"Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant"
By Lolita Hernandez
Coffee House Press, 2004
Reviewed by Kjerstin Pugh
Lolita Hernandez read at Tribes in March 2005 and, from what I've heard, made quite the impression. She read a story that captured the joys and pains brought to workers of the Cadillac plant in
The pages of Lolita Hernandez's Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant ring with rhythmic industrial language intermeshed with the sorrows and bewilderment of Ms Hernandez as she bears witness to the events at the company. She tunes us in to the aging, the declining, and the death of
The first chapter gives faces to the workers, explains their toils, routines and the songs they sing during the day. The chapter is divided into four sections, each using song to define both the worker and their work. Ms Hernandez notes the songs sung as people work: the Temptations' "Firefly," a worker's mother's "Pajarillo, Pajarillo," "Turn Me 'Round," and a Trinidadian song, "Jumbie Jamboree." The factory work is paced to the music. Moreover, the first story is a trail of accounts surrounding the falling of an engine off the line -- for the first time ever in the plant's history. This incident reveals not only the tiredness of industry in the late 20th century, but also the indifference of the workers, as one watches and sings, “We don't give a damn, we done dead already." However, the tone of that worker is inconsistent with other workers who appear throughout the book -- they are men and women proud of their jobs and proud of Cadillac -- they are loyal and hardworking people.
Through dialects and physical descriptions we understand that the workers are of both genders and varying ethnicities and ages. But no one is named until the eighty-fourth page, until then people are just images and pronouns. I find this choice problematic and cryptic, not only because of the choice to name some and not others, but because names are used too late -- once the reader is used to he's and she's -- and then there are a chunk of stories with names, which in effect, divides the book. And it is unclear if this was the author's conscious decision or simply circumstance.
The first, heavily pronouned, five chapters are about women are weighted down by a variety of physical, mental, and emotional issues. In the story, "Yes, I am a Virgin," the first person goes back and forth between a Labor Relations meeting and a woman's obsessive thoughts about rodents. The meeting is about gender discrimination and the woman cannot answer any question directly, even "Did you receive a questionnaire in the mail about any negative experiences you may have had during your employment at General Motors?" The woman cannot pay attention, all she wants to do is tell her life story and talk about mice and rats. Through the various dialogue, we are given insight into both Cadillac's policies and politics as well as the people affected by them. As the questions and talking continue, she reveals that rats are the men at work who harassed her. Yet, it is unclear if the intern who is asking all the questions cannot or will not do anything to help.
In all other stories however men and women work together in harmony. There is another woman who is unstable and is put on medical leave several times. However, General Motors always takes her back and gives her a different job that she will hopefully be able to do. This story called "Float" is both sad and kind but effective in humanizing the company.
Another noteworthy story revolves around an impending strike that is described as "death approaching." Workers start watching out for one another by clipping coupons and creating support systems. People begin fixing up their houses in case they have to move. Ms Hernandez writes, "It is better to die with dignity than crawl like worms for the rest of our lives," reminding us how vital General Motors is to this community, for good or bad.
This book is a combination of a broader, a less personal Grapes of Wrath mixed with Michael Moore's post-industrial conscience. Though Autopsy of an Engine is supposedly a collection of short fiction, the focus on the workers in the Clark Street Cadillac plant is so overpowering that this work could be considered a disjointed novella, due to the varied voices and perspectives of the workers. These stories also tend to be similar to one another. Specifically, Ms Hernandez will introduce a worker who amid his or her loneliness has a preoccupation that, I suppose, brings a sense of quirkiness or sadness to the character. Women characters obsess over rodents, pound cake, and trees, while the men entertain thoughts of particular women or death. I am left feeling a combination of heartbroken and perplexed, wondering, should I pity these two-dimensional industry slaves? While the socioeconomic situations are real, it is hard to believe that every worker is so simple as Ms Hernandez makes them out to be.
What Autopsy is most effective in is showing the faith that the workers have in Cadillac and the pride with which they worked. It is powerful and sheds light on lives overshadowed by automobiles.