BOOK REVIEW: 'Factory Man' more gripping than fiction

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEJuly 6, 2014 

  • 'FACTORY MAN: HOW ONE FURNITURE MAKER BATTLED OFFSHORING, STAYED LOCAL - AND HELPED AN AMERICAN TOWN'

    by Beth Macy; Little, Brown and Co. ($28)

Beth Macy, a longtime reporter for The Roanoke Times in Virginia, understood how lucky she was when she accidentally uncovered the great story told in "Factory Man." This is Macy's first book, but it's in a class with other runaway debuts like Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit" and Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers": These nonfiction narratives are more stirring and dramatic than most novels. And Macy writes so vigorously that she hooks you instantly. You won't be putting this book down.

Once you get it, that is. The publisher, Little, Brown, is owned by Hachette, the company at war with Amazon. That means there's no Kindle edition, and America's biggest bookseller currently won't take orders for hardcovers, either. (The publication date is July 15.) But it's worth the trouble to read what will be one of the best, and surely most talked about, books of 2014.

The genesis of "Factory Man" was a series of articles Macy wrote on a subject she thought badly overlooked: the effects of offshoring on America's working class. Much has been written about recent middle-class suffering, but Macy's initial interest was in factory workers, like one woman whose only splurge was buying brand-name beans. Her focus was on the former furniture capital of this nation: the Appalachian regions of Virginia and North Carolina so rich with hardwood and cheap labor that they had once monopolized a market. She had been inspired by the photographs of Jared Soares, a couple of which appear in the book. One shows the conveyor belt of a former textile plant, full of food-bank supplies instead of U.S.-manufactured products.

Macy meant to describe these conditions as effects of globalization. She very strongly believes that the world is not flat and writes that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman "and the free-trade cheerleaders" have little grasp of the human cost of their theories. So she went looking for mountain families who had spent generations working for the region's furniture giants, until the whole industry was walloped by cheaper furniture imported from China. She found all that and more in the battling Bassetts, a feudal family of factory owners who controlled a string of these companies and the bank, hospital, school, clinic and housing their workers used.

John Bassett III, with whom Macy spent a lot of time, is the grandson and namesake of the company's founder. He also became the family's black sheep, but in this book he is a dauntless hero. In the irresistible prologue mentioned above, it is 2002 and JBIII, as the book calls him, has found his way to a furniture factory in northern China that is making exact knockoffs of furniture his Virginia company makes.

A wealthy Chinese businessman and Communist Party official has proposed that JBIII shut down U.S. production and start retailing cheaper Chinese copies, but fat chance. This man, in Macy's eyes, has the moxie of a Frank Capra crusader. So he's not quitting. He's going to war.

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