By Rasmussen Finkel
Susquehanna; 441 pp.
At times it seems the last literary hill to be taken is the customer-service novel, and it goes without saying that watching some of the biggest literary egos compete for the prize makes for great sport. Rasmussen Finkel has been chasing after it across nearly twenty years and through half as many novels, and his 2005 novel “Nougat Johnson” was widely considered the genre’s pinnacle, even though some critics were disappointed that the narrative veered away at the end from Nougat’s love affair with the lovely, large-toothed complaints-desk manager Amelia Bannister and focused instead on his purchase of a bug zapper for his deck and his principled refusal to send in the mail-in rebate.
“Checkout” is a fuller, more mature engagement with the world of customer service. The novel follows a budding young pharmacist, Aloysius Gaygan, on a single day in his hometown of Scrump, Iowa. Finkel’s descriptive prowess is on full display – Gaygan’s ottoman has “the grace of Audrey Hepburn, the dignity of a thesaurus, and the calculated nonchalance of pine nuts” – and in truth the book feels almost constricted by the single-day approach. (This becomes awkwardly clear when, at around 8 pm, Gagan “suddenly remembers” that Daylight Savings Time has begun, thus allowing Finkel to squeeze in another chapter.) But Finkel’s storytelling gifts far outweigh this structural flaw, and it is now possible to say unequivocally that, if nothing else, no other American novelist has harnessed the dramatic possibilities of swiping debit cards with such élan.
Readers of Finkel’s work are familiar with his way of imbuing even the most menial events with cosmic significance. The key scene in “Checkout” takes place as Gaygan waits in line at a CVS. A lone employee is working the cash register, and as the line grows, she does not call for assistance. Eventually a second employee appears behind the counter but does not open a new register and avoids eye contact with the customers in line, who glare at him with impatient rage.
The ensuing fracas is among the most cathartic moments in American fiction and speaks for generations of thwarted customers, as Gaygan leaps over the counter, unleashes a barrage of insults upon the trembling employee, and finally beats her senseless with a twelve-pack of two-ply Scott brand toilet tissue. What’s incredible is that Gaygan remains entirely likeable even while committing the violent act, perhaps because Finkel has chosen to punctuate the scene with Gaygan’s italicized thoughts on the importance of raising the minimum wage.
In addition to novels, Finkel has written several books of creative nonfiction, including “The Streets Had Bronchitis,” a memoir of growing up in 1950s Ann Arbor and not being a child soldier. And he won the National Book Award for “Intruder: An American in Laos.” Most critics now believe that the sequel, “Intruder 2: A Food Lion Frequent Shopper’s Club Member in a Piggly Wiggly,” was the crucial point at which Finkel realized his gift for customer-service fiction, though at the time the book caused a critical uproar for being a little too short.
Gregory Beyer is a writer living in New York. His journalism, essays, and (real) book reviews have appeared in The New York Times.