Published within a year of his award-winning Steps Going Down, Ferment was, in many ways, even more ambitious that that 500-page descent into the world of small-time crooks and back streets. Ferment tackles the subject of the clash between union labor, business, and finance. Like Steps Going Down, it approaches its story from the underside, focusing on the efforts of an undercover factory spy and strike buster, Steve Brown, to make a fortune by organizing a scheme to lure both business and labor into an illusory partnership manipulated to put both in debt to a group of bankers. And like Steps Going Down, it is full of talk–once again, mostly in seedy hotel rooms, cheap apartments, and beer joints. There are pages and pages of conversations–much of it convincing in tone but mind-numbing in length.
McIntyre is more successful from a purely narrative standpoint, as the essential situation is simple. Steve tricks his brother Tom into lending him the money to underwrite this scheme, and Tom–himself an officer in the taxi-drivers’ union–eventually figures it out. To spice things up, both brothers are in love with the good-hearted, beautiful Maggie.
Which leads McIntyre off track from the big story of corruption and industrial violence and into the tedious and overwrought love triangle between Steve, Tom and Maggie, and results in a book I stuck with only in the foolish hope that McIntyre would produce something he failed to provide in Steps Going Down: a plausible ending. The copy I read came from a University of California library courtesy of my son, and it is in such pristine condition that I suspect I may have been its very first reader. Having finished it, I can say why.
Ferment, by John T. McIntyre
New York: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc.