It’s been a while since I had a job. A real job, I mean, not just a gig. I could blame late stage capitalism, that would be convenient, and the injustice and inequality of the American economy is real. But also, I like to smoke weed and sleep late. I’ve washed out of the family hazardous waste business, adjunct teaching, even dish-washing. I’m lazy, I don’t grind, and I need to get the lead out of my ass. All of which is to say, I’m uniquely qualified to review Bud Smith’s new book, WORK.
If you don’t know Bud Smith by now, you will. Bud’s the hardest working man in literature. Seriously. The guy works full-time at an oil refinery or a nuclear power plant or something, and in off-hours writes books. Book-after-book. Bizarre, big-hearted books that pulse and glow like he writes with radioactive pens (he does, actually). How is this guy so prolific? Maybe it’s the pens. Maybe he’s on-the-clock and knows death is just an OSHA violation away. Whatever it is, every time I wake up from a nap, Bud’s releasing another book.
His newest, WORK, is his first foray into non-fiction. It’s a memoir that feels especially timely given our current cultural obsession with striking that illusive work–life balance. The book’s three main threads weave together in non-linear jumps between Bud’s life working various blue collar jobs, memories of falling in love with his wife, Rae, and his singular perspective on the nature of art.
On the page, WORK operates in direct, efficient lines. No wasted motion. No loose screws. But the workman-like prose is constantly pressurized by emotional content, from which leaks poetry:
Over by the wood saws, it’s good-stinking. And it reminds me of when I was twenty and had a job at a sawmill out in the western part of the state, it was the hardest and cruelest job I ever had. You can be nostalgic for anything, I think. Even for your own suffering.
When they’re humming, Bud’s sentences have an odd syntax that drives like an F250 pickup with a cracked axl: “Something was wrong with everything with my truck,” the preposition with holding the sentence together like duct tape, veering it in unexpected directions. Bud pulls a similar trick in a sentence like: “The sky above the field was green and ugly, was rumbling,” inverting the sky and field, loosely gluing the scene together with prepositions on which he stacks descriptions.
Elsewhere, when WORK evokes the rote procedures of Bud’s jobs, the writing takes on a performative quality. These sections serve to enact the numb drudgery of labor’s language and seem to highlight how over a lifetime, work cows workers. This theme is accentuated in scenes depicting the people in Bud’s life who don’t know what to do when they aren’t working. His dad mows the lawn though the grass is short, and listens to the mellow country music that he hated in his youth. Bud’s co-worker at the oil refinery wants to write a children’s book about the wildlife trapped inside the refinery fence, but doesn’t believe he has the capacity to make art.
Bud uses this conversation with his co-worker to speak out against the self-imposed barriers people erect around their artistic impulses; it’s these meditations on creativity that give WORK a transcendent quality. In the memoir, Bud dreams past the fences of the refinery, past pay-days and rent-to-own furniture, beyond the limited vistas offered to us proles, and asks that we dream too.
Throughout the text, readers see how intimately this outlook on life and art is informed by Bud’s relationship with Rae, his wife, a visual and textile artist. The relationship is portrayed as idyllic, with little mention of the work required by any marriage, no matter how happy. And yet some of the book’s most effecting scenes show the couple pointedly not working, driving like crazy through mud puddles, sneaking into swimming pools where Bud works construction, or paying hundreds of dollars to stream Hall & Oates albums over a roaming network in a another swimming pool in the desert. It’s this adventurous attitude, readers realize, that typifies Bud’s approach to writing, as well. “Art isn’t something you should protect from yourself.” he writes, “just run towards it full sprint and embrace how ridiculous your ideas are, how unguarded,” and though he’s talking about art, if you squint, it looks like love.
For many of us, at this juncture in culture (whatever that means) it’s hard to see any work–life balance. Work bleeds into life, and vice versa. So it feels like good advice when Bud says, “Don’t be precious with your work.” When being productive can be just as important as what is produced, when held in the right light a tweet becomes museum quality, Bud’s genius may stem from his intuitive recognition of a new mantra: just keep doing work. Which, is how I like to imagine Bud, slouched in the cab of his truck on his lunch break, typing out short stories, and novels, and memoirs on his phone. Like some kind of American folk hero, a modern John Henry, racing against life, and death, and steam powered poetry bots, racing against the internet.
I’ve heard Bud’s writing described as working class, a vague term that does less to define what his writing is, than what it’s not. What it’s not is manicured by MFA workshops; as Bud explains, he didn’t attend college, but he did go to NYU to fix the air conditioning. What WORK is, is a declarative statement about the life of a guy from New Jersey, his loves and labors, what he does at work and what he does after work.
Like The Boss says: “Some guys they just give up living / And start dying little by little, piece by piece / Some guys come home from work and wash up / And go racin’ in the street.”
That drive – that’s Bud Smith.
by Bud Smith
Civil Coping Mechanisms; 220 p.