Self-absorbed dispatches from life on the other side of the counter

Selling Ben Cheever

June 28, 2002

Ben Cheever insists that he did not want to write a book about Ben Cheever. In the preface he writes: "The book's greatest failing is that it's turned out to be such a personal story." He claims that somebody else thought of the book's title. But it is doubtful if he fought too hard against it. Cheever is manifestly obsessed by his patronymic. It has dominated his life, and it dominates the book.

He is the son of Pulitzer prize-winning novelist John Cheever. He hugely admired his father and always yearned to be a writer. He has worked as an editor for Reader's Digest, been a journalist and newspaper critic, written several novels and, most famously, edited and published his father's letters.

In 1995, with two published novels under his belt, his third was rejected by a plethora of publishers. He took a long look at his life, threw up all his full-time writing jobs and decided to pen a contemporary Orwellian Down and Out in Paris and London - set among down-and-out executives in prosperous New York state. His thesis was that America at the end of the 20th century was swarming with unemployed middle-class executives who had been dumped on the scrap heap by firms downsizing. He does not make this thesis stick - not by a long chalk. When he gets down and out in White Plains and Westchester County, he meets almost no dumped executives - just lots of average working guys, most of whom he gets to like a lot.

Cheever is honest to a fault: endlessly self-deprecating, wittily self-critical. His trials and tribulations, as he seeks, and occasionally finds, lowly employment in shops and sandwich bars, telephone answering services and charities, are always readable and often amusing. His sketches of leading US retailers exude hopeless inefficiency and disorganisation. Time and again his applications for jobs are ignored, mislaid or misunderstood; his sales training is non-existent or chaotic; the store managers are wayward and idiosyncratic. He did not work with any of the service retailers famous for their toe-curling efficiency - McDonald's, KFC, WalMart - but if those he did work with are typical of American retailers, it is astonishing the US economy survives them.

Nobody else has reported so comprehensively on what Cheever calls "life on the other side of the counter", and it is riveting stuff. What stops Selling Ben Cheever being a major work is that it is too journalistic, too shallow, an entertaining skim across the surface. Cheever's understanding of economics, on which the underlying thesis of the book rests, is wobbly, his understanding of business and commerce even wobblier.

But what is most surprising is that his portraits of the people he meets are only skin deep. He describes their appearances, and their reactions to him but never offers any real insight into their characters. Selling Ben Cheever is an enjoyable, picaresque book about Ben Cheever. Whoever suggested the title got it right.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, The Royal Institution.

Selling Ben Cheever: Back to Square One in a Service Economy

Author - Ben Cheever
ISBN - 0 7475 5428 5
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £12.99
Pages - 286

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