By Jody Diperna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributing Writer
I’m sipping on a pint of Guinness and he’s drinking a Coors Light at a bar/burger joint in Oakland and we’re just about to dig deep on the inciting event of his new novel, East Pittsburgh Downlow (2019, J.New Books.)
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she says, as she interrupts. “But are you still best friends with somebody from high school? I’m trying to explain to my daughter,” motioning to her teen-aged daughter.
“Yes,” I say.
“You’re ruining my point here. Now, how much best friends are you?”
Dave pipes up, “My best friend is from preschool.”
We talk with mom and daughter for a few more minutes about lasting friendships and then hoot when they leave: what a perfect microcosm of this strange, prosaic city.
Later, I wonder, is it just Pittsburgh or do these things happen to Dave Newman all the time? He’s that kind of guy — approachable, warm and unassuming. He talks about beer and music and poetry and writing like they really matter, but not in a precious, ivory-tower way; more in the way of someone who has at some point in life watched the sun come up while sitting on the trunk of a car, drinking beers, arguing about Sonic Youth or James Baldwin. Newman is more Nelson Algren than Jonathan Franzen.
This is Newman’s third novel (he also writes poetry) and his prose here is propulsive and insistent. It invites staying up late to read just one more chapter, then turning the page to the next and the next. And, like much of Newman’s previous work, East Pittsburgh Downlow hinges on work, bringing stories of the underpaid and underappreciated to the forefront.
His protagonist, Sellick, a former welder who wrote cowboy novels on the side, now teaches creative writing at a community college. His students drive UPS trucks and work in the produce department in the supermarket; they tend bar and wait tables. They come to college to try to get away from working these low paying jobs, sometimes more than one.
When he’s not teaching or grading papers, he’s most often doing one of three things — writing, drinking, or running, which he does obsessively. Sellick loves his students.
“I think he has a hard time being by himself when he’s not writing,” Newman says. “He’s pretty anxiety-driven.”
This is fiction, not a memoir, but the way Newman writes about this place — the small towns and forgotten places which surround Pittsburgh — feels inhabited and authentic. As Sellick and a friend drive through the Electric Valley on their way to the city to avoid turnpike tolls (such are the economic realities) he writes, “You’ve never seen beauty until you’ve seen a place that was but still is to the people who stayed.”
Newman grew up in Irwin and now lives in Trafford with his wife, Lori Jakiela. He knows these places. He stayed through some of the grimmest economic years in the 1990’s. “I was so broke back then. I didn’t even have the money to leave,” he laughs as we trade stories of those lean, rough years when we both stayed and rode it out.
“I wanted to be a writer and I had bad jobs, so my life was jobs, reading, writing and bars. I didn’t need a lot to be happy if that makes sense.”
As with much of Newman’s work, his world is populated by characters who balance on an economic razor’s edge, a context or subject he finds lacking a lot of writing.
“I think people are culturally turned off by discussions of money and work. Like there’s something different required of you to engage with somebody without money,” he says. “There can be a tendency to have a pity party for your characters.”
Newman writes about economic pressure and anxiety without turning his characters into beatific tropes of the working class — saintly and downtrodden and sepia-toned. Instead, Sellick crosses paths with the kind of insidious racism that exists in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. There are some horrid people.
But there are also plenty of characters who are kind and funny and wild and coarse and whose only sin is a lack of a monetary safety net. There are interactions between virtual strangers that remind us of the better possibilities. Characters who could be flat and one dimensional have life and fullness. They all have their own stories and those stories matter to Dave Newman.
“You have to believe your voice matters,” he says.