Putting down his pen and taking a series of jobs in the tag end of the service economy, novelist Cheever (Famous After Death, 1999, etc.) finds a host of sad and funny stories.
From the outset, the author makes it clear that his economic survival was never at stake; his wife, New York Times critic Janet Maslin, made (and makes) a good income. But he too wanted to earn a living and have a place to go in the morning; at the time (1995), his novels were selling poorly and his latest manuscript was not exactly being celebrated. So he wrote a proposal for a nonfiction book about downsizing while working at unskilled jobs—the only ones open to a writer with zero real-world qualifications. All of the work Cheever found incarnated the downward mobility that clutches at the belly of the white-collar salaryman: deli worker, security guard, Santa Claus, car dealer. Many of his fellow employees were people who had been fired, dusted themselves off, and climbed poor and vulnerable into the ring of the service sector. Although he brings a healthy dose of humor to his chronicle of job-hunting and job-holding, Cheever nonetheless offers a morality tale as impassioned as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed (p. 475). It comes as no surprise that he finds lots of nobility in the service ranks, plenty of grace under fire, unexpected artistry, and a measure of rage at CEO salaries; it’s also expected that the worker will be given the shabbiest of treatment in the service economy’s dystopia. What is surprising, and galling, is the everyday humiliation Cheever experiences at the hands of the customer. The boss may be slime, but on the other side of the counter likely stands someone who doesn’t even recognize your existence.
An education in empathy as well as a reality check.