The business of America may be business, but too few fine novels prove it. Here’s a brilliant exception.
All through the Grain Belt, the big trucks roll—Midwest Liquidators, bringing small town marked-down sub-Walmart cast-offs, the kind of junk too cheap for even dollar stores. Like carnies, these fly-by-nights then set up arena shows, where the down-on-their-luck get to bargain binge. LeClair (Passing On, 2004, etc.) makes marvelous poetry of this loser’s game. Tom Bond’s the major pitchman, crowding 60 and weighing 250 pounds, heart none too good and soul jaded. Divorced from brittle ex-lush Elizabeth, Tom wants to pass the flickering torch of the biz on down to son Henry, a milquetoast working for Data Data, or even daughter July, a sort of scolding New Agey ski instructor. And then get out. But he’s trapped by the “… Ninja Turtle backpacks spilling into Hocking microwave cookware, layers of industrial tarps across from stands of beer-logo pool cues.” Trapped, too, by the mixed contempt-regret-pity of the family he’s failed for the sake of the Endless Highway. To the tiny shelf of classic workplace writing—Stanley Elkin’s The Franchisers, Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, Studs Terkel’s nonfiction, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glenn Ross—add this meditation on failure, fiscal and metaphysical. Forty-three percent of all Yankee merch, LeClair tells us, gets sold by discounters, and this sunset of the economy is sad stuff. LeClair makes his case convincing with characters who whine and lament, but in the tongues of fallen angels. Here’s a retailer waxing forlornly lyrical about his “black-tee-shirt-and-blue-tattoo” demographic: “Driving in their beautiful and trembling automobiles, my customers forget, while their gas lasts, that they are detritus.”
The workingman blues, as if sung by some truck-stop Homer.