Since the Layoffs by Iain Levison

Jonathan Messinger

We're simply rooting for the underdog to get back on his feet, to earn a paycheck, to settle into a routine.

Since the Layoffs

Publisher: Soho Press
Length: 176
Price: $20
Author: Iain Levison
US publication date: 2003-04
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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.