Reviewed by David HC Correll
To me, Shane Hamilton’s book, Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy reads like watching a classic horror movie. Before you even begin, you know that the titular monster is coming. And as the movie progresses, you meet new characters and you laugh with them, and you start to care for them — but if you’re not careful, you forget that a monster lurks in the shadows.
My favorite part of Trucking Country was the cast of characters from trucking’s history to whom Hamilton introduces his readers. To name only three: Frederick McKinley Jones, the orphaned and only 8th-grade-educated black man who invented reefer technology; Sleepy LaBeef, the country singer-songwriter with one lazy eye who popularized the trucking anthem, Asphalt Cowboy; and Mike Parkhurst who, among other legendary antics in the 1970s and ‘80’s, once purchased television star Robert Stack’s Hollywood mansion and rechristened it the ‘ The Road Mansion,’ dedicating the lavish property to housing and entertaining any trucker passing through Los Angeles and up for a good time. In my experience, part of appreciating the trucking industry is developing a taste for such uniquely colorful and against-the-grain American characters. Hamilton’s book does an excellent job of introducing contemporary readers to the sometimes broad and sometimes feminine, and sometimes flannel-clad and sometimes wide-lapelled shoulders that haul our American freight.
But, just as we are charmed by the endearing people of Trucking Country, we know too that the titular monster will be coming for them. In this story, I would describe Hamilton’s monster as the unassailable primacy of low cost logistical efficiency. Hamilton, a historian, meticulously chronicles for his readers how in both American farming, and in trucking, the free spirits who intended to make an independent and entrepreneurial buck often found themselves out of their depths in the open-market waters of American consumer expectations. And this is not necessarily with any ill-intent. Modern American consumers, and therefore the supply chains that serve us all, reliably favor low cost and high availability. Achieving these goals necessarily entails rationalization, optimization, and corporate economies of scale — anathema to the entrepreneurial cowboy dream of the open-road owner-operator or small-parcel farmer.
Reading Hamliton’s book left me with the feeling that while the plucky entrepreneurial small-businessperson is sometimes our American avatar, the big box consumer may forever remain our king.
Trust busters on 18 wheels
But the part of Hamilton’s narrative that sticks with me the most is that while independent truckers are not the lowest cost, highest efficiency solution to the obvious supply chain problem of moving things from A to B , they are actually integral to solving a different endemic American problem. The American capitalist enterprise has always invited monopolization. As lay observers, we tend to think that government is the force protecting consumers from monopolization. While that is sometimes true, Hamilton’s book made clear to me the anti-monopolistic and underappreciated role that a healthy independent trucking sector plays too. In recent history, American monopolists have amassed their power not only by commanding the means of production, but also at times by seizing exclusive control over the means of freight transportation. This was notably true when Rockefeller built his Standard Oil empire. Hamilton does an excellent job of telling the stories of independent trucking’s role in splintering the control of the big four meatpackers, who amassed their power by controlling the inflow of cow carcasses by rail into Chicago; as well as independent trucking’s role in wresting control of the dairy industry away from urban power brokers who controlled fluid milk logistics for much of the 20th century. This trust-busting is a uniquely important contribution to the American problem of monopolization.
Long live the king
Hamilton’s framing also humanizes truck drivers in a special way for people like me who study them, but only rarely have the opportunity to socialize with them. The danger of loving people for their unique quirks — for the cute idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that make them funny or entertaining from afar is that quirks and peccadillos make cartoon caricatures, but not real people. And only real people get our real empathy.
For every time that I paused my reading of this book to independently investigate one the outsized characters to whom Hamilton introduces his readers, or listen to some of the classic country music trucking songs that Hamilton puts in context (my second favorite part of this book!) Hamilton’s meticulously crafted narrative reminded me that just like me, and just like everybody else working for a paycheck, the colorful characters of Trucking Country are similarly trying hard to make their livings in the court of our Consumer King. And this need not be a wholly sad notion. Indeed, to me it is a humanizing one. The American economy is not our family, it is not tuned to reward us for who we are, but rather only for what we can do — at price, and at scale. There is human connection in living under this shared and cold experience. An unlikely camaraderie of plucky little cogs in the grand and sometimes damaging American economic machine, from the research lab to the big rig cab.