I seem to have developed something of a liking for non-fiction books examining the decline of middle America, having read Hillbilly Elegy and the masterly The Unwinding last year. Janesville is an excellent addition to the sub-genre, and well worth a read not only if you’re interested in America today, but also if you’re interested in how economic policies, investment decisions, and ideological approaches really have an impact on people’s lives and the communities they live and work in. For while Janesville sounds like a made-up town (with presumably Johnsville just over the hill), it is in fact a real town in Wisconsin which had a General Motors factory at its heart for nigh on a hundred years…until it closed. Amy Goldstein decided to report not so much the economic reasons behind that closure, or the bluster behind the bail-out billions, but to painstakingly follow the lives of people in Janesville in the years afterwards.
The book builds its power through the gradual accretion of detail and information, a layering of different decisions, turning points and family journeys. These intersect with federal or national politics occasionally, but the majority of the book is focused on the individuals seeking to turn the community of Janesville around or simply seeking to survive and make some sort of life for themselves in the year afterwards. For example, one woman who lost her job when a factory (that supplied GM) closed down goes back to college, is a grade A student (in criminal justice), gets a new job in the local prison (at half the hourly wage of what she used to get), falls out with her husband (as they never see each other working different shifts), falls in love with a prisoner who is soon to come out, and subsequently her life unravels. Another former GMer commutes to a different GM factory four hours away (they are known as the GM ‘gypsies’ because they travel so far from home), earns the same wage, but has to rent a flat, share commuting costs, phone-in fatherly duties and struggle on to a hoped-for retirement. Another family ends up being propped up largely by the two or three jobs that both daughters take on in addition to their school work.
The picture is a stark one: youth homelessness rises starkly, the school has a special ‘closet’ for those children from struggling homes which now helps hundreds with food or goods, the non-profit health centre has to turn people away. And all of this in a city which is the home to Republican leader Paul Ryan and under the leadership of Republican governor Scott Walker – neither of whom, ultimately, manages to deliver on any of their promises of jobs or rebuilding the town. Big bets are made on the industries which might help bring jobs, but they are bets and gambles; the town is outbid by Detroit for a new factory because it can’t compete on the economic incentives offered. And the can-do attitude of a place which has been deeply proud of that for a century and more starts to erode and divisions start to widen amongst neighbours, families and communities.
It is cleverly and carefully written, with a fidelity and a compassion for all the people involved, but it also retains a consistency of tone and an objectivity: while Hillbilly Elegy was really one person’s story, and The Unwinding more explicitly connected the individual to the political, Janesville builds slowly and painstakingly a picture of a place and the people who live there, without forcing political points down the reader’s throat. It made me long for British equivalents: I hope that now, unknown to me, there are UK journalists doing similar in-depth work following the lives in British communities – for example, in a place where a big factory closes or moves away, or following different communities post-March 2019. It is the sort of serious, qualitative work that is needed – because it connects policy decisions to the people it affects, and should inform those political and economic decisions whichever sector they are taken in. If any of that interests you, then Janesville will as well.
BUY IT NOW: Janesville: An American Story