However appropriate last summer’s waves of public outrage at HarperCollins’ mass cancellation of some one hundred book contracts, it tended to obscure the far more frequent and much less publicized fact that important books are routinely put out of print by publishers who deem their annual sales too low, too slow, or both. Luckily, what seems anemic to the Oprah-addled CFO at one house is “steady backlist” to the vigilant editor elsewhere, and thanks to these brave scavengers a number of important works remain in print.
The best of the reissue crop this fall is surely E.B. White’s famous collection of essays, One Man’s Meat (Tilbury House, $14.95 paperback). Originally published in 1942, the book began as a series of pieces in Harper’s Magazine documenting White’s removal from New York City to a saltwater farm in Maine. (That ancient connection with HarperCollins, of course, did not keep Murdoch’s boys from putting the book out of print.) Though White is often cast as the poster-boy for the Personal Essay and the memoirist’s memoirist, he deserves far better. His finest qualities are on display in One Man’s Meat—the great precision and casual warmth of his prose; his pleasure in the minutiae of daily life; and his cheerful, bitter iconoclasm.
In all of these respects he resembles George Orwell (no doubt to the displeasure of the many who still confuse Charlotte’s Web with Animal Farm). There’s no question that Orwell was able to weave his experience into more complex tangles and to avoid the syrupy tone and silly epigrams (“Diplomacy is the lowest form of politeness because it misquotes the greatest number of people”) that occasionally mar White’s style. But White, born like Orwell at the turn of the century, shared much of the literary upbringing of the Lost Generation, and his modernist sense of the telling detail seems straight out of Hemingway’s In Our Time. He writes, for example, of “the elevator boy in my hotel [who] after he has shut the grilled gate and started the car, always slips his hand through the bars of the gate so that as he passes each floor the sill-plate will give him a dangerous little kiss on the end of his finger. It is the only record he keeps of his fabulous travels.” And in the commercial chatter of American culture he recognizes greater truths than in conventional faiths:
Some day, if I ever get around to it, I would like to write the definitive review of America’s most fascinating book, the Sears Roebuck catalogue. It is a monumental volume, and in many households is a more powerful document than the Bible.
Written during the Second World War, One Man’s Meat is also an oblique chronicle of the war years’ effects on American civilian life. While some of White’s mushy reflections on liberty have only grown even mushier with age, his wry commentary on the tenor of the times—from the swiftly changing landscape to the follies of the World’s Fair of 1939 and the traumas of a nation preparing for war (“Blackout curtains are up at the kitchen windows, wild cucumber up at the kitchen door”)—is fascinating. His remarkable story about the moment he and his wife heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor is a case in point:
How quickly life’s accents shifted on that sudden and unforgettable Sunday—the fateful seventh of December. My wife was getting a hot-water bag for somebody, and somehow she managed to lose the stopper down the toilet, beyond recall. This grotesque little incident seemed to upset her to a disproportionate degree: it was because she felt that, now that the war had begun in earnest, there was no excuse for any clumsiness in home nursing. The loss of the stopper suddenly seemed as severe a blow as the loss of a battleship. Life, which for two years had had a rather dreamlike quality, came instantly into sharp focus. The time for losing hot-water bag stoppers was over and gone.
But the most extraordinary pieces in the book are two essays in the form of lists: “Report” from 1939 and “Memorandum” from 1941. These are the kind of writing you turn to when all else is in doubt; the latter is even worthy of joining William Gass’s pantheon of great literary lists (see his hilarious essay, “I’ve Got a Little List”). True to Montaigne’s spirit to his last, White’s subject is the only subject: “The first person singular is the only grammatical instrument I am able to use without cutting myself” (Tilbury House Publishers, 132 Water Street, Gardiner, Maine 04345).
Though not strictly a “reissue,” since the stories have never appeared in book form before, If I Were Boss: The Early Business Stories of Sinclair Lewis (edited by Anthony DiRenzo, Southern Illinois University Press, $19.95 paperback) is simply too important a reclamation project to ignore. Written between 1915 and 1921—the time of Main Street and Babbitt—the fifteen stories here capture the mind of modern American business at its point of origin, epitomized by figures like Mr. Small in “Commutation: $9.17”: he was “neither meek and meeching nor tall and pompous. He was neither young nor old, bearded nor clean-shaven. Even other commuters remarked that he looked like a commuter…. His face was medium looking. He was medium sized. He was medium.”
