I met Joshua Ferris at B61, a cozy bar on Columbia Street that has views of Brooklyn’s waterfront. It was about as far from a cubicle as you can get. It’s also where Ferris, author of “Then We Came to the End,” a poignant and darkly funny debut novel, engages in his two favorite pastimes: drinking beer and shooting pool.
It’s a setting we can all identify with: hating your job, but living in fear of being fired. In “Then We Came to the End,” Ferris explores the intricacies of cubicle life, from backbiting and sordid gossip to downright bizarre behavior, including acts of outright vengeance.
It’s been years since Ferris himself has worked in an office. His last job was at the end of the dot-com era, at a Chicago advertising firm not dissimilar to the one in his book. Perhaps that distance — he now spends leisurely afternoons perched on a barstool — is what gives him the perspective to give such a balanced, if not rosy, account.
In a neat trick, his characters start off embodying familiar office stereotypes — the storyteller, the gossip, the slut, the renegade, the clown — and then those same stereotypes get turned on their heads with surprising actions. For example, Tom Mota, whose angry behavior and inter-office missives cause co-workers to imagine he will gun them all down after being laid off, appears the most affected of anyone at the funeral of Janine Gorjanc’s abducted daughter.
I asked Ferris which character he identified with most: Benny Shassburger, who makes everyone wait in his office for him to get coffee before telling his stories? Or Carl Garbedian, whose fear of admitting to his doctor wife that he’s depressed incites him to steal Janine’s anti-depressants?
Ferris dodged the question artfully, explaining that it was more like each character corresponded to a part of his personality, with the sum of the parts adding up to a greater whole.
Ferris’s first job, one that is dear to his heart, was busing tables at a Godfather’s Pizza in Florida when he was 12. His affection for hands-on work is apparent from the way Mota and Garbedian dream of opening a landscaping company (another job Ferris enjoyed in his youth). Mota, trying to convince Carl to join him, writes in an e-mail, “Think of it. The sun on the back of your neck. The taste of cold water after you’ve worked up a genuine thirst. The pleasures of a well-groomed lawn.” Landscaping, for Ferris, seems to represent “getting out” in the most desirable of ways.
Carroll Gardens, where Ferris has lived since 2002, appeals to him for some of the same reasons. It’s still developing under the radar in certain ways, creating opportunities for emerging artists to define their landscapes.
“I’m here for the duration,” he said. “ I love it.”
Though he has no desire to go back to office life — he’s a writer “for real” since getting his MFA from UC–Irvine and a $65,000 grant from the International Institute of Modern Letters — he clearly misses certain social aspects of working: the coffee and smoke breaks, storytelling sessions around the water cooler, shared deadlines on group projects. What he doesn’t miss is the constant tension of having to be nice, day in and day out, to people to whom he was essentially indifferent.
“Without a doubt, what I miss most about working in an office are the people.” He went on. “What I don’t miss at all about working in an office are the people.”
Ferris now spends his days writing — longhand — in his apartment, while his wife works at her Manhattan office. He’s not very active in any sort of Brooklyn literary scene (though he recently had a well-attended reading at Union Hall in Park Slope). Rather, his daily interactions are mainly limited to the service industry: his landlord, the bartender at B61 and the sandwich makers at Caputo’s. He especially attached to his UPS guy, Joe, whom he gave an advance copy of the book. “He liked it a lot,” said Ferris. “He’s been recommending it to his friends.”
In Ferris’s inherently insecure and self-consciously manipulative advertising world, there is no narrator, only the disembodied voice of the group, occasionally derisively referred to as “you people.” (The one time Ferris breaks from the “we” voice is in describing the solitary evening fearsome boss lady Lynn Mason spends the night before going into the hospital for surgery. In doing so, he creates an even more uncomfortably intimate glimpse of a lonely and vulnerable woman.) The idea Ferris manages to get across with this narrative is that while individuals are messy and conflicted, the group eventually does level itself out.
But, hey, it’s all in a day’s work.
“Then We Came to the End” is available at BookCourt (163 Court St. at Dean Street in Cobble Hill) for $19.19. For information, visit www.ThenWeCameToTheE....