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Big-box store workers find themselves shut out of the American Dream in 'Help Wanted'

W. W. Norton & Company

There's a moment towards the end of Adelle Waldman's new novel, Help Wanted, where a smart-but-insecure young woman named Nicole, who's a worker in a big-box store, approaches her manager to ask him what he thinks about her ambition to go to college. The manager, nicknamed "Big Will," is a good guy, but he's distracted. He's just been promoted and reassigned to another store. As Nicole sits down in Big Will's office, she notices a photo of a bunch of guys at what must have been Big Will's own college graduation. We're told that:

A really good writer, like Waldman, knows when to let a moment speak for itself. By the end of that brief scene, we readers sense Nicole's aspirations have deflated, maybe for good.

Waldman's 2013 debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., about a young literary hipster living (where else?) in Brooklyn, was lauded for its wit and shrewdness. It's been a long wait for Waldman's second novel, which turns out to be not what I was expecting. Help Wanted is a workplace ensemble piece set in a Costco-like store in a Catskill-region town. It's a place that was first hollowed out by malls and, now, by e-commerce and the disappearance of corporate office parks.

Waldman has said in interviews that she herself took a job in a big-box store for six months. Her motives seem to have been mixed: part anthropological, part practical — the income generated from her debut novel was beginning to dry up.

Help Wanted itself is a mixed bag. As you perhaps heard in the passage above, it's graced with the psychological acuity that distinguished its predecessor. But, because Help Wanted is a group portrait, it tends to visit, rather than settle in with, its working class characters.

The overall effect is both panoramic and jumpy, not unlike the novel's opening scene in which the "team members" of "Movement" — corporate-speak for the crew that gathers every morning at 4 a.m. to meet delivery trucks — frantically unload boxes of stuff: kitty litter, shrink-wrapped lampshades, sunscreen, tiki torches, toilet paper and "single-serve Styrofoam cups of soup."

The novel's plot is, in a sense, also a collective effort. No, nobody's talkin' union. Instead, given that Big Will, the store manager, is moving on up, the workers hatch a plan to rid themselves of their own reviled division manager, a woman named Meredith. By singing her praises to corporate, they hope to get her promoted, albeit undeservedly.

Waldman clearly relishes bringing mercurial Meredith to life. Here she is approaching Nicole on that early morning unloading line.

If The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. was a droll depiction of the insider culture of literary Brooklyn, Help Wanted is an informed depiction of outsiders: hourly wage workers, mostly without benefits, who see themselves shut out of the American Dream. If there's not as much witty banter in this novel, well, how could there be?

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.