Once in a while, a book comes along that makes a real impression that lasts long after you put it down. Steal Stuff From Work, new from Jasper Pierce on Spineless Books, is a great reflection of our current state of affairs, and a signal of what may be to come. Kemp, a light-fingered dishwasher at an upscale Seattle restaurant (as well as an employee at other menial jobs), steals from his employers while trying to keep his life in order. When a theft goes wrong, he loses his restaurant job and organizes others for a National Steal Stuff From Work Day. Things spiral out of control, on both a personal and societal level. It’s a moving and disorienting tale of extreme commitment that springs from roots of extreme apathy.
After the jump, Jasper Pierce volunteered his ideas on being overworked and underappreciated, his book’s roots in Champaign-Urbana, and the potential for revolution in the United States. Stick around and check it out.
Smile Politely: I really like the line, “A stitch of sleep before the alarm clock reopens the wound.” Exhaustion seems to be an ongoing theme in the book. Were you sleep-deprived during the writing of the book, or was that just a recollection of past experiences with exhaustion?
Jasper Pierce: The novel depicts characters who hold multiple part-time jobs, working more than forty hours a week, with no security or benefits, who still cannot make ends meet. Thus, exhaustion.
SP: The book is set in Seattle, but you’ve worked in Champaign-Urbana. What are some similarities to businesses or people in the book to their counterparts in real life?
JP: The restaurant Eisenhower’s as a setting is modeled after Kennedy’s, back before it became a tasteful golf course restaurant and was housed in Sunnycrest mall, dark and windowless, with an authentic aura of creepy malice. The owner Allen Strange is a conflation of numerous notoriously abusive, unpleasant, or incompetent restaurant owners in the twin cities, including Ray Timpone, Pal Bock (of the Original Pancake House), and Allen Strong (of the Courier and Silvercreek, among numerous other ventures). This part of the book wrote itself.
SP: The dialogue in the book is great, really snappy, with a lot of fantastic one-liners. Like, “That’s your rent money. You need that to buy beer with.” Was the dialogue made up out of whole cloth, or did you store away some gems that you’d heard?
JP: I made it up, but working as a waiter for many years I absorbed the quick, sarcastic rhythms of restaurant workers. Waiters and waitresses are caustic when out of earshot of the customers, in contrast to the polite, servile face they may present in the dining room.
SP: What’s been your experience with socialist and anarchist organizations? Are you a student of any particular political or social philosophy?
JP: I’m a socialist, with faith in the ability of ordinary people to manage their own government and economic institutions, and with a belief that the purpose of those institutions is to provide for the basic needs of the people. I am not affiliated with any organization at present and vote Democrat by default, sometimes with mild enthusiasm.
SP: The ending of the book reminds me a lot of Invisible Man, where the nameless protagonist is holed up in a room full of light. Was that an intentional parallel or, if not, do you think it’s a comparable situation?
JP: The character of Kemp could not ride out the consequences of his beliefs and becomes permanently alienated both from society and his former friends. The parallel to Ellison was not intentional, but kudos to you for making that connection—it’s most flattering.
SP: What is your background? In the book, the narrator’s mother is a professional strikebreaker and his father owns restaurants. Were you trying to say something about the necessity of proper parenting, or rather, something about the lack of conformity passed down and therefore less complicity?
JP: Kemp’s alienation from his workplace and the world began at home. His parents treated him like an employee, a liability, or an asset, regarding him as an uncertain economic investment rather than a human to be loved unconditionally.
SP: Was the character of Cy (a waiter whose competence is matched only by his kleptomania) based on a real person, and if so, what is that person up to now?
JP: Cy was originally based on a guy named Cy who lives in New Hampshire, but became infused with the mannerisms of Louis, who is a professional waiter at an upscale steakhouse in Cincinnati.
SP: “I wondered what kind of glue would hold the city together when money stopped working.” What do you imagine would be the glue?
JP: It would have to be compassion. Otherwise it would be blood. I believe people are hard-wired to care for and respect one another, though, as we mature, this programming gets overwritten with greed, ambivalence, cowardice, fear, and self-interest, which are all characteristics rewarded by this economic system.
SP: “Money is at most paper, no more than a bribe and threat, an imaginary negative number.” No question here, just really liked the line.
SP: I really liked the preventing information highway robbery announcement. Have you had jobs that passed out crap like that, except not as self-awarely? What the hell?
JP: Never have I worked anyplace with that level of self-awareness, but that memo makes explicit a characteristic of many office jobs I have held. Underachievers are valuable assets, posing no threat to the managerial class.
SP: What is the most interesting thing that you’ve stolen from work?
But the important question is not what but why. Why would you be tempted to steal from work, if you would never steal from a store or from church or from strangers? Because the work you do has no human value? Because your boss doesn’t appear to work or even know how his business is run and yet has bought many antique cars with the revenue his laborers generate? Because you have more charm and fire and education and work experience than the neurotic managing editor who assigns you his grunt work? Because there’s something innately offensive about making $10/hour to park Lexuses for New England assholes whose dogs get better health care than you? Because you got paid minimum wage to remove asbestos from a greenhouse in July? Because you were meant for something better? Because we all were?
SP: I also saw a lot of parallels to Fight Club, even in the female character passed back and forth between the main characters. Did you ever consider Jasper and Kemp being two sides of the same personality?
JP: Not as such. They both grew out of my personality to some extent, but were also modeled on real people. The characters, to the best of my ability, were meant to be complements to one another: mutually exclusive personalities, in other words.
SP: Was this set in the present-day? There really weren’t a lot of clues that I recognized. What do you imagine Kemp is up to now?
JP: The novel is set in 2011, though this is not revealed. This future world is the same as the present day, if trends (such as rising gas prices) continue. Although this is far from clear in Steal Stuff From Work, a deadly virus is unleashed on Steal Stuff From Work Day, stolen from a lab, and a plague sweeps the world. Kemp is likely to be one of the survivors, because of his total isolation in the secret hotel room. He will be one of those who gets to rebuild society, whether or not he is up to the task.
SP: Do you think there’s any potential for actual revolution in the US? Do you consider the book more of a cautionary tale, call to arms, or a bit of both?
JP: On the path we’re on, social collapse seems inevitable. There is potential for revolution in the U.S.—that’s how our country was founded. The book is a call to arms. One of the reasons it is set in Seattle was to honor the Seattle General Strike of 1919, which still stands as a model of what a united population could accomplish.