(Buffalo, NY: Sunnyoutside, 2015)
You know that guy in your office? You know the one I’m talking about. That guy. The one that is always the last person to get in and the first to leave. The one that disappears for hours at a time, who always has to go to the bathroom or the kitchen. He pushes paper around his desk to make it look like he is working. He is the first to complain about the mindless work that he must do all day, but he never actually succeeds at getting any of it done. Yet, somehow, his job is secure. Is it because he is the only one willing to “pretend” to do all the grunt work that is assigned to him? Is it simply because he comes to work every day and looks busy? Now that I think about it, maybe he has this whole working thing figured out.
That guy in your office isn’t winning at work but he also isn’t losing. He is right there with the rest of us. I am almost certain that this is why the “Participant Ribbon” was created. Someone (likely considered a winner) said, “Let’s give out an award for simply showing up.” An award that signifies that you…that guy…are a participant. Eddie Lanning, the main character from Greg Shemkovitz’s debut novel, Lot Boy, has a trophy room full of “Participant Ribbons.”
Lot Boy takes a hard and realistic look at the pitfalls of apathy and lack of ambition. Shemkovitz’s characters come across as a mellow, stoned out chorus of alarms, warning the reader of just how quickly you can waste your life away. Through the haze of hangovers, exhaust fumes, and car parts, Lot Boy contemplates the struggle of the expectation of family, home, and success, against the desire for pursuing life’s passions and individual fulfillment.
The novel is centered on Eddie, who works as a lot boy at his father’s car dealership and garage, Lanning Ford, a business that has been in his family for years, passed from one Lanning to the next. Eddie, who was raised in the garage by his “extended family” of mechanics, is the last of the Lanning line and next in line to take over, but has no desire or ambition to follow this path. This infuriates the rest of the garage, men that have been working with his father, “Big Pat”, for years and have watched Eddie squander the opportunity.
He has the receiver in one hand and he’s working his hand through the massive coif that billows over his head. “I know, Frank. I can’t believe it either,” he says. “You’d think Pat would have fired the piece of shit. Useless. Completely worthless to us.”
As the lot boy, Eddie is the lowest man in the food chain. His job is to do whatever menial or degrading tasks need to be done around the garage: sweep floors, clean toilets, push barrels of oil around, drive cranky customers back to their homes—none of which he does particularly well. He comes in late, leaves early, and disappears during the day, clocking in time at a bar or hiding in the dark corners of the garage.
His idea of career advancement is to concoct a scheme that involves stealing and reselling auto parts from the parts department. He and his best friend Spanky, a “stoner” and one of the “idiots that works in the parts department” (who is quite possibly worse at his job than Eddie), set up shop in a bad section of Buffalo, where “you have to go through a shitty part of South Buffalo to get to an even shittier section.” Like everything else in Eddie’s life, the execution of the scheme is half-hearted and reinforces all the things that are wrong with Eddie’s current career path.
“You were a…” Jack looks at his blank service order like it’s a resume. “A lot boy. Tell me about being a lot boy.”
“It’s degrading,” I say. “Actually, it’s one of those jobs where you do everything asked of you and over time you realize it’s getting you nowhere. Once you’ve mastered the job, after you’ve done all the little chores for the hundredth time, you realize you’re stuck. That’s what you’ll be doing as long as you’re a lot boy.”
Shemkovitz balances the stark grey of winter in Buffalo and the dark palate of oil and grease stains of the garage with a light playfulness between the characters. The men give one another a hard time, play pranks, throw insults out, but there is a familiar camaraderie that comes through in the text. The characters are family, not by blood but by proximity. Eddie knows that he has something that most people don’t have, a far-reaching and close knit “family,” but he is also aware of what his environment has done to him:
Imagine growing up surrounded by mechanics. All men. Greasy, dirty-mouthed perverts, all of them. Good with their hands, not so much their minds. Think about what that means for a child. It means handing in your homework assignments dotted with greasy fingerprints. It means knowing how to hold your own in the locker room when all the boys are talking trash. But when it comes to girls, you have no clue.
Using the lens of this mechanic’s son, Shemkovitz creates a world that seems to only exist in that context. The men inhabiting this place resemble “a beat-up old car” with hair like “dirty floor mats.” Like Eddie’s life, everything is related back to the garage. There is no other way for Eddie to see the world.
For that reason, Lot Boy is not a fancied-up book overflowing with flowery passages. There are no structural tricks at play, or mind-bending plot twists and turns. However, the book is not weakened by this fact. Instead, it is quite the opposite: Lot Boy has a true and authentic voice that doesn’t need any bells and whistles. It is simple and familiar and reads as though you are hearing an old friend from high school catch you up on what has happened in his life. Think of it as the literary equivalent of putting on a pair of scuffed old work boots or faded, oil stained blue jeans.
Just looking through this crack—having seen people come and go over the years while I’m still here—there’s that feeling I get sometimes, a dull ache in my stomach, like everything I could want to be is rotting inside me, waiting to die. I begin to think that if anyone else here feels this…
For anyone who has ever felt stuck in an unfulfilling job, Lot Boy will hit quite a few nerves. Even though the novel is an entertaining read, it packs quite an emotional punch if you have ever found yourself contemplating your own life and the direction that it has taken. At some point during the day, I think we are all the lot boy or lot girl in our jobs. We are all simply participants and we all get ribbons.
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Chad Meadows’ work has appeared in Crack the Spine Literary Magazine and in The Squawk Back, where he is also the assistant editor.