Like H.L. Mencken, Lewis shuddered at the American tendency to celebrate mediocrity, and these stories reveal the full depth of his revulsion. Together his stories and novels of this period form a remarkably Dickensian portrait of aspiration and banality; roll them all in one great ball and you get the American Pickwick Papers. But fun as the stories are to read, with their mild surprise endings and light screwball moments, Lewis (as DiRenzo astutely points out) “mines the collective hallucinations of the working middle class,” and you’re left with perhaps the best document of what Sherwood Anderson called the “mad awakening” of the early twentieth century. (Southern Illinois University Press, P.O. Box 3697 Carbondale, Illinois 62902-3697)
Regular readers of these pages will not be surprised to learn of the gladness in Baffler offices upon the reissue of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. (Modern Library, $40.00 hardcover). Other notable reissues appearing this fall include a 25th anniversary edition of Jeremy Brecher’s Strike! (South End Press, $22.00 paperback); John O’Hara’s late, bitter portrait of ambition in Hollywood, The Big Laugh (Ecco Press, $14.95 paperback); and Brendan Gill’s fun-for-all-ages Here at The New Yorker (Da Capo, $15.95 paperback). One reissue that won’t be showing up in many American bookstores, but is well worth seeking out, is Ian’s Jack’s Before the Oil Ran Out (Vintage Books), an elegant and scathing chronicle of the eighties matched only by Christopher Hitchens at his best. Jack was hailed some time ago as the “finest feature writer at work in Britain,” and once you read the lead piece—“Finished With Engines,” about his father and his own childhood in Scotland in the fifties—you’ll know why. Three pillars of social science also make their return this year: Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Basic Books, $15.00 paperback); Richard Titmuss’s The Gift Relationship (The New Press, $30.00 hardcover); and Walter Lippman’s classic Public Opinion is also back in print (The Free Press, $13.00 paperback). On the last, we’ll stick with Mencken’s assessment that “what Lippmann tried to do as a professor, laboriously and without imagination, Sinclair Lewis [did] as an artist with a few vivid strokes.”
“Life,” says Chad—of course his name is Chad—“Life,” says he, “is for the taking.” If you didn’t see In the Company of Men, the drama of corporate advancement where Chad utters this immortal double-entendre, and if you don’t believe me that he says it, pick up any of the workplace murder mysteries being published this fall: They all seem to think Chad’s the culture-king in these parts; they all take Chad’s phrase as the credo of the age. Yes! Life is for the taking! What defines the new genre of “downsizing” fiction, it seems, is the angry guy who takes a lifetime of Chadisms seriously, who honestly believes he is a class-A, 110 percent-giving, helmet-strapped-on-and-game-fully-entered, positive-thinking, no-not-just-positive-thinking-but-positive-envisioning, opportunity-devouring, doing-it-even-before-it’s-a-good-idea, ass-kicking motherfucker who’s just been “downsized” from his job (another element is rage against the lily-livered politically correct castrati who invent these hated euphemisms: Back in Chad’s dad’s day they just called it “getting fired,” or “getting canned,” or “getting the heave-ho” or “getting the sack” or “getting your ass handed to you” or “getting the old nuts torn off”) and who decides he’s going to take this downsizing as the long-awaited opportunity to do a little entrepreneurship on his own, you know, working out of his house, investing in all sorts of risk-embracing equipment, diving headlong the kind of entrepreneurship he’s learned about from gangster movies, or from serial-killer movies, or from trashy fiction like this shit. So instead of competing with the other guys, he just kills ’em, get it?
Donald Westlake knows full well that, once upon a time, they called this process “getting the ax,” and his office mystery, bearing the admirably direct title The Ax (Mysterious Press, $23.00 hardcore), features the flashily and suggestively named protoganist “Burke Devore” (just let that one roll off your tongue a couple of times: “Burke Devore! Burke fuckin’ Devore! How ya been, ya goddam dee-vore!”) who’s been “downsized” by the—check out the irony!—Halcyon Mills Paper Company. Burke, a fully empowered paper industry management professional, is not only fired, he’s fired up, and he takes what you might call an aggressively hands-on approach to his job search—his hands filled with none other than one of those sharp righteous heavy steel-and-hickory devices we call an “ax.” This is hardly the first clever and compelling ironic twist to which we clever readers are treated in Westlake’s tour de force, though: Devore actually uses fake job announcents to collect the resumes of all the other hapless “downsized” drones in his management category, whom he then hunts down and treats to a second helping of “ax.”
