It’s happened to all of us at one time. You’re sitting around the break room at the day job talking with your co-workers about the crazy bosses/customers/patients when suddenly someone remembers you’re a writer. “You should write a book about this place,” you hear. “It’d be hysterical.” Freeman Hall’s Retail Hell is that book. And it’s anything but hysterical – in the sense of humorous, that is.
An aspiring screenwriter, the very gay Hall pays the rent by selling handbags (not purses – a line that he seriously overworks) at an upscale clothing store he calls The Big Fancy. We are introduced to his bosses, his co-workers, his zany customers and even treated to winking glimpses of his screenplays during dreams about his retail experiences. Hall tries hard to be funny, working the Augusten Burroughs/David Sedaris vein so popular these days. But he tries so hard it’s like opening that vein with the jagged lid from a rusty cat food can. This passage is on the back cover of the book:
“I think you left these behind,” I said, handing them to her. This happens all the time when women try to return bags they’ve used. Tampons, lipstick, coins, Tic Tacs, and condoms are the top treasures found.
‘Greasy’ let out a sigh, as if I were the problem. “I was just trying my things in it. I really don’t see what the problem is here. It’s none of your business what I keep in my handbag.”
It is when my commission is at stake! I’m not your Designer Handbag Rental Service! My name is not BagBorrowOrSteal.com!
And this is fairly representative of the rest of it – cute character names like Greasy, acid-tongued exchanges over the sales counter and capitalized phrases and exclamation points to make sure you don’t miss the Humor inherent in these Stock Situations!
Having said that, I realize that a big part of Humor is recognition of yourself or others. Perhaps I haven’t worked enough retail to make this funny to me. However, 304 pages of the same smart salesman/hard-working employee vs. stupid customer/idiotic boss scenario is going to tax even the girls in the stockroom, especially with the mean misogynistic streak running through it.
I also realize that another component of Humor is Warmth, and Retail Hell has none. It’s a cold, complaining read that often smacks of an overly long Human Resources complaint by an employee threatening to launch a lawsuit if he has to work through his break One More Time. And if you’re going to use a pop culture figure as a means of describing a character, make sure you spell it right (It’s Edna Turnblad from Hairspray, not Edna Turnblatt). Google is your friend – and as long as you’re online, you might as well shop for handbags there.
Unless you want the salesman to Talk Behind Your Back!
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler