When most of us make a pit stop at the local service station for a few gallons of gas, some cigarettes, or an oil change, if we’re feeling a little curious, we might stop to consider the often grizzled-seeming souls toiling behind the counter or at the pumps. What choices, either wildly spontaneous or premeditated, led them to their current career? Can we imagine their lives outside of work as distinct and complex entities and not just the bored bodies in unflattering corporate-logo jumpsuits with which we’re so familiar? Are they happy? Ryan W. Bradley can provide these answers, and then some. His autobiographical debut novel, Code for Failure, presents a searing portrait of life at the bottom rung of the fuel industry that performs the rare feat of being psychologically intricate, hilariously scatological, and emotionally memorable, often in the same paragraph. It’s a study of the rarest of dichotomies – darkly macho fiction with a heart that builds to unbearable, and maybe more.
The novel’s unnamed protagonist is a 20-year-old gas station attendant living in Oregon – which along with New Jersey, is one of only two states where full-service pumping is mandatory – who gets kicked out of college apparently for, among other things, wandering around his dorm shitfaced carting around a bottle of rotgut. He now spends his days hating on his job with the other creatures who work at the station and his nights boozing solo to punk and pre-grunge tunes on his pull-out futon in his blank-walled apartment. A series of chance sexual encounters provides him with an unlikely side career as a male prostitute for wealthy older women and a succession of younger and scarily unstable pseudo-girlfriends. Quietly raging amidst the mutually interchangeable spirals of a job that is as dirty and spirit-crushing as it is rife with “corporate bullshit,” and a grudgingly slow after-hours self-annihilation in the form of predictable substance abuse and dangerous liaisons (husbands generally aren’t too fond of their wives screwing the kid who scrapes the crud underneath the hoods of their luxury vehicles), the lonely pump jockey must decide whether to allow his chosen modes of employment to define him completely, or risk breaking from an unhealthy yet familiar lifestyle for something potentially far more valuable.
The most glaringly obvious comparison is a young Charles Bukowski – or should I say the “fictional” Hank Chinaski – but here we have an idealized version of the legendary literary persona, a whiskey-loving deadbeat who would be the envy of all other less physically gifted deadbeats (can you imagine the epic freakout a young, grotesquely pockmarked Hank would have experienced had he been offered, point-blank, two thousand dollars to screw a specimen of a MILF in a Jaguar – Women might never have happened). This Bush-era version of the tale of “guy in his 20s drinks, drugs, and fucks up his life but amidst a nihilistic spree of minimum-wage choices and unbridled promiscuity comes to, if not a revelation, at least an understanding with which he may or may not be able to form some semblance of mental peace” might be more akin to recent novels like Patrick deWitt’s Ablutions (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) and Sean Carswell’s Train Wreck Girl (Manic D Press, 2008). But where both of these books lack a real sense of emotional intensity on the part of their protagonists that leaves them two-dimensionally unfulfilling and unmemorable except for a few worthwhile anecdotes, Code for Failure is a pitch-perfect exploration of a much-battered young man’s psyche that equally embraces an ever-present darkness and the humor needed to survive it.
There are clear hints of past sadness – a willful disdain for, and disconnect with his immediate family, a curious difficulty opening up to women, an extreme need for numbness – but it’s mostly because of the pump jockey’s deadpan wit in the face of any number of cringe-inducing predicaments that the reader wants to turn the pages with the fury of gasoline barreling into an SUV’s gaping tank. He justifies in ways most of us wish we could. On his career as a sex worker: “And I’m there for them. I give them what they need and want. In the end I’m getting sex on a daily basis and making more money than I do at my job. Making more money than many college graduates ever will. How’s that for justice?” Even when his logic is supremely flawed, it feels right. Like when the pump jockey explains to his brother after driving home with a concussion acquired from the hood of an old lady’s ancient Oldsmobile, “It was fine. I listened to Led Zeppelin’s II, I was fine.” His brother replies, “You’re an idiot,” and we agree, but we can’t see it happening any other way.
Much of Code for Failure’s success lies in Bradley’s stripped-down, easy-flowing delivery. The prose, divided into masterfully crafted one- and two-page mini-chapters is rough like the gravel of the station’s parking lot but possessed of a smoothness that belies the protagonist’s stymied intellect and creativity. Bradley’s also got a knack for birthing secondary characters who are as outrageous as they are complex: Sondra, the artsy co-ed turned diligent stalker who regularly mails the coveted pump jockey nudie pictures of herself and her subsequent lovers, in addition to a constant stream of undergarments; Craig, the world-beaten station manager who crustily alludes to “When I was in ’Nam,” even though he’s at least 15 years too young to have fought; and Cal, the replacement manager whose convoluted past might be almost as seedy as the encounters his trusted employee has with his 16-year-old daughter. A muck of lives that demands wallowing.
Though I feel that the novel’s conclusion is perhaps a little rushed and a tiny bit forced, my only real initial concern – and admittedly, this might only have been motivated by pure jealousy – was how a seemingly marginally attractive gas station degenerate with a far-from-sunny disposition miraculously has women of all ages and demographics constantly willing to drop their panties with minimal or no effort on his part. But without getting too meta, I think that the protagonist’s likeability as it pertains to other characters within the text stems from the same reason the reader is so drawn to his story, a story that Bradley knows so well as a former pump jockey himself. Moral compass aside, there is a real honesty here, an honesty that is unbridled and shocking at times, but so rare and always refreshing. No doubt author and subject are inextricably linked, and this connection has produced a meticulously spawned ode to struggle that transcends mere bro lit and makes us remember, with no shortage of pain, when we were the guy at the pump; and if we weren’t, we now know unequivocally how he feels.
Chris Vola holds an MFA from Columbia University. He is a contributing books editor at The Brooklyn Rail and the chapbook reviewer at Short, Fast, and Deadly.