It’s bad form when a reviewer critiques a novel for not being the book her or she wanted. Unprofessional even. And yet here I am writing a critique that does precisely that. It’s not my fault though. I blame Virginia Reeves for constantly reminding me, teasing me even, with that better novel hiding in the shadows.
Work Like Any Other is set in 1920s Alabama. Roscoe Martin, an electrician by trade, reluctantly joins his wife, Marie, and son on his father in law’s farm after the old man has passed on. Not willing to get his hands dirty with the muckity muck work of agriculture, Roscoe, noting the powerlines near the farm, decides to build his own transformers, put up his own poles and siphon some of that sweet, sweet Alabama electricity. He believes (and rightly so) that a farm working with electricity and all the advantages that provides – especially in terms of harvesting equipment – will make his wife’s property the premier plot of land in the region. So, with the help of the local farm hand Wilson, Roscoe sets about his task bringing Marie’s 1200 acres into the 20th Century. And for two years it goes exactly as Roscoe speculated – the farm makes money hand over fist – that is until a young man from the power company fiddles with Roscoe’s home built transformers and electrocutes himself.
Roscoe is sent to Kilby prison – 10 years for stealing the electricity, 20 years for manslaughter. Wilson, on the other hand, as a person of colour and no prison willing to take him, is leased to the local mine where he has the privilege of spending his day underground. Marie, without her husband and Wilson – the man who essentially ran the everyday operation of the farm – is forced to keep the property operating, while also raising her son and paying back the debt to the electricity company.
The story I wanted to read was about how Marie survives, how she keeps the farm going, how she deals with the crushing debt. I also wanted to know how Wilson managed to live every day working at a coal mine where occupational health and safety was not a consideration. The story I got was about Roscoe and his time on Kilby Prison. It’s not the entirety of the novel. We do check in on Marie from time to time and in the last third of the novel we get an appreciation (of some sort) of what Wilson experienced, but essentially this is Roscoe’s book.
Now, let’s be fair here, Roscoe doesn’t have it easy in prison. While he does have the freedom of breathing fresh air – unlike Wilson – and enjoys milking the cows, working in the library and, eventually, working with the dogs who are employed to chase down escaped prisoners, Kilby does face threats on his life. At one point he is near gutted by a fellow inmate. At another point his arm and shoulder is rendered mostly useless by the brutal treatment of a guard. But Roscoe’s story reads like every prison narrative you’ve ever read. Cut and paste it with Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and you get a similar, well trodden vibe (well, except for the bit where Andy Dufresne digs a big hole in the wall of his cell). But this is the story Reeves is interested in telling – namely how Roscoe survives prison, but also how he deals with his own guilt, killing a man, sending Wilson to a coal mine, leaving his wife in the lurch – and his frustration, the fact that Marie never responds to any of his letters and he never hears from his son.
Work Like Any Other is a perfectly readable novel. Roscoe’s work on the prison and his continued interest in electricity is mildly interesting. But each time we check in with Marie or get a snippet out of Wilson and his experience in the coal mine – he’s released earlier from “prison” due to him losing an arm and a muck up with his paperwork – I wanted to stay with that story. Instead we return to Roscoe, a man were meant to feel increased sympathy for as he’s betrayed by his wife who falsifies divorce papers while Roscoe is in prison. The last quarter of the book where Marie is, for all intents and purposes, framed as a villain, ends the novel on a sour note. Not that it mattered. The story I was invested in wasn’t the one being told.