If you’re like me, and wouldn’t want to go a single day without reading, you turn to books for all kinds of reasons. You read because it’s rainy outside. You read because it’s sunny outside. You read when you’re tired and when you can’t fall asleep. One of the perennial motivations for reading is escape, of course. For some escape means reading about far-off lands, centuries past, or extravagant romance. But for me escape means reading about characters with an entirely different set of problems than mine, perhaps characters whose jobs I’d never want to do. Here are five unforgettable fictional characters who handle the dirty work so we don’t have to.
Falling From Horses, by Molly Gloss
In Gloss’s most recent novel, mainly set in 1930s Hollywood, protagonist Bud Frazer gets paid to fall off horses in movies. A country boy with celluloid dreams, Bud had this adventure when he was 19, and narrates it as he’s looking back on his life: “Well, I was foolheaded in those days, looking for ways to get myself into trouble—carrying too much sail, as we used to say.” Bud ends up seriously injured by his stunt work, and Gloss’s novel is filled with details of the cruelties endured by horses and movie cowboys alike during Hollywood’s golden era, before regulations were enacted to prevent abuses.
Swamplandia!, By Karen Russell
I defy you to think of a dirtier job than swimming across an alligator-infested swamp in the Everglades and occasionally pausing to wrestle the fauna for tourist amusement, which is how the Bigtree family makes its living in Russell’s effervescent debut Swamplandia! More accurately, it’s how the Bigtree family made its living, before the untimely death of family matriarch Hilola Bigtree. To sustain themselves, members of the family must seek other dirty jobs, as Hilola’s teenage son Kiwi does when he leaves the family enclave to take a job at the World of Darkness amusement park. “Kiwi got paid $5.75 an hour to work as part of an army of teenage janitors,” Russell writes. “Park greeters, security officers, customer service reps, costumers, janitors: all of them pimpled gum chewers, deodorized for war.”
Fobbit, by David Abrams
David Abrams’ sharp, tragicomic 2012 debut takes readers into the world of fobbits, the slang term for U.S. Army members stationed at a Forward Operating Base. “They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow. Crack open their chests and in the space where their hearts should be beating with a warrior’s courage and selfless regard, you’d find a pale gooey center,” Abrams writes. Gooey-centered fobbits such as Chance Gooding, working in his cubicle in Saddam Hussein’s former palace, have the dirty job of crafting doublespeak press releases to explain away dire events during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The Reconstructionist, by Nick Arvin
Most of us don’t want to look closely at the aftermath of a car accident, but for Ellis Barstow, the protagonist of Arvin’s thoughtful, compelling novel, looking closely is his job. Ellis is a forensic reconstructionist, hired to settle legal disputes by using his engineering knowledge to figure out just what caused one grisly accident after another. As the book opens, he’s trying to sort out what happened when a Mercedes collided with a bunch of wild pigs. Let’s just say it leaves a mess you’ll be glad you’re not responsible for cleaning up.
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, by Jonathan Evison
Not just anyone can be a caregiver. “It takes patience, fortitude, a background check,” explains Ben Benjamin, the 39-year-old narrator of Evison’s winning third novel, the basis for a movie starring Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez hitting theaters next year. Ben has hit the skids after losing his wife, kids, and job. He attempts to find his footing again by becoming a home caregiver for Trevor, a young man with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Ben helps Trevor use the toilet, eat, dress, and, more importantly, dream: they plot a wild road trip together. Funny and heartfelt, this one should be filed under the “dirtiest job you’ll ever love” category.