The Right Man for the Job, by Mike Magnuson
The Right Man for the Job.|
Harper Collins, 1997.
289 pages, $23 (hardcover).
Gunnar Lund, self-admitted professional asshole, works the streets of Columbus, Ohio, as a repo man for Crown Rentals. He spends afternoons in a Crown Rental van under the tutelage of Dewy Bishop, a gargantuan ex-footballer, reclaiming furniture, refrigerators, and even bad artwork from past due customers; Dewy knows every dodge, every excuse, and most importantly, every street in some of Columbus' more marginal neighborhoods. In Mike Magnuson's first novel The Right Man for the Job, it is Gunnar Lund who is every bit the protege—Dewy's self appointed mission becomes to remove the Wisconsin naivete from Gunnar, whom he has renamed Cheese.
In Magnuson's Columbus, Gunnar Lund sticks out, from the awkwardness of his double extra-large size to the hokey accent of America's dairyland. But to Magnuson's credit, a novel that could have degenerated into a typical story of Quixote and Panza instead asks some of the more difficult questions posed by any recent first novel. Gunnar Lund is in a world of shit wherever he is. He had troubles in Wisconsin, and he has them in Ohio. Only the names have been changed.
The Gunnar Lund that leaves a job in a Wisconsin plastic factory also leaves behind a girlfriend. In Columbus, he moves in with new girlfriend Margaret and her 10-year-old son Fred, having traded his factory job for an equally miserable position at Crown Rental. His training as a repo man nets him $265 a week and the opportunity to learn the hundreds of Crown Rental rules and slogans, as voiced by Winky, the mascot that is part of the Crown Rental logo. Like a demonic Dr. T. J. Eckleberg, Winky sees everything that happens in the neighborhoods that are Crown Rentals' domain; his sloganeering—one sentence koans on the nature of every aspect of the rental transaction—looms throughout the novel as a kind of newspeak for bad neighborhoods.
Magnuson writes Gunnar's story with an acumen that suggests a more veteran writer. Lund becomes engaging precisely because we know most everything human about him, shown to us in subtly revealing language as we move between Margaret's stifling apartment and Dewy's domain of Columbus' black neighborhoods. Margaret dishes idle threats on the telephone ("The world would be better off if we took all the men and set them afire") and Dewy leads Gunnar into houses where he is spit on, cursed, and shot at. Gunnar's story is the authentic voice of misery.
Like the New York-London biaxis of the earliest novels of Madison Smartt Bell, Margnuson's work here is divided in its heart, between the miseries of Columbus and the somewhat idealized bars and factories of Wisconsin. Magnuson seems to owe a lot to Bell. Like Macrae in Bell's Save Me, Joe Louis, each of Gunnar Lund's minor decisions have a stunning moral consequence. Gunnar flees Margaret's apartment with only a few pair of underwear stuffed into a duffle bag, and later thinks little of repossessing a couch that is the only piece of furniture in an apartment where a woman has just given birth to triplets.
The Right Man for the Job is ultimately a success, and should be accorded the usual superlatives one might throw at an accomplished debut. What makes it worthy of greater consideration, though, is Magnuson's deft touch as a moralist. Magnuson's Columbus, and the ghetto lorded over by Winky, the Crown Rental mascot, have no moral center. Instead, the novelist takes us on a grand tour of the various feckless behaviors men must engage in during the course of keeping a woman or a job, and Magnuson shows us with great skill just how much potential for combustion there actually is in a life that is lived on the margins.