Thursday, July 21, 2016

WANTED: ELEVATOR MAN, Joseph G. Peterson's words of comfort for modern young men


Switchgrass Books (dist. Cornell University Press) (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$14.00 trade paper or Kindle editions, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Balladeer of the city’s broken and forgotten men, Joseph G. Peterson looks for inspiration in urban side streets and alleys, where crooked schemes are hatched, where lives end violently, and where pretty much everyone is up to no good. Depicting the lives of people who have woefully lost their way in the world—criminals and victims, the unemployed and unemployable, the neglected and the indigent, the lonely and the alone—Peterson nonetheless brings a poet’s touch to his work, which is redolent with allegory, allusion, and Nabokovian wordplay. His last novel, Beautiful Piece, garnered praise from across the literary spectrum. Enter Wanted: Elevator Man, his powerful and ambitious new novel and the story of Eliot Barnes Jr., a man at the end of his proverbial rope.

Haunted by the larger-than-life shadow of his father, a scientist who may have helped develop the atomic bomb, twenty-nine-year-old Eliot Barnes, Jr., is an apple that’s fallen far from the tree. Saddled with a useless degree in literature, caged in a rundown apartment he can’t afford, and embittered by his failure to live up to the future’s promise, Barnes, who dreams of a corner office—an aerie roost high above the city, working with the higher-ups—begrudgingly accepts a job as an elevator man in a downtown Chicago skyscraper. Thus begins a profound but comedic meditation on failure in this life, how one comes to terms with not achieving one’s dreams, the nature and origin of such dreams, and, fittingly, the meaning of the American dream itself.

As unflinching as Nelson Algren and as romantic as Saul Bellow, Peterson’s novel boasts wildly surreal plot twists and a lethal wit that frequently erupts into full-on hilarity. Wanted: Elevator Man is the perfect tale for learning to cope with diminished expectations in these dark and desperate times.

My Review: The role of the young man in our society has changed so much since my childhood, I need books like this one to help me get with their programming. Eliot Barnes, raised in a deeply rural place (Iowa) by a distant and frequently incomprehensible mother, survives a childhood that only seems weird in the rear-view mirror. That’s the way of things, isn’t it? He and his mother live alone in the quiet of a place with corn stalks for neighbors, tending a garden surrounding the small and dark home his mother clings to.

Barnes is increasingly fixated on getting out of Iowa, out of isolation, and never ceases to encourage his mother to do the same. She can’t, she mumbles, he’s in school, she has a job (which she hates), why bother anyway...this litany doesn’t escape Barnes’s attention. Since she hates the owner of the real-estate place where she is a secretary, and returns home railing against them for not recognizing her potential to bring sales up and make something of the place, why doesn’t she use her knowledge and set up a competitive shop? Barnes as a child can see this, can encourage it, but can’t get past his mother’s angry, bitter resignation, her masochistic reveling in her squashed potential.

