‘Work Like Any Other’ looks at rocky road to redemption

12:00 a.m. Saturday, March 5, 2016 Insight and Books

In early 1920s Alabama, Roscoe Martin is living on a failing farm with his wife, Marie, and son, Gerald, longing to return to his job as an electrician in a nearby town. Roscoe doesn’t want to work the farm, and his wife and son are growing increasingly distant.

Then he gets an idea: Alabama Power has some lines going up nearby. What if he built some transformers and brought power lines to the farm, without the company’s permission? What if he could make the farm profitable by electrifying the thresher and eliminating the need to hire workers?

Roscoe floats the idea to the farm’s longtime laborer, Wilson, and Wilson agrees to help build the lines and transformers. And the scheme works for a while, with electricity helping the farm turn a profit — and promising to improve Roscoe’s relationship with his wife.

Then a young man from the power company stumbles across the illegal lines and is electrocuted. Roscoe and Wilson are charged in the death, and both get prison terms. Marie is devastated and refuses to offer comfort to her husband, who is sentenced to 20 years in prison.

So begins the new novel, “Work Like Any Other,” by Austin’s Virginia Reeves.

In a pitch-perfect narrative, Reeves details Roscoe’s long years at Alabama’s Kilby Prison, where he works as a dairy hand, a librarian and a dog handler for the brutal Deputy Taylor, who tracks down prisoners trying to escape.

While in prison, Roscoe realizes that his wife has essentially abandoned him, refusing to visit or answer letters, in part because his actions also led to the conviction and imprisonment of Wilson — a turn of events that Marie finds appalling, especially since black people like Wilson face far worse prison conditions than whites. Yet, Reeves manages to make Roscoe the most sympathetic character.

In an interview via email, the American-Statesman asked Reeves about her background and her new novel. A slightly edited transcript follows.

American-Statesman: Can you tell me when and where you were born, where you grew up, your educational history, and how you ended up in Austin?

Virginia Reeves: I was born in Oregon, spent elementary and middle school in the tiny town of Ocean Shores, Wash., and moved to Helena, Mont., for high school. I went to Carroll College in Helena for my undergraduate, Willamette University in Salem, Ore., for my master of arts in teaching, and then to UT-Austin for my MFA in creative writing at the Michener Center for Writers. The Michener Center is what brought me to Austin, and I stayed because I found a great teaching position at the Khabele School, where I’ve been teaching middle and high school English courses and heading the English department for the past two years. I’ve taken this semester off to focus on book promotion. I’m married and have two amazing daughters — 3rd and 8th grade. We’ve loved our time in Austin, but our home is the mountains, and we’ll be moving back to Montana this June.

I found myself siding with Roscoe, even though I know that he’s at fault for stringing the power lines. But the death of the man working for the power company was accidental, and his wife Marie’s response seems harsh. Then again, she has her reasons, which include the incarceration of Wilson. But am I wrong to side with Roscoe?

I have a huge soft spot for Roscoe. I empathize with his passion and drive, his unflinching belief in the work he does. So in my opinion, of course you’re not wrong to side with him. I see him as a very human and very flawed character, and I hope that readers can recognize the good in people who have made poor decisions, or good decisions that make for unintended consequences.

In interviews with various authors over the years, I’ve discovered that most writers of literary fiction love their characters, unless, of course, they’re writing about serial killers and the like. Do you love both Roscoe and Marie — and Wilson and his wife, Moa? It seems to me that writing the character of Marie and making her likable might have been the most difficult. Am I off-base?

The short answer is: Yes, I love all of my characters. Marie is the toughest to love, but I do love her greatly. I won’t defend her actions, but I do understand her. I have known people like her, people who shut down in the face of tragedy, who simply put it to the side. We see this after Marie’s mother’s death. Wilson’s free life was something Marie and her father fought for, and she sees Roscoe as the one who took that freedom away. She simply can’t reconcile it.

Marie was completely unlikeable in earlier drafts of the novel, and it really took one reader saying, “Who is she? What motivates her?” to get me to find her humanity. I don’t know that I was completely successful in conveying that (I’ve already heard from several readers who absolutely hate her), but I want her to be hard, yes, and brutal, but also broken. She reacts in the only way she can.

In a way, ‘Work Like Any Other’ is a story about two people, Roscoe and Marie, making serious mistakes and taking steps, however bungled, toward redemption. By the end of the novel, I’m not sure they find redemption. Rather, the appeal of the novel, at least to me, is that there are no easy answers.

I love the last sentence, especially, and I’m heartened by you reading it that way. This is a novel about flawed people in great debt to others, not financial debt, but emotional, spiritual debt. Marie even says at one point, “How do we repay this?” Personally, I think the answer is: We don’t. There are things we can’t repay, thinks we can’t redeem. We just have to go forward, which is what I see my characters doing.

I couldn’t help but think of the work of Flannery O’Connor while reading your novel. She tended to lead her troubled characters toward grace, and sometimes she shouted her meaning to the reader. You, however, don’t quite seem to be completely convinced of grace. I once mentioned this to the director, Jim Jarmusch, and asked whether one of his characters in one of his movies was moving toward grace. He shouted back at me that he didn’t believe in grace or God, and that he had abandoned the Catholic Church after his priest told him that his dead cat would not enter heaven, that cats didn’t have a soul. What are your thoughts about grace, and do you think there’s any grace in your novel?

Concerning O’Connor: THANK YOU. I am honored and humbled. Flannery O’Connor is a literary hero of mine. Continuing on about grace: I love your story about Jim Jarmusch, and I can relate to an extent, though I draw different lines. This is such a good question. I don’t believe in God; I’m with Jarmusch there. I was raised by atheists, dabbled in Christianity as a teenager, and ultimately returned to my pagan roots. However, I do believe in grace. One of my dearest friends is an Episcopalian priest, and when we talk about religion and spirituality, goodness, redemption, community — I often feel that we’re just using different words for the same things. I believe in transcendence, but I don’t believe in perfection. I like to think Roscoe enters a state of grace by the novel’s end. I don’t know that he’s redeemed himself, but he has transcended his greatest vices — pride, selfishness; he has overcome in a very subtle, quiet manner. Wilson is full of grace in my eyes, as is Moa. They can forgive, which allows them to continue their lives with joy and fullness.