In Other Words
Discount by Casey Gray and The Faster Redder Road: The Best Un-American Stories of Stephen Graham Jones edited by Theodore C. Van Alst Jr.
Discount by Casey Gray, The Overlook Press, 313 pages
To shop at a big-box store like Target and Wal-Mart is to be seduced. You go in for some toilet paper and hummingbird feeders, and by the time you head to checkout, your cart is filled with at least $100 worth of merchandise — and you’re convinced, albeit temporarily, that each item you’ve selected is a bargain with the potential to improve your life. It’s the lure of glossy particleboard bookshelves, brightly colored household cleansers, and the perfect neon beach towels for the wonderful summer that surely lies ahead. But peek beneath the surface and sadness lurks. It’s in the eyes of the employees as they mechanically scan close-out cotton pajama bottoms, yoga mats, iPods, and ground beef; it’s in their weak smiles as they ask if you’ve found everything you need but don’t listen to your answer.
Casey Gray, an instructor at New Mexico State University, sets his first novel, Discount ,in Las Cruces at the Superstore — a thinly disguised stand-in for WalMart. Discount is a tragicomic, multiplot novel with many characters, each of whom is connected to the Superstore as an employee or customer — or the friend or relative of someone who works or shops there. Early in the book is a perfect scene-setting device: new-employee orientation, at which we learn the complicated, commodified lingo of the mighty retail chain. In a stellar example of religion and spirituality colliding with capitalism, Gray calls Superstore managers “servant/ leaders.” Servant leadership is a concept of leading others by serving their needs before your own that was formalized as an ethical organizational theory by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970. It’s often used in organizations with religion-centered missions so management isn’t entirely top-down. But at the Superstore, it is cultlike lip service to the idea of “teamwork” that sounds more threatening than supportive. If you’ve risen to the level of servant/leader, chances are you have bought into the belief that happiness and wholeness really do come from perfectly faced shelves and from never, ever calling in sick.
The essential tension in Discount is between the depressing reality of life for minimum-wage workers in Las Cruces and the literal and symbolic gleaming surfaces the Superstore presents. Gray offers rich characterizations as well as a degree of social commentary. There is a family of gang members; some work at the store, and all are mired in hard drugs and violence. Claudia, strung out but more intelligent than all her brothers and cousins combined, has been flirting via text with a married servant/ leader and now has a picture of his penis saved on her phone. The physical strain of standing shift work is told through sleep-deprived Wilma, who looks after her toddler grandson by day and works at night. Her pain and discomfort are palpable. Gray gives such vivid descriptions of swollen ankles and muscles bursting from exhaustion that one wonders why compression socks aren’t part of the required store uniform. A veteran disfigured by burn scars is used as a patriotic prop for the company’s mercurial CEO; a young man with Down syndrome is similarly exploited. The parking lot is a world of its own; overnight guests in campers are encouraged to stay there because they shop in the store. Among still other characters are deli workers, security guards, cart pushers, and a desperately neurotic Christian woman who has become sexually preoccupied with the seventeen-year-old Asian boy who does her nails in the space his family rents at the Superstore, while her husband and children succumb to various temptations and vices in an effort to find meaning in their lives.
Gray is fearless when it comes to exploring class, race, and social strata, but some of the characterizations veer into stereotypes. In its detailing of the lives of “average Americans,”
Discount bears some resemblance to the novels of Jonathan Franzen, but where Franzen’s tone ultimately mocks his carefully crafted characters, such mockery doesn’t seem to be Gray’s aim. Discount has so much action that its lack of catharsis in the end is surprising. It’s as if the sun just sets over the Superstore, destined simply to rise again. There is a truth to that type of ending, but the storytelling falters. Perhaps the lingering effects of
Discount matter more. After reading it, shopping at big-box stores becomes more complicated, because the surfaces no longer shine the same way. This is true not only of Wal-Mart and Target but also of Whole Foods, where finding happiness through merchandise has even greater stakes, given that Whole Foods is selling a lifestyle but people must eat to survive. But listen closely and you’ll hear the corporate drudgery: A woman in the cheese department asks for a break after hours in cold storage and is told she’s not a “team player”; a bagger is silently crying while trying to stretch his lower back. Despite the overwhelming cynicism of its characters, Discount is a welcome exercise in empathy.