Until he was thirty-five years old, Gerry Stanek navigated the life of a full-time musician, first in Western Pennsylvania, and later as a touring bassist who moved all around America in vans. As a member of The Lost, a rock band based in New York City, Stanek enjoyed fleeting success: The Lost showed up in a video that moved into heavy rotation on MTV; the band appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin, and got radio airplay across the entire continent. There were other bands, more records and videos, and more tours, including a stint playing bass for Pittsburgh’s Norman Nardini in 1992 and ‘93.
By early 1998, Stanek had completed a final tour with Asbury Park’s Outcry, a band signed to Polygram Records. With his belly full of music business shenanigans, he moved back to Western PA, with an aim to start over. For the next fifteen years, he toiled in various jobs—there was a telemarketing gig, work as a loan officer, and the down-and-dirty work of driving a tractor-trailer and delivering Pepsi every day. He worked to pay a mortgage and to support his growing family. And he continued to create things, even as he drove the big truck to the Penn State campus to drop off the Pepsi and Gatorade and water.
He had enough energy to dream and build when the physical work was done. There were lots of songs to be written, a failed novel in 2006, and a critically acclaimed album of rock and roll for kids in 2010. Under the pseudonym of Roy Handy & the Moonshot, Stanek wrote two albums’ worth of songs about crayons, blankets, and bubble gum. There was lots of attention from press outlets around the country, but Roy’s efforts never turned into income. And there was always Pepsi to deliver; Gerry Stanek was resigned to the idea that he’d probably retire from Pepsi one day.
Sometimes fate has different ideas, though. In the spring of 2011, Stanek was injured on the job and began a different kind of navigation. Mr. Stanek quickly enrolled for online classes, so he could start working toward something he really wanted: a formal education and a clear path to becoming a writer. He’d been scribbling things in journals for twenty years, so why not do it for real?
Fast forward to 2018: Stanek graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College. More important, he’d buckled down in the two years at Warren Wilson, intent on completing a collection of short stories about the coal towns of Western Pennsylvania—stories about home. They Came Here Looking for Light: The Plattsville Stories was published in the summer of 2019. A second book followed in 2020, a work of non-fiction about growing up in those same towns: Loud and Sure of Myself is set in the 1970s, an effort at preserving a version of America that seems to be obsolete.
Everything Gerry Stanek does is motivated by this same kind of preservation. Writing about Stanek’s first book in 2019, the author Charles Baxter said, “One of the purposes of fiction is to save what is about to disappear, and these beautifully honorable stories do just that.” Whether you call it Plattsville, Coal Country, or just America, Gerry Stanek sees something worthwhile there; he sees stories that need to be told, and attitudes that still need to see the light of day. In Loud and Sure of Myself, he writes about conviction, dreams, and hard work. And he believes that all of them still count for something in 2020, that the American dream and having convictions about how life should be lived—well, maybe those ideas aren’t obsolete after all.