding a half-snorted bag of cocaine, his only collateral, his last bit of status.  I was away for a couple hours when he arrived.”  As intros go, it’s an attention grabber, but more importantly, sets the stage for 85 highly readable chapters, some only a koan-like sentence long, that unpack Anthony as an alternately sympathetic and frustrating character, unwilling to accept help or responsibility for his actions.  That the trying events surrounding Anthony’s threefold addictions to drugs, alcohol and gambling are coupled with Newman’s deeply reflective writing on his own life and relationships, make this book more than a collection of gossip and tales of excess.

In an interview with Belt Magazine, Newman discusses how the book came about as originally a long essay he wrote after an even longer weekend spent trying to both care for Anthony and rid his family of Anthony’s chaotic presence.  While other friends later shared their own outsized stories of Anthony’s behavior, which include time as “a born-again Christian and bugging everyone to get saved,” and a fight that got him banned for life at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg campus where Newman attended and now teaches writing, he decided that wasn’t the direction the book needed to go.  Ultimately, after drafts and revisions over years, Newman determined he “wanted to capture the intensity of trying to help an addict who doesn’t want help in moments of terrible crisis. It’s always a struggle to depict anyone in writing. We build our truths from facts. Literature is our interpretation of the facts. The more perspectives the better.”

While Newman’s writing can be a hoot, he’s no angel, detailing his own tangled history with drugs and a continuing taste for beer, looking for answers throughout The Same Dead Songs, though “being near Anthony made me feel everything I preferred not to be.”  What follows is an exploration that heads in many introspective directions. Some of them delve into Anthony’s personal choices, others detail Newman’s own struggles to find meaningful employment and success as a writer, one whose written “the worst selling novel in the history of novels.”  Yet by celebrating tiny moments of achievement, like his first book getting a mention in the local newsweekly, he sees how his own life diverged from Anthony who “didn’t create anything.”  It might be fair to conclude that by keeping a low bar for his own success allowed Newman to stay on the relative straight and narrow, offering readers his own definitions of success as “the tiniest thing, cutting the grass, eating a good meal, shooting hoops, waking up without a hangover for a week straight.”  In other words, people who have goals often have fulfilling lives and might be less prone to hardcore dependence.

Though Newman is no addiction expert or psychologist, his take on the roots of addiction offer an engaging perspective when he shares, “The people I write about all spend their time jobbing or looking for jobs, even if they fight against being defined by their jobs. Addiction stems from stress, no matter what the genetic component is. Jobs are stress. If you have a white-collar job and smile all day at work, you’re probably going to want a drink when you get home. If you use your body at your job, you’re going to want to have a drink when you get home. If you don’t have money, and the opportunity to earn it, you’re going to spend that time getting fucked up. We all want to feel good. Success feels good. So do drugs and alcohol. It’s really easy to allow the release to become another job…until you’re dead.”  Spoken like someone who knows the score by having walked the walk.

For many working-class folks, the job can become an integral part of who they are, a reason to be.  Yet when pressed to share his views on jobs as identity, Newman cuts against the grain, saying “I try to separate the idea of work and jobbing. Jobbing is what most of us do to pay the bills. Work is what keeps us alive and sane. Writing is work. Cooking dinner is work. Gardening is work. Work is a creative task that is essential. Honestly, I’m not interested in being defined by either work or jobbing or anything else. I hate reduction. I hate it when the world gives up on complexity. Refusing labels makes us all better and more complex people.”  That the memoir not only circles around Anthony’s problems, but Newman’s as well, allows the book to detail the balancing act required to fulfill the demands of thankless employers, keeping him away from a family he adores while stifling the time needed to write.  In one chapter, he imagines “the books I wanted to write as breeze blowing from a vent, blowing by me and gone.”

So where did the impulse to become a writer came from, growing up in a Rust Belt, blue-collar household where the only books available were the Bible, The Outsiders, and The Door’s biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive?  He shares an idiosyncratic choice as a first inspiration:  a Corey Hart video of “Never Surrender.”  The anthemic song, a surefire earworm for many a Gen-Xer, was a jumping off point for a romantic, rhyming poem penned for a first girlfriend at fourteen. Though it wasn’t until college that he began immersing himself into reading, he points to his discovery of the godfathers of working class poetry, Martins Ferry’s James Wright and, most especially, former Poet Laureate, the late Phillip Levine, as a watershed moment. It’s fair to consider that every contemporary working-class writer has been inspired, in some way, by the former Detroit auto worker turned professor and poetry mentor to the likes of Larry Levis, among others.

