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To Do the Deal, a Novel in Stories Paperback – August 15, 2014
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Baker is an observant and entertaining writer, even when the subdued plot unfurls without high drama or overt tension. Her clean, direct style refreshingly portrays the tender side of a relationship that could have ended badly. It also effectively underscores the awkward discussions that nearly every family endures. Kirkus Reviews
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This finely crafted novel ignores the pundits, policy wonks, and politicians of Washington to depict the lives of real people in the nation's capital. Often these folks are "nickled and dimed" by meager subcontracts and commission sales. Jodie and Ken Bodine are among this invisible group. The novel begins with a deal the day the couple meets in 1991, continues with a deal for each year of the decade, and concludes on the verge of a decision about a big deal.
Jodie works at home editing government publications for a contractor. Ken ignores think tanks, lobbying firms, and nonprofit groups to eek out a living in commission sales. There are no health care nor retirement benefits as he works mostly in Maryland, a "right to be fired" state. The couple's adventures are described with gentle humor and keen observation. They seem like nice people with bratty children, real problems, and true integrity.
To do the deal is not just to make money, but also to honor commitments and to be content with a satisfying life. Cathy Baker has produced the story of real people behind the talking heads of the evening news. Readers will get a great deal by following the story of the Bodine family.
However, reading them all together they strike you as simply a precisely structured novel following the progress of a young, ambitious but not especially gifted salesman, Kenneth Bodine. Bodine serves as a kind of Everyman figure for small-town American white-collar workers, unremarkable in many ways but with integrity, decency, and an instinct to provide for his wife and children, though a lurking sense of Thoreau-style quiet desperation never far away. We see Bodine steer his way through job opportunities and disappointments, and disruptions from colleagues, employers, family members, friends and neighbours. Throughout he remains broadly optimistic and virtuous, despite numerous temptations and distractions.
The polished narrative is subtle, gentle, unsentimental and understated. It’s easy to relate to the characters and their dilemmas. The story is enriched by implied back-stories hinted at by small details dropped in along the way, e.g. Bodine’s daughters’ obsession with dolls’ house bathroom furniture, wittily echoing their parents’ home improvement plans that threaten to undermine their precarious financial position. I particularly liked the “puzzle soup” incident, in which the little girls liven up a dull playdate at a neighbouring child’s house by mixing up the pieces from all her jigsaw puzzles, to the chagrin of their mother.
There is also effective characterisation for the minor players such as Bodine’s estranged parents, his series of dodgy bosses, and colleagues with lesser ethics than his own. The odd item of dress or make-up can speak volumes about a character. There’s just enough description and believable dialogue to create a real and believable atmosphere, but there’s also a sense of distance between the action and the reader, as if inviting the reader to judge, and an undercurrent of affectionate playfulness.
Baker’s wry yet courteous way with words, reminiscent of Garrison Keillor, often made me smile, e.g. “Kenneth had gained from his youth a certain familiarity with the penal code”; “It was work that anyone who was not stoned could do”, and, describing one of his employers, “He had the girth of a man who is done with stairs”.
The novel ends in 2000, with the Bodine family narrowly averting both a personal finance crisis and also a marital one. Despite knowing from the outset that the book would end in the tenth story and year, the conclusion still felt a little abrupt to me – or maybe it was just that I was reluctant to part company from this unassuming and likeable family who represent so many millions of people across the USA. (The book reminded me of David Byrne’s masterful movie about small-town America, True Stories, which I very much admire.) There was also an element of mischief about ending the book at this historic moment, as we moved into the current millennium with the dubious joys that it was to bring, not least the economic downturn that will have felled so many Bodines at the knees.
This book would be enjoyed by anyone who has a fondness for small-town America, or who has ever been through a similar career path to Bodine, or who has shared his same ideals and found the going tough. It’s also great entertainment for those who like subtle writing of understated cleverness. I, for one, was left yearning for an update on Bodine’s next decade.
I received this book free of charge from the author in return for an honest review.
Most recent customer reviews
I quite enjoyed this little tale about the Bodine family and their struggles.Read more