Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Oscar Villalon’s favorite books about work


Work is the all-American pastime, taking more and more of our waking hours, and infiltrating our sleep. It’s been grist for books from Studs Terkel’s “Working” to Joshua Ferris’ “And Then We Came to the End” to Joseph Heller’s “Something Happened,”set in an ad agency circa “Mad Men.”

Recently we asked NBCC members, former awards winners and finalists, What’s your favorite book about work? The responses to this NBCC Reads series poured in (a few within minutes). Books ranged all over the map. Several books gathered multiple endorsements, including Philip Levine's “What Work Is,” Ed Park's “Personal Days,” Tom Rachman's “The Imperfectionists,” “Two-Up” by NBCC board member Eric Miles Williamson, George Orwell's “Down and Out in Paris and London.”  The long tail of individual favorites began with NBCC Balakian award winner Joan Acocella's pick, Penelope Fitzgerald's “Human Voices.” Today's entry is from NBCC board member Oscar Villalon, managing editor of ZYZZYVA.

As it happens, I've got quite a few favorites. It's because I find novels that explore work — what goes into labor: blue-collar, white-collar, criminal or artistic — to be innately fascinating. There's a deep pleasure in reading a work of fiction and coming away from it with something practical, to be acquainted with the demands and responsibilities of a carpenter, a financier, a prep cook, or a car thief.

Ken Kesey's “Sometimes a Great Notion” and Richard Price's “Clockers” [a finalist for the NBCC award in fiction] are among my favorites: lumberjacking and policing and drug dealing, the mechanics of their execution, their various dangers, their respective cultures, and the economies surrounding each are laid out sumptuously in those novels.

But I would like to point people to another favorite, one whose service industry setting and noble modesty of its protagonists should be held in the front of our minds in these dispiriting times: Stewart O'Nan's “Last Night at the Lobster.” As a crew of Red Lobster employees spend what might be their last day doing their jobs, O'Nan show us (if we didn't know already) that these tasks require skill and care, that the work is honorable. It's a lovely ode to decent, hard-working, multi-ethnic America, which is to say, it's a fine book about how millions of us unassumingly go about our worthy lives.