by Virginia Reeves
Published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster
reviewed by Tony Burnett
Author Virginia Reeves appeared last week at the New Fiction Confab in Austin on April 23, 2016, along with Kaitlyn Greenidge (We Love You, Charlie Freeman), Karan Mahajan (The Association of Small Bombs), Karen Olsson (All the Houses), Alexander Chee (The Queen of the Night), Samantha Hunt (Mr. Splitfoot), Kirk Lynn (Rules for Werewolves), and Sunil Yapa (The Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist).
Set in 1920s Alabama, Reeves’ Work Like Any Other is the new epitome of Southern storytelling. In an elegant yet colloquial voice Virginia Reeves weaves this complex odyssey with shades of Faulkner and Tennessee Williams while holding true to her poignant vision of possibility if not hope. The narrative centers on Roscoe T. Martin, a man of intelligence with a profound passion for bringing the magic of Faraday’s electricity to save the struggling farm his young wife inherits from her father. Many in the community deride his efforts due to their fear of this misunderstood power. Roscoe’s project results in the farm’s prosperity and helps him regain the respect if not the love of Marie, his young wife, who has emotionally withered following a devastating childbirth that gave them a son but left her unable to bear more children.
Though Roscoe detests farming, he shares the property with the extended family of Wilson Grice, who worked for Marie’s father as caretaker of the property. Roscoe’s decision to illegally connect to the power grid results in the accidental death of an overzealous power company employee and alters the course of the two families by sending both patriarchs to prison. Marie not only severs all connection with her incarcerated husband but keeps his young son from having contact with him as well. The narrative follows Roscoe through his nine years in prison, lacking any contact with his previous life, followed by his eventual release and a modicum of redemption.
The narrative shifts from clear and concise through passages of almost hallucinatory memory sequences, yet remains bold, comprehensible and gripping. Both the internal and external complexities of Roscoe’s character are explored with empathetic honesty. Most supporting characters are developed with depth and subtly as well, though rarely to the extent we experience Roscoe. Setting is drawn with a harsh beauty appropriate to the scene, be it the rank odor of the dairy barn or the piercing and ripping flora of the dense thicket.
The superstitions and social mores of 1920s Alabama function as a plot point throughout the intricate interactions of the two families. Work Like Any Other balances plot, character and setting as well as any novel I’ve experienced. This debut by Reeves, with its universal appeal set in the gorgeous dilapidation of Southern noir, is a must-read for any connoisseur of literary story in the American South.
Tony Burnett has been a member of the Writers’ League of Texas since 2010 and currently serves on the Board of Directors. His recent story collection, Southern Gentlemen, has been receiving positive reviews. He resides with his trophy bride, Robin, deep in the heart of Texas.