Off like a shot to go to college in a “major institution” (it’s always referred to that way, never by name, and we have to infer that it’s in or near Chicago because that’s where the story takes place), where the tall, gaunt kid Barnes turns into the tall, gaunt misfit Barnes. His useless degree from the major institution hasn’t even made him suitable for a waiter’s job: He’s been fired from seven so far. So down deep inside, even as he’s chronically behind on his student loans and rent, he feels as if he’s obscurely letting himself down, failing failing over and over again. His upstairs neighbor, Tom, was a locomotive engineer, and keeps Barnes company occasionally. He even brings Barnes the bizarre solution to his “what shall I do with my life?” angst: An ad, a want ad, a large-type headline WANTED: ELEVATOR MAN with an address in the Loop to apply at. Mia, Barnes’s ex-girlfriend and only other human being who calls or calls on him, doesn’t want him to sink to being a laborer. Nonetheless, with big plans fueled by Mia as to how he’ll use his elevator man job to pitch his talents to the big shots, he applies for and gets the job. The troubles and dream-shattering begin from the moment he sets on the bus:
The bus was crowded, standing room only, and he clung apelike from a bar that hung down from the ceiling. It was humiliating to be packed in with all these people; it reminded him of a cattle car or worse, a sardine can, or worse...but what could be worse than this?
After all, he has a degree from a major institution and will soon be in a corner office! But that moment in the bus sees Barnes thrown off the bus physically, face first, and required to walk to his new job at 154 South LaSalle Street. There the day begins with a woman trapped in an elevator. Coneybeare, his boss, leads the gaunt and out of shape Barnes up the stairs to the floor two above the stuck elevator. They pause to smoke:
Coneybeare didn't put his cigarette out. He merely let it slip from between his long fingers, and it fell down the space between the stairs. Barnes watched, dismayed at the distance, as the red ember disappeared in the darkness, and then, like Coneybeare, he did the same, dropping his cigarette and counting one one thousand, two one thousand, as it fell, a disappearing red dot in the darkness below.
Anxiety over his first-day baptism by fire, a stuck woman screaming her lungs out, getting roped into rappelling gear for the first time in his life, and getting all sorts of dire “advice” from Coneybeare about the dangerous wiring, the irreplaceable Art Deco pieces on the elevator car’s roof, and he jumps before he can’t even move. Naturally he lands on the dangerous wiring, breaks the irreplaceable Art Deco pieces, and falls into the car with the screaming woman, trailing a live electrical wire.

What else could go wrong? The elevator, swinging around in the shaft, starts to fall twenty-eight or so stories! The formerly screaming woman now changes behavior utterly and becomes a ministering angel to the wounded, scared Barnes:
He felt entombed and stifled and desperately craved oxygen. He vainly raised the question: Why have you forsaken me?

'Call my mother,' he yelled. He had meant to say: I'm dying. Please call a priest.

The shadowy Presence, who had been in a panic, rushed over to him and, disregarding the fact that it was live, pushed the cable aside.

'You're alive,' the Presence said in breathless tones. 'Mamma's here to help.'

The elevator continued to descend, creating a vacuum. Barnes gasped for breath.

'Breathe in, breathe out,' the Presence urged. She tapped his pulse rapidly with two fingers. 'Come on, you can do it. One, two, three. Breathe in. Mamma's here to help.' ... In his delirium he thought that indeed his mother was here to help. However, in all of Barnes's twenty-nine years of so-called living, his mother had never come so comfortingly close as this.
As this is the closest Barnes has been to a female person in some time, he’s understandably flustered and confused. He allows himself to be cradled, soothed, bathing in the luxurious ease of motherly gynergy. And as soon as the elevator stops, the doors whoosh open and the Presence departs at top speed, pausing only to give him a card with her name, Marie, and a phone number on it; on the back of the card is the mantra she used to soothe Barnes after he fell the two floors and crashed through the roof: ‘Love you.’

It’s human nature to crave more of things that make them feel secure, loved, coddled. Barnes is no exception. Although his first day on the job was, by anyone’s standards, a total clusterfuck, he emerges from the elevator in a haze of poignant happiness. His boss has newfound respect for the toughness of a man who will risk death and still calm a passenger down from screaming, and survive the experience not needing an ambulance or a resignation letter. Barnes is a man transformed, and Coneybeare treats him as such, making sure he has a properly fitting uniform, a steady stream of praise for the amazing work Barnes begins to do and do with great pride.

