This agreeable work of fiction has an unusual structure: the subtitle describes it as “A Novel in Stories”, and the book comprises ten stand-alone short stories, one set in each year from 1991 to 2000, each one following the same family, from newlyweds to parenthood. One story, “Christmas and the Car Salesman”, had previously been published separately in a magazine.
However, reading them all together they strike you as simply a precisely structured novel following the progress of a young, ambitious but not especially gifted salesman, Kenneth Bodine. Bodine serves as a kind of Everyman figure for small-town American white-collar workers, unremarkable in many ways but with integrity, decency, and an instinct to provide for his wife and children, though a lurking sense of Thoreau-style quiet desperation never far away. We see Bodine steer his way through job opportunities and disappointments, and disruptions from colleagues, employers, family members, friends and neighbours. Throughout he remains broadly optimistic and virtuous, despite numerous temptations and distractions.
The polished narrative is subtle, gentle, unsentimental and understated. It’s easy to relate to the characters and their dilemmas. The story is enriched by implied back-stories hinted at by small details dropped in along the way, e.g. Bodine’s daughters’ obsession with dolls’ house bathroom furniture, wittily echoing their parents’ home improvement plans that threaten to undermine their precarious financial position. I particularly liked the “puzzle soup” incident, in which the little girls liven up a dull playdate at a neighbouring child’s house by mixing up the pieces from all her jigsaw puzzles, to the chagrin of their mother.
There is also effective characterisation for the minor players such as Bodine’s estranged parents, his series of dodgy bosses, and colleagues with lesser ethics than his own. The odd item of dress or make-up can speak volumes about a character. There’s just enough description and believable dialogue to create a real and believable atmosphere, but there’s also a sense of distance between the action and the reader, as if inviting the reader to judge, and an undercurrent of affectionate playfulness.
Baker’s wry yet courteous way with words, reminiscent of Garrison Keillor, often made me smile, e.g. “Kenneth had gained from his youth a certain familiarity with the penal code”; “It was work that anyone who was not stoned could do”, and, describing one of his employers, “He had the girth of a man who is done with stairs”.
The novel ends in 2000, with the Bodine family narrowly averting both a personal finance crisis and also a marital one. Despite knowing from the outset that the book would end in the tenth story and year, the conclusion still felt a little abrupt to me – or maybe it was just that I was reluctant to part company from this unassuming and likeable family who represent so many millions of people across the USA. (The book reminded me of David Byrne’s masterful movie about small-town America, True Stories, which I very much admire.) There was also an element of mischief about ending the book at this historic moment, as we moved into the current millennium with the dubious joys that it was to bring, not least the economic downturn that will have felled so many Bodines at the knees.
This book would be enjoyed by anyone who has a fondness for small-town America, or who has ever been through a similar career path to Bodine, or who has shared his same ideals and found the going tough. It’s also great entertainment for those who like subtle writing of understated cleverness. I, for one, was left yearning for an update on Bodine’s next decade.
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