By Bud Smith
WORK by Bud Smith ★★☆☆☆
Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017
220 pages, memoir
Review by Bud Smith
Picture Slouching Towards Bethlehem if Joan Didion was a moron. Or perhaps, Motel Chronicles by Sam Shepherd if Sam Shepherd wasn’t as talented, or handsome, or famous. WORK by Bud Smith is not an interesting approach to memoir. We have an author, who has barely lived a life (a scant 35 years old), and even despite his young age, he doesn’t have much to say about that life either … Instead we are lead bumbling through 220 pages of anecdotes that don’t exactly add up to, well—anything. The big twist to this memoir, is not that the author has something of value to share with anyone … it’s, get this, brace yourself, it’s that he welds in an oil refinery.
At times WORK struck me as the kind of fluff that one often encounters on the water damaged, and oft-wobbly side table of a laundromat. The fluff I am referring to, is, of course, the dreaded celebrity auto-biography. Think, of a ghost-written tome centered on the life and times of Britney Spears, Sylvester Stallone, or as the author would hope, maybe, Bruce Springsteen. But the problem is that WORK neither focuses on the kind of living that generates celebrity, or is built in the quality of prose that a ghost writer would even attribute their name to, even in the hushed hallways of the ghost community.
Instead, we are left to consider the importance of ‘the blue collar outer-life’, and how it stacks up in the ham-fisted boxing ring in juxtaposition to the needs for the ‘the creative inner life’. Ooof. A lot of WORK reads like: Jack Kerouac frozen in ice, as if he was Brendan Fraser from Encino Man, thawed out, and Kerouac set loose in 2017 having learned no lessons harvested from the rich cornucopia of modern literature post-1969 (the death of the Beat generation) or, to be so bold, 200,000 years ago, when homo sapiens first appeared, and began carving cliches into the walls of their stoney homes, as if anyone could be a writer by sheer decision on the part of the writer alone.
The premise of WORK is almost irritating in its pandering simplicity. Once again, a middle-aged white American, reflects on his ‘hard times’ growing up ‘poor’ in a ‘working-class’ family. This subject matter in and of itself would not be so offensive to the intelligence of this reviewer (and thus, the reader) if it had any point, if something was learned by the subject himself, Mr. Smith, the dufus. Instead, we spend hundreds of pages listening to Bud Smith brag about how he didn’t go to college, how he often gets struck in the head with blunt objects, how he doesn’t know what a wild bird store is, how he gets so intoxicated he can’t find his car for days on end. Countless times in this meandering memoir, I was infuriated with Bud Smith, asking myself—why would someone delight in unemployment? Why would someone delight in a car crash with an elderly woman? Why would someone delight in their own brother getting all his teeth ripped out by the family dentist? But truly, the most infuriating aspect of all, goes back to the lesson … there simply isn't one. It’s as if the author does not know the basic rules of the well-crafted personal essay, and thus, by extension expanding out, can even begin to grasp the slightest hint of what memoir is.
However it wasn’t all a wash. As if almost accidentally, Bud Smith’s family saves the book from total failure. His mother is charming, and caring, and during quite a few moments in WORK, she tries to imbue some semblance of knowledge on her ignorant son, but it is of course lost in the shuffle of the author’s fixation on blood (an accident while washing dishes that seems to hint at a suicide attempt), explosions (fireworks in the house!), and humble brags (a trip to 7-11 to buy Slurpees for a family even “poorer” than Smith’s own, okay, sure). Smith’s brother, Will, whom the memoir is dedicated to, also makes a few appearances, and where I felt he was an anchor to this spastic work, Bud Smith chooses to treat him instead, as just another cartoon character, who wants to put on a ski mask and kidnap him out of NYC for his bachelor party, and who also falls off the back of a garbage truck while wearing a trench coat, and lies in an icy puddle until an ambulance arrives. There is one touching moment however, when Smith and his brother get to play a video game together, and they see some lovely butterflies and bovine in a simulated countryside—a welcome detour from the drab pine scrub clogged New Jersey landscape, or even worse, the industrial hellscape of Smith’s oil refinery day job (and night job, ack!)
Another interesting aspect of the memoir is a love interest who unfortunately doesn’t show up until nearly halfway into the book. Rae is the dynamic center of the book, and her presence makes great strides to attempt the impossible act of lashing Work into a creation of emotional maturity. Rae manages to coax out some actual honest to god feeling from the author, just as she’d done in his previous release, the superior, Dust Bunny City. I for one though, need a little more from a memoir than a guy loving his wife, working heavy construction, and babbling on about how he writes on his cellphone. Congratulations, Bud, you sir, are a basic bitch.
I did find myself laughing out loud twice in the book though, because it is after all, a comedy, lest we not forget, be it a sloppy and solipsistic one. The author’s father falls down a set of icy stairs and is gravely injured. I had a similar thing happen to my father when I was but a child. So, I see the immense humor in an incident such as that. Bravo. In addition, I rolled on the floor and laughed out loud when Bud Smith got struck very hard in the face by a piece of rigid metal, which knocked him unconscious at the town dump! Bravo again. That’s where the two stars came from. This memoir was like America’s Funniest Home Videos written by Charles Bukowski if he had had his testicles removed.
Bud Smith reports from Jersey City, NJ. Twitter: @bud_smith www.budsmithwrites.com. He wrote F250, Calm Face, and Dustbunny City, among others. He works heavy construction, and lives in Jersey City, NJ.