But there is still the matter of Marie, of the gorgeous enveloping aura of lovingkindness Barnes experienced. He wants to call her, he needs to hear her voice and feel her presence and bask once more in the numinous cloud of joy she enfolded him in with her arms. But Barnes is still a putz, a Jell-o-spined mass of neuroses and fears, so he puts it off. Finally, though, the self-help pamphlets Tom’s been giving him kick in:
To have luck and fail to act on it is tantamount to not having luck at all. In fact, it was worse. Barnes thought back to his self-help manuals. They all proclaimed with compelling force the necessity of recognizing opportunity then seizing it when it struck.
He can’t just not carpe diem, he’ll lose the last minuscule dot of self-respect he possesses.
Barnes looked at her card once again. He held it in his hand. He scrutinized it for a watermark--but there wasn't even that. Just her name, her number, and that strange mantra: 'love you.’
Several awkward call attempts later, Marie appears in Barnes’s apartment late one night to have the longest conversation he ever has with her. He stares into her grey-flecked-with-blue eyes. He answers questions he’s stopped asking himself because Marie--the Presence--asks them. He exposes his entire unimpressive body to her, at her urging, and feels no shame in his vulnerable nudity.

Their conversation, in brief, gives Barnes the calm assurance of self-worth to take control of more and more of his life. He redoubles his efforts at making the elevator man position one of pride and usefulness, despite the big shots who ride the things every day sparing him not a glance or a thought...until they’re stuck, of course, and it’s Barnes who saves them and keeps their secrets when they poop their expensive suits in terror of the dark, of death. As humans will, the harder he works, the more his mind is free to range over the cosmos (ie, his life). He wonders more and more about his strange, distant, angry mother, and the shadowy father he never met and has been told the obvious lie that the man was a nuclear scientist who died of radiation poisoning. Maybe if he was twenty years older…. But Barnes once, while attending the major institution, made a trip to Nevada to see if he could find this man, a grave, any information about him. This leads Barnes to an encounter with an aged Japanese internee, an Issei woman (born in Japan), with whom he has a tea party and listens to her story:
Several died the day the bomb was dropped. Some lived six months after the explosion but died anyway. They were all lost. It was so long ago, young man. To you it is a history story. To me it is my life.
A stranger, remember, completely unknown to him before and after their one meeting, told him more truth about herself than his mother had in his entire life. It is a painful moment, to say the least.

Barnes had cleared the house where he grew up when his mother couldn’t take care of herself any longer. Her eventual death was explained to Barnes as a case of Life Fatigue. She just died, to be plain about it. What he kept as souvenirs of the life his mother led wa minimal, but includes a shoebox full of poetry...mediocre...and one letter (bombshell).

His father wrote to his mother, a young husband’s lament at being far away when his wife gave birth to a son, Eliot Barnes, Junior, while he was away working in the Texas City, Texas, oil refinery.

Junior. That was news. Texas. Oilman. Junior’s head is reeling.

But then Eliot found a newspaper clipping dating from his birth year about a fatal explosion in a Texas City refinery, leaving 15 dead. One of them, since his mother underlined the death toll, was his father. So much of his mother’s private pain, never shared and never even hinted at, snaps into focus for Eliot:
Perhaps that's what she caught, not Life Fatigue but just grief over a broken heart--and the bitterness that comes with being cheated too early of something true--like a young husband's love.
The chains come off Eliot Barnes, Junior, freeing him at long last to move beyond the considerable pleasure of doing his elevator man job well to the next phase of living a good life, doing good things for people just because those things need doing. He thinks back to the self-help pamphlets his neighbor Tom gave him, how very much they helped Eliot break out of his depression, and how he wants to pay that forward. The doorman, Freddy, listens to Eliot talking about his plans, and ends up helping make these pamphlets, adding a certain something to them Eliot doesn’t have:
He was friendly as a warm bowl of soup. An affable guy, he always had a dimpled smile on his face and lived life unplagued by want.
The perfect pair to make a difference in others’ lives. And they do, with the clandestine nighttime gift of these pamphlets to all 3,000-plus workers in the building. People walk by reading them as Eliot polishes the Art Deco brass and Freddy opens the door, never knowing these are the men who created the words helping them through their turmoils. The preface to this pamphlet is one of Eliot’s mother’s poems:
An ear of corn
Is yet an ear
Reminding you not merely to hear
But to listen!

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