East Pittsburgh Downlow By Dave Newman, 459 pgs.

Apr 06, 2020

Sellick Hart is a former welder who wrote formulaic romance novels for a paycheck on the side. A kindly dean at the local community college hired him to teach creative writing after reading a newspaper profile on the author. Hart, who’s accustomed to wielding a torch under bridges in freezing cold weather, appreciates the good fortune of bumbling into his academic gig. He also realizes its inherent contradiction: his students are in school to further themselves, to get out of bad jobs and bad situations, “to not be” whatever they are any more. Judging them on the short stories they write—often based on their own lives—won’t get them hired. There’s nothing to do but present ideas the best he can, and offer encouragement.

As Hart teaches, he nurses a flirtation with a bartender at his local bar who doubles as his student. He maintains a relationship with his mom, hangs out with an ex-NFL player friend who has just gotten out of jail, and pecks away at a novel. Not a romance novel written under an assumed name, but a literary novel about people like himself and the students he teaches. Hart says “the places where most Americans work are the least likely to appear in novels” and yearns to honestly portray those Americans whose voices are underrepresented.

In the midst of this, a student uses a handgun to kill himself in one of Hart’s classes.

Dave Newman’s writing on class issues is never self-congratulatory, and never feels forced. I get the sense that he’s writing what he knows, like Sellick Hart. And it’s not just class that Newman writes about, either: watching Hart sink into the depths of depression following the classroom suicide is a stark treatise on the realities of depression, repressed trauma, and self-delusion. All of this is delivered in an imminently readable style. His prose is unfussy but scattered throughout are great lines, gems which made me put the book down and catch my breath; no shit.

East Pittsburgh Downlow is the second of Newman’s books I’ve read (the excellent Two Small Birds was the first). I teach at a community college, so it’s no surprise that the ideas of students attending “to not be” resonates with me. But the weary sympathy in his particular brand of realism offers a sense of hope in the face of struggle even to those outside of the academic racket. Dave Newman’s work has a huge heart and is worth seeking out. –Michael T. Fournier (J. New Books, jnewbooks.com)