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A SHORTAGE OF ENGINEERS

Robert Grossbach, Author
Robert Grossbach, Author . St. Martin's $23.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-312-27554-9
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This is a return to fiction after 20 years by Grossbach (Easy and Hard Ways Out), who has been working for much of that time as an engineer for a firm that makes military components—a background he puts to excellent use in this satirical take on such a life. It begins with a good engineer joke and scatters a steady peppering of one-liners and cynical gags throughout its tale of young Zack Zaremba's initiation into a numbing world of unattainable specs, missed deadlines and corporate harassment. Often the comedy is fresh and funny—his wry Frenchman, Boulot, for instance, is a wonderful and touching creation—but sometimes it sinks to a rather stale, sophomoric level, as in Zack's estimation of personalities by the way they use the urinal, or in a "Who's on First?" routine involving two Chinese engineers named Yu and Mee. The book is also oddly skewed by Zack's thwarted romance with a gorgeous single mother working at the plant, whose plan to get a whistle-blower's payoff for revealing time-sheet shenanigans ultimately wrecks his career and those of many of his buddies. At its best, however, as in the oddities of the bureaucratic paperwork or the splendidly fraudulent meetings called to discuss progress, Grossbach's book engages exactly the right gear—and makes a reader wonder how any of our vaunted miracles of military hardware ever get off the assembly line, while making abundantly clear why the defense budget moves only in one direction—up. (July)

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