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Working for a living

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Working in retail sucks. So does selling cars and working as a mall security guard. It took Ben Cheever nearly 300 pages to reveal something most of us realized at 16, thanks to a summer folding slacks at the Gap.

In Selling Ben Cheever, his first stab at non-fiction, Cheever has an interesting concept: life after the layoff.

A former daily newspaper reporter, editor and novelist of moderate success, Cheever came up with Selling after publishers slammed the door on his latest work of fiction. Cheever wondered what those mid-level executives who lost jobs in the early 1990s felt after turning to careers once seen as beneath them: car salesman, sandwich maker, security guard. In the book, Cheever vows to work several weeks at each job, not explaining to his co-workers the ultimate goal of sandwiching these experiences between two covers.

Interesting concept; bad execution. From the beginning, Cheever can't decide whether he wants to write a technical article, overloaded with stats, or a first-person tell-all of life as a salesman. The first few chapters are mired in other people's research.

When he does finally start to detail life as a working man, there is simply no substance. A few petty complaints about who does or doesn't like him are thrown in, but for the most part, the most controversial revelation is that electronics stores push warranties like crack. The one exception, however, is Cheever's stint as a car salesman.

Toward the end, the author goes into his sharpest detail yet, describing his job as a GM car salesman. He breaks down relationships and past lives of his fellow employees, he goes through the sales tricks we all assumed but never really knew for sure (hint: You're getting nothing for that trade in, regardless of what it looks like on paper).

In the end, readers are left with a glimpse of just how good this book could have been. If Cheever spent more time delving into how and why some of these sales people perform these daily, subtle cons --instead of retelling how his fellow sandwich makers didn't like him -- readers would be left with a much better book. All in all, a pretty weak sell.

Selling Ben Cheever, By Benjamin Cheever. Bloomsbury USA. $25.95. 286 pages.

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