Sunday, April 29, 2007

For All Those Stuck in a Rut

If the past few months have taught me anything, it's the frustration of living a stalled life. Sometimes the desperation overwhelms you to the point where you practically dive through the closed, second-story window in an escape attempt. Other times, the lethargy overwhelms you to the point where you sit in a chair for 45 minutes, debating the merits of making a cup of tea before you ultimately decide not to bother.

If you're in that situation -- unhappy but unable, for whatever reason, to make a change -- Everything Must Go by Elizabeth Flock might be a good read. the book tells the non-story of Henry Powell, a one-time high school football star who is now (and forever, it seems) an assistant at a moribund, locally-owned clothing shop. Henry had the chance to go to college, even went for a semester, but got recalled to home by his father, who was worried about his mother. He has been there ever since (he's close to 40 when the book closes), chatting with his former classmates when they drop in for the holidays, following their successes and failures in life, occasionally sneaking the quick drink at the local watering hole before checking in on his aging, failing parents.

The book hopscotches back and forth in time, giving the impression that so little happens in Henry's life that it's difficult to distinguish one year from another. And unlike many books about people stuck in ruts, Henry does not come thundering gloriously out of his, although the book does close on a hopeful note. Perhaps it's more realistic that way -- I think ruts are often endemic to people's personalities, especially a 15-year rut like the one Henry Powell experiences. Still, Henry has his dignity, and his small happinesses. He's never someone you warm up to -- he doesn't pass the Maxwell Perkins test of being able to recognize him on the street -- but you do root for him. I was shocked to realize halfway through, that I'd tried to write this exact short story acouple of years ago, without any luck. I swear that I'm not bitter that Flock succeeded where I did not.

If you're stuck in a rut, this book will not "cheer you up" in a simple manner. It will, more than likely, give you someone to feel superior to ("Holy shit: At least I managed to go on a few dates between the two Bush Administrations!" or "This job may not be much, but it's better than working in a decaying clothing store!"). It will also galvanize you to action. Not wanting to be another Henry Powell, you'll do what you can to ensure this rut is only a passing phase and not your life.

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