Work Like Any Other – on the Man Booker Longlist

9781501112492_p0_v3_s192x300    Virginia Reeves delivers a “scared straight” message in her Man Booker long listed tale of a man sent to prison in Alabama in the 1920s – Work Like Any Other.  With vivid realistic descriptions of Roscoe T. Martin’s harrowing prison life and the toll he pays for rewiring electricity into his farmhouse, Reeves spares no mercy on the reader.

Martin, an electrician by trade, who enjoys reading about Faraday’s principles of electromagnetic conduction, resentfully leaves his job to live on his wife’s farm when his father-in-law dies. His solution to the farm’s decline is to siphon electricity from the mainline onto the farm, and his initial efforts are successful until a company man dies from checking a live line on his property.  Suddenly, he is in prison serving ten to twenty years, and his accomplice, Wilson, the Black farmhand who has worked the land for years, is consigned to working the mines.

Reeves cleverly maintains the suspense by alternating chapters from Roscoe’s prison experience to life on the farm.  His wife, Marie, bereft from not being able to have more children after her difficult delivery of their son Gerald, blames Roscoe for everything and refuses any communication with him.  She is not present at the trial; she does not answer his letters; she refuses to allow their son to visit him in prison.  Her cold anger seeps through the narrative when Roscoe imagines her damning him to death in prison.  Later, her vengeful attitude threatens to destroy Roscoe’s future.

Reeves uses electricity as the conductor of Roscoe’s dreams of a better life.  He is forced to reinvent himself in prison as he works in the dairy, in the prison library, and finally with the dogs chasing down escapees, yet he defines himself as an electrician, even offering to wire the new electric chair built for executions- an offer the parole board does not appreciate.  He suffers beatings, near death stabbings, cruel torture, yet he connects with a few other inmates and Taylor, the guard who recruits him to work with dogs.  Amazingly, he survives.

But Reeves has more to say, and she continues in her Part Two to examine life after prison.  Roscoe faces an uncertain future with the years he has lost and the toll on his body, yet he longs to see his wife and his son.  Reeves offers a realistic and redemptive ending but not until she scares the reader one more time with possibilities.

Work Like Any Other is a powerful story full of caution, revenge, and forgiveness, and with a glimpse into a time when electricity began to change everything.

 

 

 

 

 

The Man Booker Baker’s Dozen

Unknown The anticipated Man Booker Longlist announced today has a few familiar titles but some books are not yet published in the United States.  Thirteen books made the prestigious list.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, a satirical assessment of racism in the United States, tops the list.  The winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Beatty’s novel uses a Jonathan Swift premise in his character’s modest proposal to bring back segregation and slavery.

Four other American novels on the list include Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton.  The author of Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys, Strout returns with a short but powerful novel as she tells the story of suffering and relationships.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s suspenseful tale, Eileen, also examines a lonely woman – this one works in a boys’ prison.  Virginia Reeves uses the setting of prison – this one in Alabama in Work Like Any Other, and David Means’ Hystopia imagines a third term for former President John F. Kennedy.

From the United Kingdom, another mother-daughter relationship is explored in Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk,  Graeme Macrae Burnet’s psychological thriller His Bloody Project looks for motivation behind a murder, Ian McGuire’s The North Water has a suspenseful journey of a  ruined doctor volunteering on a whaling ship, and Wyl Menmuir’s The Many has a strange mystery in a coastal village.

The Schooldays of Jesus from Australian Nobel prize winning author J.M. Coetzee will be published in the United States in February, 2017.  David Salzay’s All That Man, set in Prague,  will be published in October, 2016.

Canadian Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing centers on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 China. From the United Kingdom, A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet offers “a day in the life of London lonely hearts.”  Both are not yet released in the United States.

Thirteen books to digest before the committee proclaims the short list in September, and the winner in October.