“Life of a Salesman” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 20)

One of my favorite forms of nonfiction work is a well-written profile, especially when the subject of the piece isn’t a celebrity or a politician. It’s not hard to get people interested in a profile on Rhianna or LeBron James, but when a writer can look at at an everyday person and tell their story in a compelling, meaningful way, that’s a beautiful thing.

“Life of a Salesman: Selling success, when the American dream is downsized” by Eli Saslow in the October 7, 2012 edition of the Washington Post is a good example of this. Saslow spends some time with Frank Firetti, a Virginia-based small business owner and pool salesman, as he struggles to keep his business afloat in the struggling economy of 2012. Nothing shocking or dramatic happens in this story; there’s no life or death moments at stake, no critical conflict, no crime, no injustice, no tragedy. It’s about a man trying to sell a pool. More broadly, it’s about his dreams and his hopes as they come up against economic challenges. It’s a little story and big story at the same time.

Frank Firetti

Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount for the Washington Post

There’s a lot I admire about this story. Saslow pays close attention to the little details. As he shows us Firetti out on sales call, or back at his office, we get a very clear sense of what it looks and feels like in his space:

He loved being in the car, the one place that was his alone, where he could fortify himself against stress and negativity. There was Motrin in the center console for his headaches, hand sanitizer for germs and four empty bags of pistachios, because cracking shells occupied his hands and quieted his mind. There was classic rock on the radio, because he had changed the station when the host of his favorite conservative talk show started dissecting the economy, a word Frank couldn’t stand to say or hear, because he had come to equate it with “an excuse for failure,” he said. There was a Bible open on the back seat, because having it there occasionally helped seal the deal with a religious customer, but mostly because Frank was an ardent believer who liked to read and annotate the book when his faith needed restoration.

I like how that paragraph opens and closes with two broader themes: his need for solitude and his reliance on faith. But in between that, Saslow sandwiches a ton of detail: the Motrin, the hand sanitizer, the empty pistachio pags, the classic rock on the radio, the conservative talk radio, the bible in the backseat.

I also like how Saslow ties the profile to the broader themes of the middle class struggles in 2012, in particular, the idea of the swimming pool as a symbol of success:

But the more he learned about pools, the more he found them representative of something larger. They were carvings etched into back yards as a mark of ascent, commemorating a customer’s arrival in the upper middle class. They were a signal: You had a pool, you were an American somebody. Frank loved to visit his construction sites, exchange his few words of Spanish with the crew and then patrol the area with a digital camera. The crews sometimes found it peculiar, but Frank didn’t care. He wrote into each contract that he was allowed to take pictures and chronicle his creation. A black hole in the earth became a smooth bowl of white-and-blue speckled plaster, filled with water so calm and pristine that it offered a promise. Here was a place of undisturbed relaxation, of aqua blue and sandstone, a monument to luxury that could be owned. He hung photos of his favorite pools in the office and brought others home to show his wife. He wanted one.

It’s telling that he sells swimming pools to others, but he hasn’t built his own yet. He has sketches of this elaborate, gigantic pool for his next house, but he’s nowhere close to getting it yet. And the fact that swimming pools sales have been down for years indicates the toll of the recession. The middle class is struggling right now, and, as a result, so is Firetti.

And the story captures some small, meaningful scenes. In the middle of the story we witness a video chat exchange between Firetti and his Philipino wife, who is overseas visiting her family. We’ve already learned about the financial and business pressure that mounts on him, and the reader then finds out that his wife is hosting a 300-person party for family and friends in Dumaguete City. As he hints at the cost of the event, she can’t (or pretends not to) hear him:

“What are you doing today?” he yelled.

“Oh, we are still getting ready for the party.”

It was the one-year anniversary of Suzette’s mother’s death, and she and her sisters had planned an event for 300. As usual, they had paid for all of it.

“Free dinner on the Firettis?” Frank said.

“What?” Suzette said.

She pointed to her ear, indicating a problem with the volume, but Frank wondered if she was choosing not to hear.

One thing that bothered me about the piece is that Saslow despite doing a fine job showing us Firetti and his challenges, he didn’t seem to trust the reader enough to get it without hammering the point home. At several spots, Saslow interjects heavy language that frames the story in the wider context, and I don’t think he needed it. For example, there’s a nice scene between Firetti and his son (who is now living at home and struggling with two jobs) and they talk about his future. But then Saslow adds this:

They stayed out on the deck until the sun disappeared behind the townhouses. Frank went to bed just before midnight and awoke at 4. He always had been a sound sleeper, but lately he had been putting himself to bed with Tylenol PM and stirring awake to questions in the middle of the night. When had stability become the goal in America? What kind of dream was that? And in the economy of 2012, was it even attainable?

I like that paragraph until the last two sentences. Do we really need those two questions for the reader? At times, Saslow, gets a bit heavy with lines like that that seem to hammer home the theme of the story, but we don’t need it. He’s already done his job well enough already. Firetti’s story stands well on its own; the reader doesn’t need the author to explain it as explicity as he does as certain stretches in the piece.

But overall, this is a good read. Ten years from now, if someone wanted to read about what it was like for many struggling middle-class Americans a month before the 2012 election, this would stand up well as a snapshot of a time and place, and how one man struggled with the American Dream.

Read Life of a Salesman: Selling success, when the American dream is downsized →

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