The (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel, made up of me, Meredith, Nicole, Rebecca, and Frances, is back again for another round with the Man Booker longlist. I have to confess that when I saw this year’s longlist, I might have let out an audible groan because I’d only read one book on the list (My Name is Lucy Barton) and didn’t find it particularly deserving, and I’d abandoned two others out of boredom (Eileen) and a mix of boredom, irritation, and a mildew-triggered headache (The Sellout). Most of the others weren’t even on my radar. This does not bode well. But off to the library website I went to see what I could find, crossing my fingers that something I could enjoy would be readily available, so this process could get off to a better start.
The bad news is that The Sellout and Eileen were two of the first books to become available. The good news is that Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves was the third. It was very good news.
Set in 1920s Alabama, this novel focuses on Roscoe T Martin, an electrician who gets caught siphoning electricity from the power lines that run near his property. The plan was to electrify his house and power a thresher, bringing prosperity and happiness for his wife and son. He draws the farmhand, Wilson, into the scheme, and it works. But the golden days come to an end when an employee of the power company finds the line and, in his investigation, electrocutes himself and dies. Now Roscoe and Wilson are killers and must face the consequences.
The book features two timelines, one in third person describing the events leading up to Roscoe’s imprisonment and telling the story of his wife Marie and a first-person account of Roscoe’s time in prison. The story gets at ideas of guilt and blame and living with limitations.
Roscoe starts out with a clear vision of what his life should be. He’s determined to grow past his roots, which include a father who worked as a foreman in the mines. He chooses a schoolteacher wife who’s not only above that life but disdainful of it, horrified at the practices of white foreman who endangered the lives of black prisoners leased out to the mining companies. Roscoe has no use for mining, and he dreams of a big family with Marie and a big career in electricity. But they have only one son, and when Marie’s father dies, she insists on returning to the family farm to keep it running. Farming is beneath Roscoe, and so the ill-fated electricity scheme is born.
In prison, Roscoe has to learn to work within limitations. It’s the only way to survive and the only way to get out. One of his jobs, in fact, is to help track down escaped prisoners. He has to accept other ways of working. But Reeves avoids what I’d consider easy answers. This is not a story of a man going to prison and learning how lucky he really was when he was free. There’s some of that, and there’s some growth in realizing that others have internal lives entirely outside Roscoe’s own. But it didn’t feel pat to me.
One of the book’s strengths is in the complexity of the character relationships, particularly between Roscoe and Marie. Both of them have reasons to be hurt and resentful, and those reasons run deep. My loyalties between the two shifted several times during the book. I could understand and related to each character’s point of view, but I could also see the problems within their individual perspectives. Neither one is entirely likable, but it’s possible to sympathize with them both. The rest of the characters are mostly just there for support and to move the plot along. Because of this, Wilson and his family edge a little close to being “magical Negro” types, which is unfortunate. I do think Reeves attempts to subvert the trope, partly by making it clear that they have lives outside the plot of this book.
This book falls squarely in the realm of perfectly good 21st-century literary fiction. I enjoyed reading it, but it never knocked my socks off. But it also never grated on me, and that’s a pretty good accomplishment.