A true story: In an old cornfield in Crawfordsville, Indiana, in America’s Rust belt, a maverick company called Nucor is attempting nothing less than the resurrection of the American dream.
Nucor CEO Ken Iverson’s secret weapon is an experimental machine as long as an aircraft carrier that can swallow melted automobiles and spit out sheets of glistening steel. The characters are an army of hot-metal men and women who live for molten steel, braving stark dangers for money and glory. They are young, daring, inexperienced, and destined for success or death.
American Steel has all the elements of a great novel: vivid true characters like Iverson, general manager Keith Earl Busse, and his hot-metal men; gripping suspense; and towering machinery that embodies the spirit of a dream and a driving mission. Here is a story that will inspire everyone who believes that American know-how and ingenuity can triumph.
“American Steel is an absolute original, written at perfect pitch. It’s brilliant, spirited, generous, impossible to put down.”
“As an exuberant celebration of the way that everyday people talk while doing important things, American Steel is very hard to beat.”
–The New York Times Book Review
” Let me have a CC & 7,” Keith Busse said to a waitress.
“A what?” she shouted over the music.
“A Canadian Club and Seven-Up. Tall, on the rocks.”
Busse leaned forward with his elbows on the table and looked at me with a pair of green eyes. “I think Rome’s on fire and we don’t see it. Sometimes it seems that everybody coming out of school wants to go to Wall Street or be a lawyer. Everybody in this country is a serviceindividual. We’re a nation of ambulance chasers! How can you fix something if you don’t know it’s broke?”
His CC & 7 arrived, and he tasted it.
From a poolroom beside the bar came a clatter of pool balls and a yodeling scream. Some of the Nucor steelworkers referred to themselves as the Run-a-Muckers, and that was what they were doing at the Scoreboard Lounge.
“No one in this bar has ever built a steel plant before,” Busse went on. ” Most of ‘em have never done construction of any kind. What better way is there to learn? The mind’s a powerful thing.”
A voice shouted from the poolroom: “Let’s puke Chris! If Chris doesn’t puke tonight he should be fired!”
“Nucor is not afraid of youth,” says Busse. More screams out of the poolroom. Over the racket, Busse explains that the Run-a-Muckers will manage the construction of the steel mill. They will hire and supervise construction firms to build the steel mill, and then, after the mill is built, the Run-a-Muckers will tune up the machines and make steel. “If big Steel really knew what we are capable of. If they only knew! They know, but they don’t know. They pretend like we don’t exist. They pretend like they aren’t worried about us.”
Keith Earl Busse was something of a mysterious figure in the American steel industry. Few people in the industry knew anything about the man. It is possible that he was a marshal wearing a steel star, sitting in a saloon drinking whisky, and pretty soon he and his boys were going to clean up the American steel industry. Keith Busse was a stocky person, five feet ten and a half inches tall, born and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He termed himself a Hoosier. No one really knows where the word Hoosier came from. Busse’s last name rhymed with “fussy,” like this: Buh-see, with a short u and a long e. He was the offspring of German Midwesterners, believers in the God of Martin Luther and in the value of Work with a capital W. Busse had a square face with a firm jawline. His hairæbrown, bushy, stiff, and neatæfell in fluffs over his forehead. Busse’s green eyes looked straight through people, as if his eyes were emitters of a high-energy radiation. He wore a pressed button-down shirt of a pale-green hue that matched the color of his eyes. He wore Lee jeans and steel-toed boots. A mild belly deployed over Busse’s jeans. His arms were sinewy and thick. He was forty-five years old. “I’m the old man around here,” he remarked, glancing down the table at his employees, who were in their twenties and early thirties; most of them were male.
Keith Earl Busse was a manufacturing wizard. He knew something about the design, construction, and operation of factories of the future. He had designed and built the only operating standard-bolt factory in the United States, a Nucor plant. The Nucor bolt plant, in Saint Joe, Indiana, is staffed with ex-farmers and robots. The farmers run the robots. Virtually all standard bolts in America other than Keith Busse’s bolts are imported. A Busse bolt has a small letter n stamped on the head, which stands for “Nucor.” You can find Busse’s bolts at your local hardware store. Find the little n, and you know you’re buying a bolt made from natural clean native busted automobiles.
Another of Keith Busse’s specialties was negotiation. Busse would negotiate anything, whether it needed to be negotiated or not. He had a known tendency to start arguments with Ken Iverson that could turn into caterwauls at the Cotswold Building, until Busse had got himself worked up enough to pace a room, slamming his fist into his palm, saying of the chairman, “God damn Ken Iverson! He pisses me off sometimes!”
Keith Busse was an accountant by training, a sharp-pencil boy with a background in bolts, not a hot metal man. To a hot metal man, your bolts are not your hot metal, your bolts are little cylinders chopped from steel rod, bearing no resemblance to live liquid steel. In the steel industry you are either born with steel bonded to the hemoglobin in you blood or you are considered to be a nobody. Keith Busse was almost a nobody.
He also happened to be the biggest machine gun dealer in northern Indiana. He ran a gun supermarket in Fort Wayne. That made a mildly favorable impression on the hot metal men, those few who happened to know that Busse was selling machine guns. It wasn’t enough to convince them that Keith Busse knew anything about steel, but machine guns were a step in the right direction. The gun trade was only a profitable sideline for Keith Busse that had nothing to do with the Nucor Corporation. If Keith Busse wanted to sell machine guns in his spare time, that was all right by Ken Iverson.
Busse sipped his whisky and pop and insisted that he wasn’t personally worried about anything. “I’ve got a gun store up in Fort Wayne,” he declared. “I own it with a partner. My partner and I built it. Doing this mill is just like building a gun store, except it’s bigger in scale. With this steelmaking technology we’ve got, it’s gonna be Big Steel fighting a war against us with a bolt action rifle when we’ve got a machine gun. But I don’t know. Perhaps we are just a pimple on the camel’s butt. I don’t want to be cocky. We’ll do the mill first and talk about it later.”
Busse rattled the ice in his glass and ordered a second CC & 7. It arrived quickly, and he tasted it.
Excerpted from American Steel by Richard Preston. Copyright 2002 by Richard Preston. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.