What can I say about reading a book that I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to enjoy, before reading even a single page? That I was neither racing through, nor dozing off while reading it? That was better than I expected it to be (Humm, is this damning it with faint praise)?
Thank you, book clubbies, for selecting a story centred on a man who does a lengthy stint in an Alabama prison in the 1920s for a minor crime, a topic I would never have selected on my own. I have sat through too many movies featuring callous wardens and sadistic guards chasing down sweaty, handcuffed, prisoners with snarling and vicious dogs through the bayous of the Deep South. Despite the fact that these movies usually feature such excellent actors as Sidney Poitier or maybe, more recently, Denzel Washington, I have always found them cringe-worthy. So how did I end up reading a book on just this topic? In two words, “good reviews”. When our book club selects a book we usually rely on the critiques offered by such prestigious journals as The Guardian or The New York Review of Books. We also try to find a book that will suit all 10 of us, but each month there are one or two members (or maybe it’s always me) who eventually cave in to popular opinion, and agree to read a particular book in which they have feigned interest, possibly due to the lateness of the hour and the quantity of wine consumed.
In any event, this was the case with Virginia Reeves’ debut novel, Work Like Any Other: A Novel. Long-listed for the 2016 Man Booker prize, the story is centred on Roscoe Martin, a bright young man in the Alabama of 1922. He is married to Marie and father to little Gerald, but his first and abiding love is electricity. A former Alabama Power electrical technician, he has found himself on his late in-laws’ farm, trying— rather unsuccessfully— to make a go of it. Feeling a little desperate, he decides to tap into the power company’s nearby electrical lines and bring much-needed power to the farm. Since he has the technical expertise to do this, and with the reluctant participation of the farm’s veteran handyman Wilson, the pair put up poles, wire transformers, string lines, and voilà, they have electrified the farm! This act of larceny is rationalized, to use present-day terminology, as akin to “borrowing” your neighbour’s Wi-Fi. It is, after all, a single drop from a lake of electricity.
The farm prospers, debts are paid off, and Roscoe’s marriage is back on the romantic and loving track it had fallen off years earlier. Of course, only Roscoe and Wilson know that the electricity has been obtained illegally. Until, that is, some two years later, when the sheriff arrives at the farm to arrest both men on charges of theft and, surprisingly, murder. A rookie linesman has climbed one of the suspicious contraband electrical poles and managed to electrocute himself, thus beginning a lengthy incarceration for both Roscoe and Wilson. And yes, southern prisons, even those with a reputation for progressive thinking and a focus on “rehabilitation”, are hell holes. With a state-sponsored—read “second rate”—defence, Roscoe is sentenced to 20 years for murder and 10 for theft, to be served concurrently, and his wife is handed a highly inflated bill for the stolen electricity. As if this weren’t harsh enough, Marie has decided that Roscoe’s actions, despite their good intentions, have ruined her life, and she neither visits him nor allows Gerald to visit. “Bitter” is an understatement for her attitude over the next several years. She does, though, care deeply about Wilson and his family, making amends to them as well as she can.
One of the revelations of this story was the southern US practice of “leasing” black prisoners to mines, essentially a form of 20th century slavery, to which Wilson is subject. Although Roscoe does not suffer this fate, his incarceration is anything but pleasant. Despite some tolerable hours spent each week working in the prison library (he is one of the few literate inmates), helping out in the prison barn and working at the kennel, he is subject to the whims of the biennial parole board officials. They have decreed that he will never again work with electricity, and want him to express his desire to find a new line of work in order to qualify for release. Painful encounters with both jealous inmates and overly zealous guards ultimately take their toll on Roscoe’s physical and mental well-being.
Virginia Reeves is at her most skillful when depicting her characters’ dreams and delusions, especially Roscoe’s. She is also a more-than-competent story teller, with a special knack for describing the inner workings of electricity, which she does glowingly (see what I did there?): “We were on the last line of the last pole, those twisted copper wires hidden away under their black coat, the thick cord settling into the shining brown of its insulator as if lying down to bed. All of the pieces were so beautiful together—snug and purposeful and poised—and I let myself feel the inherent magic I’d always felt for the work.”
Although at times torturous to read, the theme of the book, living with the consequences of one’s actions, is effectively handled. Without spoiling the ending, I will say that the reader who can withstand reading about the misery of Roscoe’s prison existence will be satisfied in the end: I was.
This book is available in a 272-page paperback edition, or as an e-book through Amazon and Kobo. Also, check the Inter-Library service at Lennoxville Library—You just might get lucky.