Work Like Any Other (and the WoMan Booker Shadow Panel)

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.

Work Like Any Other

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.

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12 Responses to Work Like Any Other (and the WoMan Booker Shadow Panel)

  1. Amy says:

    I’m reading this right now and loving it. Also glad to hear I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t finish Eileen and who wasn’t thrilled by The Sellout! (Although I did love the Strout.)

    • Teresa says:

      I’d like to know what you think when you finish. I found some of the choices toward the end really interesting, and I’m still working out how I feel about them. But it’s a sold book, my favorite of the longlist so far.

      I liked a lot about the Strout, but there were a few (fairly minor) flaws that took me out of the story, and once I started noticing them, I couldn’t settle in to it. I wouldn’t be mad to see it shortlisted because she does some things exceptionally well. I’m going to give both Eileen and The Sellout another go and see what happens. I think The Sellout is just not my kind of book, but Eileen is, so perhaps it was my mood last time.

      • Amy says:

        It’s funny. I’d seen some comments on Goodreads from people who thought the ending was too tidy. So, before I got to the end, I worked out in my head what I thought would be a too-tidy ending. The book didn’t match it, so I was pleased.

      • Teresa says:

        I didn’t find the ending tidy either. In a way, it would have been tidier if he’d found no one able to forgive him and give him a chance, but what happened was more complicated than that.

  2. Deb says:

    I didn’t give up on EILEEN (the only book on the Booker list I’ve read), I enjoyed it more than you did, but I was really surprised to see it on the long list. I didn’t think it rose to that level. In a way, it reminded me of Richard Ford’s CANADA–a narrator looking back on a much earlier event completely beyond his/her control but which had a profound impact on his/her life.

    • Teresa says:

      Everything I’ve heard about Eileen makes it seem like my kind of book, so my expectations might have been too high. I’m hoping it clicks on a second attempt.

  3. Anne Simonot says:

    I looked at the list and while I often haven’t read any of the nominees, there weren’t even any that appealed to me. It was a pretty “meh” list. I’m almost done the Costa Book of the Year winner, The Lie Tree, and it’s fantastic. It’s the kind of book that book bloggers put on my radar, I might not have heard of it otherwise.

    • Teresa says:

      I was surprised to have heard of so few of the books, but that could make for some great discovered. I’m intrigued by His Bloody Works, The North Water, The Many, and Do Not Say We Have Nothing. And I usually like Coetzee. But most of them aren’t books I’d be naturally drawn to. I think my tastes may just be different from those of this year’s judges.

  4. Bellezza says:

    This makes me think of a Jane Smiley book, I think it was hers!, where the child dies in a neighbor’s pool, and guilt/sorrow run throughout. I feel so strongly about The Sellout, and My Name is Lucy Barton, thought for completely different reasons. And this one is sitting on my counter waiting for me to finish Hystopia. I just love doing this with you and the others, such good books, such good discussions await.

    • Teresa says:

      I hope you enjoy this. I think you’re likely to. Even though it’s not trying to do anything truly ground-breaking, it does what it does quite well.

      We are in for some interesting conversations! It seems like this year our opinions are far more diverse than last year, when I think we only really disagreed over three of the books. I’ve started Hystopia, and so far, it’s a book that seems good for what it is but isn’t particularly the kind of book I love.

      • Bellezza says:

        I’m a little more than a third into Hystopia. I like how it brings back my memories of my youth: all the hippies and the Stones and the leather jackets. It is quite distressing to read of the wounded soldiers, both mentally and physically, and again I find this quite suitable for the long list. But, I don’t think it will be one of my favorites even though it’s well written.

  5. Pingback: Some Booker Books | Something More

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