Southern novel examines power — and the lack of it

Work Like Any Other. Virginia Reeves. Scribner. 272 pages. $25.
Work Like Any Other. Virginia Reeves. Scribner. 272 pages. $25.

Roscoe T. Martin, the main character in Virginia Reeves’ deft debut novel Work Like Any Other, knows that he is committing a crime when he siphons off electricity from the newly installed power lines that pass near his farm in rural 1920s Alabama, but he also knows that the crime is a minor one. The Alabama Power Company will never miss the tiny trickle of current that he needs — using transformers that, as a trained electrician, he knows how to prepare himself — to power his threshing machinery, saving his farm and his marriage.

His farm, in fact, is not really his — it came to him though his wife’s father, and Roscoe has never shown much passion or facility for working the land. He resents his new line of work, and the resentment shows in the way that he mistreats his wife and their only son. As he will later lament: “I had to have my hands in electricity. … I was driven by all those attractions that lay hidden until ignited.”

For a brief period, his scheme pays off, and he gets a taste of the feeling of harnessing power to feed and care for those in his charge: “Maybe, under those new bulbs … Roscoe would be given the chance to be a father, explaining a part of the world to his boy.” But soon, through the lines that he has laid physically and metaphorically, that power gets away from him, and a jolt of entropy intrudes.

A linesman is fatally electrocuted when he discovers the illegal transformer operation, and Roscoe is tried and convicted not only for manslaughter but for the larceny of the electricity, in the amount of four dollars a day for two years. He receives a sentence of 20 years, and Wilson, the black man who has lived and worked on Roscoe’s wife’s land for his whole life, receives 10 years, for his role in helping to prepare the rig.

The reader knows in advance that Roscoe is headed for some sort of disaster: In alternating chapters he tells his own story in the first person, from his incarceration in Kilby prison. These prison sections represent the more interesting and dynamic half of the book. The cloistered world of Kilby comes pre-loaded with heady armature that must be compared to The Shawshank Redemption: loathsome wardens, vengeful guards and an unforgiving hierarchy of inmates, with the faint hope of parole the only talisman against the temptation to attempt an escape. But what’s more meaningful and impressive for a debut novel is the way the structure of the novel looks simultaneously forward and back, allowing for a slower reveal of Roscoe’s fate and making the book’s third act, in which Roscoe is offered a chance at redemption, more affecting.

Redemption — but for what? After all, his transgression is, by most systems of moral accounting, less than grievous, driven as it was by a desire to save his family.

Roscoe is a victim then not of his own hubris or greed but simply of unalloyed circumstance, and his painful process of reconciliation, like that of all of the characters presented here, is not with his crime but with the tyranny of perceived causality. As he eventually reckons: “Marie moving us to that place set me to building those transformers. … the time I served in Kilby grew from my time on that land, and there would have been no time on that land without Marie’s insistence that we move there.”

Electricity serves as an excellent motivating metaphor for this inventive, beautiful and deceptively morally complex novel. Although we have anointed ourselves the master of the dangerous force, there is always a chance that when the switch it flipped, it will run down an invisible channel of its own accord. And then sometimes, of course, it arrives unexpectedly, right down out of the clear blue sky.

Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.