EPS Review #74 - Grey Flannel

by Sloan Wilson, Reprint Society London 1957 (£0.30).

I remember walking through Boston Common to my first serious job, wearing a grey Italian double-breasted suit (with a loudish stripe) and laughing at the absurdity of it. So I thought Wilson's book would be interesting both as an examination of the over-committed corporate life, and of my parents' generation (all those martinis). But it turns out that a lot of the color in the book comes from World War II. Tom Rath had a affair, and he finds out much later, a child, with a beautiful Italian girl just before he was to be moved to the eastern theater and what he figured was certain death. Also, he accidentally kills his best friend in the war. The news of the child arrives when he is a corporate drone, and as he measures time till 5pm: "Suddenly he remembered sitting with Maria in the abandoned villa so many years before, looking at the same wrist watch and counting each second the way a miser might count his money." This makes the point of living vs. working pretty plainly -- too plainly really. Tom does not find much of interest in his job. He mostly works on a speech about a mental health charity for his boss, a driven Bill Gates type, who works every minute of every day, and whose personal life therefore suffers. The speech also forces Tom to decide whether he wants to be a yes-man, or say what he really thinks (that the whole thing is anodyne and boring). Luckily, Wilson is not a bad writer, and there is more complexity that that. Rath ends up saying what he thinks, and the boss, Hopkins, appreciates it and tries to give him more responsibility. Rath does not want it, yet is afraid of looking bad by turning it down: "This is like petting a tiger." There is also a scene with Hopkins and his estranged daughter. She supposes he will try to get her to go to college, but he is too cunning a manager for that and has more creative suggestions. True to life, the clever manipulation does not actually work, and she storms out.

Rath ultimately decides to aim low in his job and higher in his life. Handily, his mother has left him a valuable house and land. This saves his marriage, and at the end he is driving off to Vermont for an intimate weekend, having fessed up to the affair. Critically, they go without the kids. Throughout the book the children are only sniveling burdens. I fancy this shows a certain selfishness that I thought I also detected in the Economist obituary, and even in the photo of Wilson in his yacht. This may be my imagination, but I do feel the book is limited to its time.

Nick wrote: How about Momo by Endes, a children's level book that describe bankers in dark suits who steal time?