Perhaps, Levine’s influence is most prominent in Newman’s willingness to include realistic characterizations and focus on others in his wide-ranging work, bringing to life the likes of strippers, barflies, horrible bosses, drug dealers, and close friends, among others.  In Newman’s steady output, he’s been able to make them breathe on the page, accompanied by all the messy baggage that makes them human. In a 2021 article on Phillip Levine for The Jacobin, writer Dan Darrah states that, “Levine lamented that poetry had become ‘unpeopled,’ and he sought out to correct its course by populating his poems with a tapestry of characters drawn from everyday life. These characters were often, though not always, of working-class background and disposition. Levine gave them a voice. His focus on regular Americans, however, did not lead to partial portraits or aggrandizement, but instead managed to illustrate ‘the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn’t give a shit.’” Levine’s style, often free-form, plain and unadorned, sings in a key that can be heard in Newman’s own writing.

For many, including this reviewer, work is often the first place young people interact with adults outside of family and teachers. For many it’s a game changer.  When asked, Newman explains his own experiences: “I worked in a paint store all through high school. I stocked shelves and mixed paints. I learned how to talk to people who wanted to shop for wallpaper. I learned to talk with professional painters and help meet their needs. Once, a guy with throat cancer came to the paint store with his wife. He’d had a tracheotomy. To help him speak, instead of using a valve, he used a kid’s toy, a little plastic red bird, probably made for bubble blowing or something like that; it vibrated and gave his voice a tweety, robotic sound. He and his wife were both so sweet and open about his voice, smiling and explaining. The little bird worked better than a valve and was cheaper. I’ve thought about that moment for more than three decades, their kindness and patience. It was really important for me to make my own money but also to learn about the adult world…. I wouldn’t have used this word as a teenager, but it was the first time I considered empathy or that it was important to care about things I didn’t really care about or things that didn’t directly affect me. I’ve tried to take that lesson everywhere.” In the writer’s world, life experiences like these become the kernels of creativity.

Though The Same Dead Songs could play out anywhere, there’s a decidedly Rust Belt feel to Newman’s voice and use of setting. In one chapter, he writes, after finally getting Anthony out of his house, “I kept driving, focusing on the road, the Western Pennsylvania road, the hills and swerves, the faded yellow lines, the complete lack of care by the state government so potholes to avoid, and clouds shaped like polar bears filling the blue sky.  So many years had passed since yesterday.”  It’s a strong example of using setting to personify a wandering, depleted mindset, alluding to both Newman’s exhaustion and Anthony’s lack of positive inertia.

When asked if it were difficult to write about places he knows well, ever the outsider, he shared, “I’m always looking for places that are neglected in literature because it’s important, but I’ve also spent big chunks of my life in those places because of the jobs I ended up doing. I like to hear people talk, people who don’t think of themselves as special, who don’t think of their trials as anything special, but almost on accident have the best stories to tell.”  Being a listener and a reader are often intertwined when it comes to developing voice, something Newman claims can be, “a struggle… It’s not math so there’s no formula or algorithm, and your voice will constantly evolve while retaining certain core elements, which adds to the confusion.” For reader’s of Newman’s writing it’s clear that he’s found what the writer Donald Murray once stated about this effect: “Voice is the quality in writing, more than any other, that makes the reader read on, that makes the reader interested in what is being said and makes the reader trust the person who is saying it.”  One way to think about it might be found in the way most can identify a favorite song on the radio by just a few notes or lyrics.

For Rust Belt residents, defined by Newman as being, “the citizens who keep the country running and get little to no credit for it,” a well-known characteristic of these places is the ubiquity of “classic rock” stations playing “the same dead songs the radio had been playing for years, for my entire life.”  In a scene that evokes a sad kind of hilarity, he describes Anthony hearing a Yes song and playing “organ on my dashboard, doing long extended solos over the whole dash like he could fit every note into every song even though the songs seldom had organ solos or organs at all.  Then Anthony played drums on my dashboard.  He played guitar.  He played flute.  Wherever he was in his head, it was a party, and it was okay to be trashed and playing imaginary instruments.”

And if this passage is both a coda and the sentiment foreshadowed throughout The Same Dead Songs, the ending offers no post-mortem to the “addiction disaster.” Instead, Newman writes full of the heart that he hopes will lead reader’s to some kind of understanding of what it means for Anthony and the many others out there, those sisters, mothers and uncles, struggling to thrive even as their ongoing presence can be imagined as spiritual kin to Anthony, “a family in great pain.  Imagine no one wanting to take responsibility for that pain.  Imagine that pain filling one person until all he does is cause more pain.”

Fred Shaw is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, and Carlow University, where he received his MFA. He teaches writing and literature at Point Park University and Carlow University. His first collection. Scraping Away, is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press. A book reviewer and Poetry Editor for Pittsburgh Quarterly, his poem, “Argot,” is featured in the 2018 full-length documentary, Eating & Working & Eating & Working. The film focuses on the lives of local service-industry workers. His poem “Scraping Away” was selected for the PA Public Poetry Project in 2017. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and rescued hound dog.