John Grochalski’s Wine Clerk, a follow up novel from The Librarian, begins in much the same way as its predecessor; Rand Wyndham is reluctantly looking for gainful employment. Quenching a formidable thirst at B. J. Merryweather’s – another bar in a long line of watering holes, taverns and pubs – our protagonist resentfully flicks through the want ads in the local Buffalo rag.
Along with its heavy drinking, alcoholic cynicism and hung-over pessimism, Merryweather’s is a constant throughout Wine Clerk; more accurately, Merryweather’s is a constant platform for one of Wyndham’s objects of desire – Skyler, the ever optimistic, busty barmaid who douses her own subtle inner sorrows by well-practiced sips from endless plastic cups of white wine. Much like all of Wyndham’s endeavours, the spark between him and Skyler shimmers and dulls without ever amounting to much of a fire. In accordance with alcoholism’s age-old traditions, Rand Wyndham is a master of self sabotage. Hence his deliberate decline from a position of questionable respectability; a well-read, educated, librarian to a vomit-every-morning sot who can ill-afford the requirements of his newly found purpose, wine clerk for Metropolitan Wines and Liquors.
Grochalski’s gift is pulling humour from sadness. And as anyone who has worked in retail knows, the customer is not always right. Managers, particularly when they are most needed, hide in their offices and the garish promotions, mass-produced uniforms and chipper smiles are an altogether insufficient layer of veneer, spread too thinly over too much misery. From Wyndham’s first day, and throughout his personal decline within the wine store, there is an equal measure of despair and laughter. In fact, the more despairing the situation, the more comical prowess Grochalski displays.
There is, however, far more to this black comedy than the musings of a working-class drunk. Where other tales of inebriated woe and demoralising excess have failed, Wine Clerk delivers, line after line. That is to say, much like Grochalski’s poetry, his novels are written with defining intent. In contrast to his plain spoken and sometimes crass style of prose, this – seemingly autobiographical – work of fiction holds a heavy burden of complex purpose. Here is a writer who understands the importance of making the mundane interesting. Consequently, the reader is given an opportunity to question the things we are taught to accept from such an early age. Essentially, Wine Clerk is a book which exposes the American dream as the American myth. Working like a slave, while waving the flag of the land of the free, with good-old-god-bless-america intentions, is not a sure-fire route to the top. How can it be, when America – much like the rest of the western world – has so many money-hungry slobs in positions of influence?
Rand Wyndham knows the odds are stacked against the working man. Perhaps that’s why he drinks so much. Perhaps that’s the reason he lusts after women he can neither satisfy nor find fulfilment from. Perhaps his chosen failure is symptomatic of his insights into an unbalanced and corrupt system; better to die in your own bed than somebody else’s. Or perhaps there is a degree of liberation in his acceptance of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
Maybe this knowledge allows him the freedom to say, “Fuck it. Let’s get drunk, have meaningless sex and to hell with the consequences.”
When all is said and done, Wyndham’s motivations are unclear and somewhat irrelevant. What matters is whether the man and the book in which he exists, provoke thought in the reader. Grochalski, like every other great writer, recognises that he has no business answering questions; his job is to ask them.
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