Selling Ben Cheever 6:41 p.m. 2003-06-30

Drive Time: 30 minutes!
Current Listening: Selling Ben Cheever, by Benjamin Cheever
Current Reading: A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain
Current Viewing: Season Three of Sex in the City on DVD

Today was not too terrible, considering I am on day 3 of my summer head cold. Since today is also the last day before the new health insurance year begins, I paid a visit to my doctor to get drugs. I want to make sure I nip this thing in the bud before I board a plane. It's been years since the dreaded ear infection suffered due to flying after a head cold, but I still remember and don't want it to happen again!

Reviews for SELLING BEN CHEEVER:Back to Square One in a Service Economy

Author writes about his employment failures by LAURA K. BARGE

Selling Ben Cheever is about jobs -- the difficulty of finding one, the inanity of training for it, the drudgery of doing it. Cheever, who has written three novels and was an editor at Reader's Digest and a newspaper reporter, seems an unlikely person to become a security guard or a sandwich maker, or work at a computer store or a bookstore. But there's the rub. There are few truly secure jobs, and talented, educated people cannot count on hard work and loyalty alone to keep them employed.

Cheever admits that he wasn't desperate for money, but he is hardly a paragon of success. His book opens with a Product Warning: "This is a book about failure." He is a slow sandwich maker and earns the nickname "Slow G" for "Slow Grandpa." After several weeks as a car salesman, he realizes he must quit to keep from owing the dealership money.

He spent six years doing the jobs he writes about, and the result is an engaging book that may serve future anthropologists in the study of the late 20th century. The statistics on earnings and debt and excerpts from employment studies may be easy to ignore in the daily newspaper, but Cheever uses them effectively.

This excerpt from a Bloomsbury Magazine review by Mark Dery makes some good points:

As a senior editor at Reader's Digest, Ben Cheever savored the rich pickings of the corporate life: power dining with Sam Nunn, riding the company jet, and smoking Cuban cigars. After work, he banged out less-than-best-selling novels, struggling to bear up under the heavy mantle of his father, John Cheever's literary rep.

When he discovered, after leaving the Digest to make it as a writer, that he couldn't sell his third novel, he conceived a nonfiction book about life among the downwardly mobile: "I'd play out everybody's worst nightmare, take entry-level jobs." Selling Ben Cheever is that book - a chronicle of the author's tragicomic stints as a car salesman, sidewalk Santa, Borders clerk, and Mac man at CompUSA. "'Oh, so you're into this now,' said a woman who had been an editor with me at the Reader's Digest. I can't know, but I thought from the way she worked her face that she was thinking, Ben never was all that smart. " What, exactly, is Selling Ben Cheever selling? Grim stats about the widening income gap seem to set us up for a mad-as-hell teardown of the new economy. Instead, we get a self-flagellating account of a "natural-born bust's" days as a wage slave after he fails to deliver on the promise of the Cheever brand. The author's funny-sad dispatches from the $7 an hour nightmare are part of a story that desperately needs telling, but his Hallmark homilies about the "heroism of the hourly worker" blunt its edge.

As does its fundamental dishonesty. Cheever passes as one of the downsized, but he wasn't sacked from Reader's Digest - he quit - and anyone who's ever gotten pink-slipped knows the bitter difference. Moreover, it's hard to feel the pain of a guy who's married to film critic Janet Maslin and owns "one of those watches designed to whisper, 'I cost a lot of money.'" His insistence that his financial security afforded him a journalistic freedom he wouldn't have had if he had "actually roasted in economic hell" fails to convince. You can never know what it's like to live a paycheck away from homelessness if there's a safety net to stop your fall. I keep thinking about the guy in Selling Ben Cheever who gambles everything on a frozen yogurt stand that goes belly-up. He wants Cheever to write a book about him. "We could lose the house," he tells the author, in tears. "It's a great story. ... And if it weren't true, it would be funny," replies Cheever.

Here is the link to an excerpt from his book. I have worked a few retail jobs myself, including KidsMart, Crabtree & Evelyn, The Body Shop, Caswell-Massey, The Discovery Store, and L'Herbier de Provence. I also served my time as a bilingual phone customer service person for a company called Sertec. And do I have stories to tell. So, I understand where Ben is coming from.

It could be said that I, too, had a safety net, in my parents and my grandparents. That didn't lessen the humiliation and frustration of many of those positions, as well as the dissappointment when I found at some of my workplaces.

For instance, when I went to work for The Body Shop, I had visited many in Europe, and had read the founder, Anita Roddick's book. I was so excited to work for a store that had such high values. What I found was that - at least at their Kennesaw store - it was all about sales, low wages, and inconsistent plans of service work on the side.

While working at Sertec, I was almost written up for spelling things incorrectly. I am an excellent speller. I had him rewrite the report to the correct problem - typographical errors. I brought to their attention the proper spelling of Neapolitan (one of Pizza Hut's pizzas) incorrectly, even going so far as to point it out in the dictionary. He replied that that must have been the spelling for the ice cream...

Oh, I have a million of them!

While researching John Cheever, I came upon this review of The Swimmer, about which Michael Chambon writes:

"The Swimmer" is a masterpiece of mystery, language and sorrow. It starts out, on a perfect summer morning, as the record of a splendid exploit -- Neddy Merrill's quest to swim the eight miles from the house of his friends, the Westerhazys, to his own, via the swimming pools of fashionable Shady Hill -- and ends up as a kind of ghost story, with night and autumn coming on, in a thunderstorm, at the door to a haunted house.

I only saw as a movie starring Burt Lancaster. I think it was on late-night television at some hotel where we were visiting our father while he was working in Alabama. I still remember the movie - it was just one of those movies that seemed to encapsulate an era - that martini drinking era of the 60's or 70's that seemed so glamourous when I was a child. It's good to make the connection!

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