Books

Virginia Reeves
Work Like Any Other

Rural Alabama in the 1920s was harsh, cold and dark. In the beginning of Virginia Reeves’ debut novel, Work Like Any Other, Roscoe Martin, his wife, Marie, and son, Gerald, live on the farm inherited from Marie’s father. Roscoe and Marie are both resentful of their situation: Roscoe is an electrician by training, besotted by electricity and its potential as it makes its way across the state, but he’s had to leave his job to follow his wife. He’s also jealous of Marie’s love for their son and feels supplanted, while Marie can’t believe her husband refuses to farm despite the family sinking deeper into debt. 

In the first few pages, there’s a frightening moment where Roscoe throws one of Gerald’s books against the wall and threatens him. “You reading about a lowlife like your pa? Some shiftless loaf-about who won’t work his own farm?” Roscoe says. Marie and Gerald are terrified.

This moment of tension is notable because it’s rare. Roscoe soon hatches a plan to siphon electricity illegally from the new power lines that run past the farm, with the help of Wilson, their saintly farm manager. For a while, this works brilliantly: by practising his trade, Roscoe feels proud and restored, his relationship with his wife and son repairs, and the farm prospers because of the thresher that he runs on the stolen power. “Years pass quickly in times of fortune. They fill up with kernels and furrows and sprouts, new fields and crops, beautiful glass-shaded lamps from Birmingham, and meals under wide chandeliers.”

These good years don’t last. An employee of the power company is electrocuted when he comes across Roscoe’s transformers; “hands burned beyond recognition, nubs of blackened fingers … his veins, great branching lines of red that spread across his skin like roots.” Roscoe is found guilty of manslaughter and larceny and is sentenced to 20 years at Kilby Prison. Wilson, as his accessory, receives 10 years. 

As Roscoe serves his time, his story intertwines with his earlier life on the farm, as he builds his transformers and travels towards his undoing. This alternating structure would seem perfect to maximise conflict and build pressure, yet despite the challenges that Reeves’ characters undergo – deception, maiming, abandonment, betrayal, cruelty in many forms – they are philosophical and enlightened. “I just passed my thirty-third birthday, and my life has become only years before Kilby and years during,” says Roscoe, in prison. “I hope for years after, but not too frequently. Hope makes disappointment that much harsher when it arrives.” And later, when he imagines Wilson labouring in a mine: 

I can see him, deep in the guts of the earth, his skin grown darker with the coal dust. Wilson is a farmer. He belongs aboveground, sprayed clean by the sun and air. He needs soil and growing things, seedlings just coming up in their furrows, the great blades of corn grass slipping out of their first sheaths … The back of Wilson is the back of everyman.

Marie, also, is astonishingly self-aware. When she considers all that stands between her and Roscoe, she thinks of:

…the things he’d been unfortunate enough to inherit when he married her, the things he’d brought along himself, his unremitting love of electricity, its stubborn practice, the laziness of the first year on the farm, the lies about the power, the exploitation of Wilson. All that ugliness, but somehow, too, the beauty she’d once seen in him – the strength to defy his own lineage, the circuits of his brain in their understanding of something so new and foreign as harnessed power, the cut of his face, the roughness of his hands, even the man he’d been in their bedroom, both tender and ardent.

The depiction of the rural deep south in Work Like Any Other is very fine. This foreign concept of electricity is terrifying. “Fire needs to be out in the open, some place we can keep an eye on it. Don’t belong inside wires,” the local shopkeeper tells Roscoe. This creeping modernity leaves marks on Reeves’ characters and her town, and in her hands, both the prison and the farm seem imposing and serene. This is terrific, for settings. Her people, though, are the same. Every single sentence is elegant and every paragraph could be a poem, but these were surely not elegant times and I do not believe them to be poetic people. Roscoe and Marie are educated but are still rural people of their age. Their thoughts are not their own: they’re Reeves’. 

Wilson the farm manager and his wife, Moa, also, are close to perfect humans. Moa is “…tall and slender and coffee coloured, much lighter than Wilson…”, eight years older than Marie and just about raised her after the death of Marie’s mother. Wilson himself doesn’t end up in prison after all; in those days, black convicts are leased as slave labour in privately owned mines, where they are out of sight of the judicial system and frequently killed. He suffers terribly but, as he tells Marie, “It’s all right … I’ve made my peace with it.” He remains a paragon of sense and charity so Roscoe’s redemption isn’t hard-won. 

When his parole board asks about the horrific injuries he’s sustained in prison, Roscoe thinks, “I did not expect the injuries, but they did not surprise me, and so, I could tell this board that they did nothing, that their impact was neutral, that they were a decent dinner one evening or a painful sermon one Sunday morning or the sounds of the dogs giving chase.” This is absolutely true, and the crux of the novel. It might seem churlish to criticise an impeccably researched debut that immerses the reader in place and time and where every sentence is perfect, but stories and their characters should be living, breathing things. If characters are damaged, physically or psychologically, they should feel it and readers should feel it. Reeves is a serious talent, but Work Like Any Other is poetic, flawless and oh so cold.  LS

Scribner, 400pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 5, 2016 as "Virginia Reeves, Work Like Any Other". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: LS

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