Picks and Pans Review: Company Man
by Brent Wade
Wade’s wry and gripping first novel begins at the end: Narrator William Cunningham, 38, “a high-ranking executive with the Varitech Industries,” as the newspaper lags him, is in a hospital bed, “with a gunshot wound to the head, the victim of an apparent robbery attempt.”
Wrong. “There was no burglar,” Cunningham soon confides. “I fired the shot.” But he survived the suicide attempt, he adds, partly because of the excellent emergency services his fashionable neighborhood provides.
As a black man who has risen to white corporate heights, Cunningham never takes that kind of service for granted. He knows his place is precarious, and that knowledge underscores the Idlers that retrace his social and psychological decline. Through these letters to a friend Cunningham abandoned when he learned the friend was gay, Cunningham explains the pressures that led to his current plight.
Cunningham, raised by a grandmother who constantly admonished him to avoid “niggerish” ways, isn’t quite so judgmental these days. The marketing job, the Jaguar, the Armani ties—to say nothing of his elegant wife—are in limbo as he retraces his fall from his position “beyond the ivory threshold,” a fall that began with a demand for support from Varitech’s resident black activist and the threat of a factory strike.
But long before his crisis of conscience, Cunningham exhibits troubling signs. At home he’s impotent. At work he thinks too much, dissecting his mentor, John Haviland, and his entourage. There’s Lloyd Harrow, the guy who always calls him on the phone, even though he’s three steps down the hall. There’s Dierdre Rosen, the kneejerk nepotism hire. And Len Townes, the deceptively jolly fatman, ever ready to pounce.
Bill makes awkward chitchat with the boss’ secretary, observes the lecherous advances of Lloyd, endures the booming old-boy voices (“You’ve got quite a wife there, Bill,” they say at office parties, or, “I think you’re onto something with that wife of yours, young man”). When he is threatened with a sexual-harassment charge, it follows a slapstick hotel-room debacle.
There’s no winning and only one way out, and though Cunningham’s plight is brutally specific to his African-American conflicts, novelist Wade, himself an AT&T exec, has written a book that transcends its racial theme. At turns horrifying and hilarious, it is a tale of crisis and alienation that will reverberate with meaning for any thoughtful Company Man—or woman. (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $18.95)