In Other Words

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - — Jen­nifer Levin

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.

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