‘Work Like Any Other’ by Virginia Reeves (2016) – 260 pages
‘Work Like Any Other’ is one of the 13 novels on the Man Booker longlist for this year. So far I have read three on the longlist:’The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty, ‘Eileen’ by Otessa Moshfegh, and, now, ‘Work Like Any Other’ by Virginia Reeves. The shortlist for the Man Booker will be announced on September 13, and the winner will be announced on October 25.
‘Work Like Any Other’ is both an historical novel about rural Alabama in the 1920s and an Alabama prison novel. At that time only the cities and towns had electricity, and the poles ran from town to town. The farms had to do without electricity. These major plot points are revealed in the first few pages of the novel, so I don’t believe I am giving anything away by saying that the book’s main character, Roscoe T. Martin, is arrested for stealing electricity for his farm. Unfortunately a power company employee accidentally discovered Roscoe’s illegal feed to his farm and in the course gets electrocuted. Roscoe receives a prison sentence of ten to twenty years for both theft and manslaughter. All of the above is revealed in the first few pages of the novel.
“We are born with some things in our veins, coal for my father and farming for Marie’s and a deep electrical current for me.”
Roscoe’s neighbor, Wilson, who helped him steal the electricity is also arrested. Since Wilson is a black man, he is not sent to stay in prison but is instead leased to a mining company as cheap convict labor.
Roscoe’s wife, Marie, has no use for Roscoe after he is arrested. She doesn’t hire him a lawyer, so he must use the state-appointed one. She doesn’t visit him or let their son, Gerald, visit him. Roscoe never did amount to much as a farmer as he was more of a bookish sort of fellow. Another reason his wife has such disdain for him is because of Wilson. Marie came from a family with a tradition of fighting racism, so it makes her angry that her husband got this black man in trouble needlessly. She doesn’t even answer his letters.
‘Work Like Any Other’ is a solid well-written novel, but it didn’t, pardon the pun, “electrify” me. Life in the prison is brutal, and some of the prison guards and authorities are drawn as comic-book villains. On the other hand, those black neighbors in the novel are saintly, too good to be true. The wife Marie and the son Gerald are too sketchily drawn to be fully realized. The resolution that occurs in the novel could never have happened in real life at that time due to the Jim Crow laws that were in place in Alabama at the time. The only character who is fully developed is the main character, Roscoe. He is essentially a good man who got caught up in a bad situation.
I doubt that ‘Work Like Any Other’ will make the Man Booker shortlist. However my very favorite novel for this year has been ‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift which did not even make the longlist. So what do I know?