This was one of those books I hated to finish.
What makes this memoir of a Western miner in the 1970s so vivid is its people: The shift boss who cracks wry jokes and then watches over his men with serious eyes. The safety inspector who is loaded with awards, yet gives the mine only a cursory glance for safety violations. The administrators who are far more concerned with PR than with the lives of miners trapped underground. The miners themselves, who spend their lunchtimes casually making comments that are sexist and racist and homophobic, and then equally casually return to a workplace that is likely to kill them.
"In the mines," Mr. Voynick says, "I learned what the real work ethic was, reduced to its simplest terms. . . But the greatest thing the mines gave me was an acquaintance of the finest people I have ever met, people who were willing to judge a person because he was a person, and who measured merit and sincerity and not the artificial trappings that play such a major role in so many avenues of American society today."
By "person," he clearly does not mean women, who receive passing mention in passages such as this: "[Wyoming cowboys, roughnecks, and miners] have a basic untempered earthiness, a quality which is dwindling in the West, and a contentment with the simpler things in life, those diversions which offer immediate rewards, tangile or intangible. In Wyoming these are taken to be women, guns, trucks, grass and booze . . ." As a portrait of traditional male culture, this 1978 memoir offers a delicate balance between bigotry and bravery.
Conversation? What is there for two men to say? Their whole world has been reduced to the simple passive act of waiting. A few words of encouragement, maybe. And wait. In the darkness, and the silence, and the slowly building heat.
In the end, for me at least, it is the raw courage of the miners that wins out - that, and Mr. Voynick's well-timed humor and ear for dialect. The author's mixture of drama and humor and Western culture is pitch-perfect, right down to the final paragraph, which left me breathless with hooting.
Stephen M. Voynick at Goodreads.
Stephen M. Voynick at Open Library.