A Labor of Loathing
Even in the meanest sorts of labor, the whole soul of a man is composed into a kind of real harmony the instant he sets himself to work.
Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present
Getting fired is a cut and dried process. Slack off, upset the wrong person, hit send on an e-mail to a buddy before realizing it’s actually headed to your boss; you’re out. It’s simple, it’s explainable. It’s a hearty laugh five years later.
The layoff is a completely different beast. It’s devastation. It’s being cut loose from a job you were trying to keep, one at which you were most likely satisfied. And, if your company is laying off, chances are other companies are as well. You’re just another swimmer diving headfirst into a quickly evaporating pool.
Still, there’s something even more insidious about the layoff. Not only have you been told you are no longer worth the paycheck, but you’re losing your job so someone higher up can keep his. You’re deemed worthless so a boss can keep the comfortable status quo.
It is this feeling—the rape of a worker’s dignity and the dread it begats—that Iain Levison starkly portrays in his first novel, Since the Layoffs.
The narrator, Jake Skowran, is a laid-off loading dock manager in Wisconsin who takes a job as a hitman to pay the bills. Turns out, he’s a pretty good hired gun.
Sadly, the story isn’t the most unique, though Levison can hardly be blamed for that. The newspapers have often told the story of newly unemployed workers going on killing sprees. While revenge isn’t Jake’s trade, his new vocation is still murder.
That is the psychological peg to which Levison tethers a somewhat standard, hard-boiled plot. When work becomes one’s life, to be out of work is to lose touch with life. Once injected back into the working world, Jake finds himself adapting to the nuances of the hitman life the same way he would finagle a schedule as a manager. He is surprisingly pensive and calm about his new job.
After some first-day jitters, Jake is so happy to have a job that the work becomes work. It gives him a task at which he can improve and excel, not to mention a paycheck that will buy back his pawned television. Though he never loses sight of how macabre his line of work is, he’s now earning. His logic is so twisted from the layoff’s abuse, he’s convinced of his own worth again.
Levison’s prose isn’t the most fluent or lyrical, which works for Jake’s no-nonsense narration. But there’s a power in Levison’s simplicity. He has stripped Jake’s emotions. There is no sadness at the loss of work or at what the factory closings has done to his Wisconsin town. Instead, there’s a resentment, a feeling of stiff-upper-lip helplessness. It is as if the rich are all around, pointing guns at Jake’s head. And before he gets his new gig, his only defense is to wait.
Though this is Levison’s first novel, it is his second book. His first was the humorous, though not exactly uplifting, Working Stiff’s Manifesto, a memoir of 42 jobs he worked over the course of 10 years. If there seems to be a thread between Levison’s books, it is because he wants it there. Levison’s point is nothing new, but his books thus far have been fantastic studies of the currently absurd labor environment and its crushing effect. In several interviews Levison has described himself as cynical about the modern economy and the worker’s ability to leverage a meaningful job. And he is not talking about a life-affirming, soul-satisfying occupation—just a job that doesn’t make the worker miserable and pays the rent.
Most books on work—from Studs Terkel’s Working to the catalog of “work philosopher” Al Gini—deal with it at its most basic, non-fiction level. They are intricate studies of the role work plays in our lives. In fiction, however, there is a usual trope: the worker oppressed by the greedy boss, and the audience’s job is to root against the boss.
Levison’s book sidesteps that cliché by removing the boss from the picture. The layoff is in the past, the factory is closed, the oppressor has forgotten the oppressed. Instead of rooting against an overseer, the reader is rooting solely for the worker. There is no evil boss, no conquerable system. The hero just needs to tread water.
New fiction writers are often praised for their inventiveness and for their ability to take readers down new paths. Levison won’t garner such praise, though that’s not to say he’s not worthy of acclaim. Aside from the killing, the drama is really of the most mundane sort, one which we all see played out nearly every day with friends or family. We’re simply rooting for the underdog to get back on his feet, to earn a paycheck, to settle into a routine. These are the things that we usually root against in fiction. We seek the unusual; we want adventure for the protagonist. And that is precisely what makes this novel such a gripping work of fiction. It draws insight from a relatively untapped source: the necessary motions of everyday life.