Sunday, June 21, 2009

What Work Is

Kelefa Sanneh's review-essay about Matthew B. Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work is one of the more enjoyable pieces I've read in the New Yorker lately. 

Crawford's book calls for the following, in Sanneh's words:
...a return to real work—a return, in other words, to activities more tangible (and, it was hoped, less perilous) than complex swaps of abstract financial products. Crawford means his book to be a philosophical manifesto for a dawning age: an ode to old-fashioned hard work, and an argument that localism can help cure our spiritual and economic woes.
Sanneh goes on to complicate the issue, making this trenchant point:
Really, he likes engines and building things and fixing things; his dedication to his shop is rooted in his admiration for his clients and for what he calls the “kingly sport” of motorcycle riding. In other words, his work is “useful” only insofar as it enables men to ride motorcycles—an activity that might fairly be described as useless. 
Tim Gautreaux's fine story "Idols," in the same issue, is also about the meaning and value of working with one's hands, building and fixing things. In this story, which has strong echoes of Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy, a Memphis typewriter repairman inherits his ancestral manse, a huge old house on a former slave plantation in Mississippi. After having the sheriff evict the squatters who've been dwelling there, he moves in and plans to renovate the place, though his savings are meager. He hopes to find someone down on his luck whom he can get to do the work cheaply. 

He discusses this plan with a wry storekeeper, who's straight out of McCarthy:
“You say you want this worker to live out there with you? What on earth for? You’ll have to feed him, and he’ll have lots of chances to bum money. After a few months on the place, he’ll be the same as a brother-in-law.”
“I want an employee, not a relative.”
Mr. Poxley flapped his limp hand at him. “You want a sharecropper, son. Them days is over, gone to history.”
Nevertheless, he eventually finds the man he wants, a jack of all trades named Obadiah Parker who's in the process of getting his many tattoos lasered off in order to win back his super-religious wife, who calls the tats "idols." (Parker's last name is a clear reference to the tattooed protagonist of O'Connor's story "Parker's Back.")

The typewriter repairman, whose name is Julian (also the name of a famous O'Connor protagonist, from "Everything That Rises Must Converge"), exploits Parker for all he's worth, until eventually Parker has his final tattoo removed and leaves without a word, leaving Julian alone in a decrepit house, heading into winter, with no handyman's skills of his own:
He could fix a typewriter, but nothing else in the world, and he didn’t know if he could continue living in the old mansion, unable as he was to keep it nailed together.
For all of Sanneh's dead-on critique of Crawford's macho motorcycle-repair chest-thumping, there is something real and important about being able to fix things around your house. It's a cause of some deep anxiety and insecurity on my part, for instance, that I'm mostly hopeless when it comes to replacing the guts of a toilet or remodeling my basement. By the same token, I felt absurdly proud yesterday when I took a closer look at the bedroom door that had been catching in the corner of its frame and realized that the hinge plate was pulling away and simply needed to be screwed back into place. 

Julian Smith, hoping to restore a mansion that was built on the backs of slaves, wants to change his last name to Godhigh, the name of his slave-owning ancestors. But the story suggests that godliness, of course, lies not in holding oneself above the world (as in the glassed-in belvedere on the roof of Julian's mansion that overlooks the entire plantation), but rather in enduring pain for the love of others and in working with the things of this world. 

At the end of the story, as darkly comical disaster befalls Julian, he sees his future:
Julian felt house and history shrink to nothing beneath him—a void replaced by a vision of himself, dressed in borrowed clothes and defeat, spirited away that very evening on a lurching bus bound for Memphis and sitting next to some untaught, impoverished person, perhaps even another long-suffering and moralizing carpenter.
A "long-suffering and moralizing carpenter"—a perfect phrase to evoke Julian's blindness to the Christlike qualities of the man he's taken advantage of. And also, perhaps, a reminder that Jesus himself was a handyman.

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