- Striking Fiction
This ought to be the appropriate moment for a strike narrative or union story—what with half the world rising in popular protest—yet stories of labor struggle remain for the most part rare (at least in the U.S.). Given our political climate, this is not surprising. American labor meets vigorous resistance just about everywhere—public and private, schools, megastores, state capitols, NBAs. Thus a strike novel seems especially welcome at the moment—and one starring a wildcat strike at that, the opening salvo of Ron Ebest's first, the sometimes excessive, often engaging The Dave Store Massacre. (In this scenario, the mostly women employees of the Jackson Missouri Dave Store—Ebest's superstore to beat all superstores—are not union members; they simply walk off the job en masse, unionizing, as it were, on the spot).
If thrilling to imagine, this really is the last option for Dave Store's real-life counterparts (Walmart, Target, etc.). The underpaid employees of big box retailers—along with their beleaguered managers—face a brutally anti-labor culture where the faintest whiff of unionization is met with the threat of a pink slip. Although a wildcat action seems extreme, it's both a necessary possibility and strong dramatic starting point. This is politically volatile material for satire—arguably the only material worth satirizing—what can also be difficult territory to tread without resorting to sermonizing or ra ra ra.
Ebest shows his colors here and there, but any sermonizing is rare. He trains his eye not so much on the strike itself, but rather on the internal lives of characters observing it from opposing angles, none of them actually striking. There is the notable exception of Magda Fuller, a Dave Store clerk and single mother, recently widowed, the one striker given brief (internal) stage time. Magda's husband was killed in the CushionAire factory murder-suicide noted in the novel's first line (the strike occurs precisely two months after this tragedy; her husband, the factory manager, shot by a laid-off employee). Magda's role allows for an extra angle of revenge in the novel's final confrontation, but mostly she—and others of her position and class—remains a backdrop to those outside the strike, those policing, managing, controlling, negotiating: police chiefs, mayors, city attorneys; Dave Store managers, founders and heirs, as well as the lethally armed posse that protects them (a crew of retired cops and servicemen unironically known as the "ColdTalons.")
Why we're not given more time with the actual folk on strike seems a good question—even a vital one—though Ebest does display admirable range with the rest of his chosen cast. His characters are, to a one, entangled in myriad small town soap operas, with conflicted spouses and embattled careers. There is Mary Lively, Jackson's mayor, a Democrat who backed into the job after a sex scandal destroyed her opponent. She works closely with—and is falling for (adulterously)—the police chief, Sid Hatfield, an affable stoner and expert marksman. Mary's husband, C. E. Lively, is the city attorney, a desperate lush whose marriage and faculties are both in decay. The novel begins and ends with these three, in fact (C. E. goes to a coffee shop to inform the mayor and police chief about the strike), though you wouldn't necessarily call them the novel's center. Anchors maybe, but not centers. Center, here, is hard to pin. Through Ebest's roaming, arch omniscience, the protagonist emerges as not so much the Strike itself (as it is, for example, in Ousmane's classic strike novel God's Bits of Wood )—but rather the conflict among the managing periphery, the "upper" struggle, as it were, where store managers lose control and Big Guns of all variety are swiftly called in for back up.
The manager in question is Lucas McCain Cantor, on whose watch these workers have launched a strike—an unpardonable failing in Dave Store culture (as it is in Walmart's). Lucas comes fit with...