I purchased this book on Amazon in 2011 after reading a review of it in some place I can't recall. It may have been in a list of "cult fiction" or "unappreciated books" or in an essay by some writer. At the time I ordered the book, it was still in print. I note, sadly, that this is no longer the case. There will come a day, I'm afraid, when talented young writers such as Wachtel simply give up because there is no hope of their fiction staying in print or finding readers. Anyway, I am glad the author has a teaching gig at NYU though it's clear if we lived in a fair and literate world Wachtel could earn his living just by writing.
Joe the Engineer is a subtly crafted and realized portrait of an "everyman" sort of guy who is a product of a certain type of world and follows the values of that world while at the same time having an inchoate insight that there might be more to life than reading meters and listening to the blathering of his work partner, Joe Flushing Avenue, as they traverse Queens reading meters.
Joe is a Vietnam vet who saw people die and somehow does not have PTSD. He has a wife whom he married shortly after coming home because that was the thing a man of his time and social standing did. Joe is not happy with his marriage or his work life but he isn't sure a man is even supposed to be happy. Joe's wife is a girl from the block but a girl who wants a little more, which is going to lead to conflict as Joe attempts to make sense of how he came to be at a certain place in life. This is hard for Joe because he has been a man that just LIVES life and not a man who has thought about his life. At the same time, Joe is smart enough to realize when he's being condescended to and has an awareness of his lack of awareness.
Joe is almost a perfect portrait of a guy whose choices in life put him at a level that he could have risen above. Not a lot happens in Joe the Engineer and not a lot needs to happen. Actually, Joe does go through some monumental life changes but these are not overwrought.
This is a first novel and a couple of times I read the dialogue and could tell an author was putting words in someone's mouth. This only happened a couple of instances and most of the time the dialogue is believable and one doesn't see the artifice of the writer.
Wachtel is to be commended for this great first effort. The Untied States publishing industry should be vilified for allowing books like Joe the Engineer to go out of print!
It wasn't heart wrenching or sappy, it wasn't ego driven or testorone filled either. It was a real look into what a common guy was thinking when life was trying to get him down (and really, when is life easy?). Maybe, a bit overrated per the reviews on the book, but otherwise an enjoyable read.
This is a book for adults of all generations. It is a modern classic. Entertainment filled with real-life drama (without the sap). Shameful that it is out of print. All should read it, I hear there may be a movie soon, believe it or not!