SELLING BEN CHEEVER: Back to Square One in a Service Economy

Benjamin Cheever, Author, Karen Rinaldi, Editor . Bloomsbury $25.95 (395p) ISBN 978-1-58234-158-3

Where Barbara Ehrenreich surveyed the low-wage workplace with righteous indignation in Nickel and Dimed, novelist Cheever (Famous After Death) recounts his entry-level service jobs with rueful humor. His economic security (thanks to his wife) allows him to write about ventures that otherwise would be shrouded in shame, he says, leaving him with "bragging rights as a failure," since his novels haven't sold. Not everyone will buy that posture, but Cheever manages to combine empathy and edginess in his episodic chapters. As a security guard, he follows instructions to the letter, calling the cops to report a suspicious garbage truck. On the selling floor at CompUSA, he concludes that customers often just wanted to be listened to. At the more Darwinian electronics store Nobody Beats the Wiz, he finds the job's "moral unpleasantness"—always pushing that extra insurance—compounded by physical privation, as employees must ask permission to use the toilet. Versions of the best chapters have already appeared in print. At the high-volume, high-quality Cosí Sandwich Bar in Manhattan—as reported in Gourmet magazine—Cheever is known as "Slow G," short for "Slow Grandpa." At Borders Books & Music—as he recounted in the New York Times Book Review—he writes, "My enthusiasm seemed strangely out of place, and actually alarmed many of the customers." At the Auto Mall—as told in the New Yorker—he learns, "When you come here, you'll be selling Ben Cheever first." He likes the work, despite the inevitable deception, suggesting that the semi-faux charm of car salesmen is much like that wielded in other social circles. "I've grown to respect the people on the other side of the counter," concludes Cheever, declaring that there is camaraderie and decency in even humble jobs. (Oct.)

Forecast:Though more of a meditation than a manifesto, this book should be a natural for talk show and other discussions.

Reviewed on: 08/06/2001
Release date: 10/01/2001
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 286 pages - 978-1-58234-326-6
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