Q: So does Burke ever get around to killing the guy who fired him?
A: Hell no! A good bourgeois to the last, he imagines his murder spree as a sort of job-search with weapons, a matter of presenting yourself as the best available candidate (“available” being the key word here).
Q: So what happens with Burke’s wife?
A: She splits!
William Heffernan gives his hero the slightly beefier, manlier name “Jack Fallon” and has him hail from an older generation of management professionals, Nam-hardened guys who wouldn’t take a piss in the woods with one these modern “downsizers.” In Heffernan’s new mystery, The Dinosaur Club (which William Morrow, $24.00 hardcover, is cleverly trying to sell as a manifesto of popular resistance to the terror of “downsizing”), the action never gets so out of hand that Jack gets the sack … no, no, no … Jack has seen through the “downsizers’” plots, and he’s got together with a couple of other senior management professionals and organized a clandestine group for workplace struggle (hmmm … what does that remind me of?); and as it turns out, Jack’s the boy doing the sacking—in more ways than one (and not counting moonlighting [to—ahem—collect valuable market-research data] in the checkout line at the local Piggly Wiggly)! But Jack’s troubles are even more vexing than Burke’s. If he loses the battle with the “downsizers,” it’s his kids’ Ivy League educations that are on the line, slated for termination; Jack’s bosses know it: they’ve driven Jack up—not against a wall, as Jack himself would have done back in the day—but to the edge of the crevasse, the bottomless black hole of class; they’re holding Jack’s head over it so he can get a good whiff of all the chumps left behind while the company’s assets appreciated so outstandingly the last few years, so he can see them all staring dully at their TVs and dragging themselves to their jobs at Orange Julius, get a good picture of the social annihilation that befalls the “downsized,” can realize that if he muffs this one, the Fallons are trailer-park people for the next two generations.
Q: Is Jack’s wife true and faithful in his hour of need?
A: Of course not!
Q: Does Jack get laid by a pretty female anyway?
Q: Is his antagonist a hated WASP?
A: You better believe it. Bearing the effete name, “Carter Bennet,” this elitist would-be downsizer has no qualms about sending our Celtic he-man protagonist spinning off into the hell of downward mobility. Just to underscore how unrelentingly ee-vill Bennet is, Heffernan embroils him in one of those sick and wrong love joneses with a close relative that rich and polished folks are supposed to have.
Q: So do Jack’s kids become crackers?
A: You’ll have to read it to find out.
Somewhere in France
Lydie Salvayre’s The Award (Trans. Jane Davey, Four Walls, Eight Windows, $18.00 hardcover) is an odd company farce that takes an awards ceremony for longtime employees as its narrative conceit. Set in a French automobile factory, the book consists of introductory speeches by executives and then responses by the honored employee winners. What’s interesting about the exchange is that the executives’ speeches are really propagandistic excursions on the greatness of the company, with only small mention of the actual employee; the employee responses, meanwhile, are often accounts of bestial working conditions or deeply pessimistic commentaries on life. When one worker finishes his speech by saying “I only hope I can hang on till retirement,” the company higher-up replies with, “As he so nicely pointed out in his charming speech, our factory wouldn’t be what it is today without the dynamic presence of our Division Heads.” The Award lampoons the utter lack of communication in inter-office communication, as well as certain precepts of management gurus (“Work yourselves to death without anyone ordering you to. Simply tell yourselves that you are your own foreman”). But it has a strangely anachronistic view of working life. Perhaps this is because it was published in France in 1993, before American-style restructuring began in Europe; perhaps it is world-historical nostalgia on the part of the author (billed as the daughter of “an anarchist mother and a communist father”). Whatever the reason, The Award reads as a kind of dated absurdist drama, viewing corporations as the agents of hyper-paternalism and Orwellian control, and workers as a rebellious, collectivized mob pacified by doublespeak. Its weaknesses, though, point up the strangest aspects of the corporate age in which we live now: Companies rule the world but no one fears that the bonds of an employer are too strong; control comes not from a martinet boss but begins with the self-empowered individual.