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A novel for yinz: Pittsburgh ex-pat fetes Pittsburghese in 'The Immaculate Jagoffs'

Author Tom Scanlon grew up mostly in Pittsburgh and now lives in Arizona.
Courtesy of the author
Author Tom Scanlon grew up mostly in Pittsburgh and now lives in Arizona.

There are few things more Pittsburgh than the Immaculate Reception, the iconic playoff-game-winning Steelers catch that marks its 50th anniversary this week. But one of them is Pittsburghese, that unique combination of vernacular English and regional accent yinz all know and, mostly, love.

A new comic novel by a former Pittsburgher yokes these two touchstones together. Tom Scanlon’s “The Immaculate Jagoffs of Pittsburgh” depicts the misadventures of two pals who miss seeing Franco Harris’ improbable last-second catch in person because, being jagoffs, they leave the stadium early to beat traffic. And the book is written — all the narration, all the dialogue — entirely in phonetic Pittsburghese. (Harris died Wednesday, just two days before the play's 50th anniversary.)

Here’s a pre-game scene in which the two ne’er-do-well antagonists, college student Scan and low-level numbers-runner Clay, count their take from a job parking cars:

“Soze how much we get?” Clay axed. He wan’t good at “forty-five and divided by two twenny-two-twenny-five each.” Tha mos they ever had made afore wuz eight buckz each – but Clay dint seem imprest, he jus shruggt; Scan wuz in a hurry ta get dahn tha game, which had awready started. He locked the lock box an that door, then when he double-checkt tha padlock said, “Hey Clay ya lef yer whiskey.”

The book carries a warning about its “intense vernacular” and the caution that it is “recommended only for Pittsburghers.”

Scanlon’s love for the Pittsburgh way of talking is acquired. He was born in another town known for its accents — New Orleans — but came north as a child when his father took a job as a philosophy professor at Duquesne University. The family lived in Mount Lebanon, hardly a hotbed of the working-class-identified accent. Scanlon said he picked up on it through friends and, later, while living in the city and studying journalism at Duquesne, in the early 1980s.

Since graduating, he’s worked all over the country, and lived in Pittsburgh for only a couple of short stretches. But the accent stuck with him. “It really somehow describes how different Pittsburgh is,” said Scanlon, who now lives near Phoenix.

As for the Immaculate Reception, Scanlon recalls hearing it on the radio, at age 10. He was already a Steelers fan, and the near-miraculous win signaled a shift in the team’s fortunes after decades of futility: Over the next seven years, four Super Bowl wins would follow.

Nearly a half-century later — and with a few other self-published novels to his credit — Scanlon was reading “Ulysses” and thought, “You know … Pittsburgh jagoffs are so much funnier than Joyce’s Dubliners. I’m gonna spend the next 10 years writing a novel about Pittsburgh.”

“I really wanted to capture how funny Pittsburghers are,” he said, in a phone interview. “If I had a list of the 20 funniest people I ever met, 18 or 19 would be from Pittsburgh. It must have something to do with the geography and the language. So Pittsburghese just became really important to me.”

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Early this year, he expedited the timeline after being reminded that the Reception’s golden anniversary was imminent. Originally, he intended to write only the dialogue in the vernacular. Then, “I just decided I had to go all in and be as true to Pittsburghese as I could,” he said.

Scanlon acknowledges that his protagonist Scan, as a Mount Lebo resident himself, is not a native speaker of Pittsburghese but someone who intentionally eschews the elitist “proper” English of his parents. Recognizing the challenge of writing phonetic dialogue, Scanlon says he got editorial assistance from family members who still live in town.

As for the novel’s narrative, it involves petty crime; Scan’s troubles in school; Clay’s attempts to avoid the Vietnam-era draft; and a young woman Scan’s fallen for named Lore. And it’s bookended by a rather more tragic sports milestone just eight days after Harris’ catch – the death of Roberto Clemente on a humanitarian plane trip to Nicaragua on Dec. 31, 1972.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: