“As a whole man – full up of his past and his choices and his actions – she wanted nothing to do with him”
Virginia Reeves’ electrifying debut (pun intended) Work Like Any Other is one of those strangely seductive novels that at first glance you would not expect to find so engaging.
The book’s protagonist is Roscoe T. Martin. He lives on a farm with his wife Marie and young son Gerald. Roscoe and Marie had been in love. But since the birth of their son, and complications meaning Marie will not be able to have more children, rifts and jealousies have grown between them. Roscoe is quick to anger.
“I see the other fights we had before the one that sent me to the fields, fights between him and Marie and me, always the same – my explosive anger and their quiet victimhood.”
He has no love of farming and his inaction is one reason the farm is in trouble. He craves going back to the city to be an electrician again. But then he happens upon an idea to save himself, the farm and his family.
He decides he can tap into the electricity that’s been installed by the local Alabama utility company nearby, and electrify their farm and the threshing machine? So, with the help of farm hand Wilson, they set about their task.
It’s all going well, the electricity works and the farm is starting to make money. But one evening the sheriff visits to escort Roscoe to jail. It seems young lineman for the utility company has been electrocuted and killed working on the wires that Roscoe has re-routed. But it’s not just Roscoe who carries the can, Wilson does too. Only for Wilson, it is not a relatively safe prison that awaits him, but unpaid slave labour. In 1920’s Alabama black convicts were leased out to mining companies – fodder for the coalmines.
Roscoe adjusts to life in prison – takes jobs in the diary, the library (some great bits on Dewey that only a Librarian by training could love), works the dogs (to chase down those making escape attempts), but he cant understand why Marie doesn’t visit and why she fails to return any of his letters. His only sight of her comes in visions.
Told in a mixture of first person Roscoe and third person just about everyone else this is a wonderfully assured piece of fiction. It’s a book about guilt, about anger, about love, about the debts we owe or think we owe to others, about unforgiveness and blame, about abandonment.
Reeves’ writing reminded me of Marilynn Robinson and Jane Smiley at times. They too have that skill of bringing to life the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary ways, of not passing judgement on their characters and letting emotions bleed. Roscoe and Marie are flawed and true. You count the days with Roscoe,; you share the faint hope of returning to his old life, and starting where it left off; you both understand and hate Marie’s way of coping; you feel for Wilson being taken from his family for helping Roscoe connect the electricity.
True, if you wanted to be overly critical you could perhaps also argue that Wilson is just too damn nice and faultless a character to be totally believable, and that he is there merely to provide contrast and balance to Roscoe. But, I’ll forgive it that.
Possibly my favourite book of 2016 thus far.