Book Review: The Man Who Changed Colors

"You know, Mister Gomes, I keep thinking about something that Carlotti said to me after Pires died.  He said to me, ‘Agnes, I swear I can’t figure out how the hell Pires would’ve fallen.’ He said that he would’ve had to have been really off balance and looking down the hole to have fallen because there really were enough boards for them to walk around and do the welding.”

With this begins the investigation at the heart of Bill Fletcher Jr.’s The Man Who Changed Colors – a mystery set in 1978 which revolves around a death of a Cape Verdean immigrant at the Quincy Shipyard in Massachusetts. It is a setting that enables Fletcher to talk about dangerous working conditions, about union corruption, about a union reform movement. But there’s more … some pages later, we learn this:

“When I was called about the accident I went over right away. There were some welders and cleaners standing near the hatch. I climbed in and saw the body. I checked quickly and determined that he was quite dead, with no chance of resuscitation. There were a few workers standing around me, but I told them to move away and give me some breathing space. … Pires had clearly fallen, but his injuries were more complicated than a simple fall. Someone had broken his neck and made it look like it was an accident.”  (pp 86-87)

Now the conversation changes – is this a murder of a black worker by local racists? Or is there something more involved? How many threads will need to be unraveled to get to the truth? And so the mystery unfolds in which journalist David Gomes finds himself entangled.

Mysteries are a staple of popular fiction; emerging alongside the rise of capitalist industrialization, the genre has grown as atomization and isolation have deepened in our neo-liberal era. That is perfectly natural in a society in which the connection between work and final product, between my work and your profit, is unclear, in which success or failure seem to depend more on happenstance or circumstance than anything one does as an individual. Democracy doesn’t make most of us feel in control of the society we live in; equality is a word that describes an aspiration at best, but certainly not the reality people experience. And when the marketplace invades every form of community life, uncertainty over whom or what to trust results. The reason for any of those realities that mark our world remain a mystery to most – for what should be clear becomes obscured when one’s vision is clouded by details that consistently point in the wrong direction.

Perhaps something akin to a good murder mystery – someone is killed, there are many possible suspects, and red herrings are abound. And so a good detective (or perhaps reporter) has to see through attempts to misdirect, reject irrelevant details and see connections between apparently unrelated events if they are to catch the perpetrator. Or to indict a system.

And we get both in Fletcher’s novel. The story takes us from that Quincy shipyard to working-class communities in New Bedford, and then into enclaves of Cape Verdean immigrants. It depicts working-class life in conflict with bosses for whom life is cheap, the racism that inhabits everyday existence, with its perpetual threat of violence. The story is told from the standpoint of a journalist trying to do journalism while the local independent newspaper he works for is threatened with a takeover, risking its character and vaunted independence.

Fletcher is able to draw these connections together with a perspective rooted in his lifelong work within labor and racial justice movements. Good organizing necessitates linking injustices individuals experience with systemic injustice, something possible only by staying focused on the big picture without ever ignoring the details that fill the canvas. This is evident in his non-fiction book: “They’re Bankrupting Us” And 20 Other Myths About Unions, which serves as a primer for new union members and union activists on how to challenge the common sense of received wisdom and think critically about the world around them.

In the context of the The Man Who Changed Colors, getting at the truth means being able to understand the wider ramifications of what at first glance was an instance of purely local intrigue – in this telling touching on the successful revolutionary movement in Guinea-Bissau, the defeat of the Portuguese military dictatorship as part of the anti-colonial liberation struggle. The connection between defeated Portuguese (and Greek) fascists with organized crime and the never distant presence of the CIA links the local with the global. Many threads to unravel – but like a union organizer or socialist militant, the challenge is to keep an eye on the main goal without losing sight of all the way each strand surrounding the story is linked. That Fletcher does in this book, which serves as a prequel to his previous volume, The Man Who Fell from the Sky, set in 2004 though taking readers back to World War II and the ubiquitous, oppressive color line.

Both novels are available from Hardball Press, an independent publisher that exists to help working class people to write and tell their own stories. Such writing serves to build rank-and-file solidarity, fight anti-union assaults, and connect labor struggles to social and racial justices. Bill Fletcher’s books do all three.

Note: Quotes are from The Man Who Changed Colors by Bill Fletcher Jr., Hardball Press, Brooklyn 2023, pp 75-76 and pp 86-87 respectively.

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