I think my reaction to this book can be summed up in something one of my Goodreads friends said about it: "I thought, when I finished it, This is why I read novels."
Exactly. This is why I read novels.
Work Like Any Other is the story of Roscoe T Smith (no, that's not a typo, the author didn't put a period after the T). He's alive in Alabama in the early 1900s, where he feels fortunate to have escaped the family business of coal mining (to his father's displeasure) and instead has become obsessed with the new world of electricity. While working for Alabama Power and Light--a job he loves--he meets Marie, a school teacher, and they marry. All is well until Marie's father dies and leaves her the family farm. Marie wants to move back to the farm, raise their child, and become farmers. Being a farmer is not what Roscoe had in mind. He's miserable and doing his best to make both wife and son extremely miserable when he has a brainstorm: Electricity hasn't made its way into rural areas yet, but he has the skills and the knowledge to tap into existing power lines--illegally--and run them onto the farm, siphoning off free electricity to make the farm work more efficiently and more profitable. This is all well and good until an employee of the electric company comes across Roscoe's work and dies from electrocution.
That's not a spoiler--you learn that on the first page of the book. What the remainder of the book does is tell you about the consequences of Roscoe's actions, both to himself (slight spoiler: He lands in prison) and on his family, as well as the family of long-time farm hand Wilson Grice.
Part of what I loved about this book--a large part--is the character of Roscoe himself. Obviously he's flawed. The author makes no bones about that. But even while wincing at his flaws, such as when he blatantly lies to the owner of the nearby general store about why he needs so much copper wire and why it has to be on credit--you still can't help but sympathize with him. He escaped the horrors of coal mining--although, to be fair, his father ran the mine, so it wasn't likely Roscoe was going to end up deep in it--only to have his life's passion taken from him, more than once.
While in prison, Roscoe learns all sorts of other kinds of work. The book really is about work, the work we do, the work we want to do, the work we have to do, but it's also about the work of being a human, and what that means in context with other humans. It's about what we earn for our work, and what our work costs us in the end.
Astonishing that this is a debut novel. So often I get crabby about debut books that seem like they were rushed through so the publisher could capitalize on "Look at this talented [and often attractive] young author!" This one actually deserves the hype. It's been long-listed for the Booker, and as of this moment (haven't read that many on the long list), this is the one I'm rooting for.