It's 3 a.m. Your eyes are wide open. You can't sleep. You've got too much on your mind. There's the usual insanity at work. Your boss keeps sending you urgent emails, pushing you to stab your best friend at the office in the back. The higher-ups are dangling a promotion in front of you. But all you want is that overdue raise. Of course, the size of the raise depends on landing a new client which depends on getting top-quality work from that friend your boss wants you to screw over.
There's more than the usual insanity at home. Your wife is or isn't, who can be sure? having an affair with her business partner. You and she agree that it's time to pull together enough money for that house you've been dreaming about. But your raise hasn't come through, her business isn't making any money, and if she is having an affair, how long will you be together anyway? Then there's your 12-year-old son, who wants to be an NBA all-star when he grows up, and your teenage daughter, who just wants you to leave her alone. This is living?
Actually, it's The Cost of Living (Viking, 1997), David Dorsey's spot-on novel that captures the life and times of the Anxious Class. It's Dorsey's second book exploring the stress line between the promises and the perils of life in the new economy. His first, The Force (Random House, 1994), was a masterly non-fiction portrayal of unrelenting pressure in the world of sales. To tell that story, Dorsey spent a year shadowing a Xerox supersalesman, profiling the dilemma that emerges when a company's espoused values don't match the practical reality. That kind of pressure is also a theme that Dorsey has explored as a contributor to Fast Company — as in his chronicle of the trials and tribulations of the Miller brothers, whose phenomenal success with Myst only created pressure on them to do better on their next game. Dorsey is sometimes a journalist, sometimes a novelist, but always a pathologist.
The Cost of Living may be fiction, but it is fiction grounded in Dorsey's intimate knowledge of the real world of work. Unlike most business novels fabricated by authors who have never set foot in an office and populated by cardboard cutouts of make-believe businesspeople (Michael Crichton, are you listening?)Dorsey's book breathes and aches with the dailiness of real life and real people.
The people and plot are as uncomplicated and as compelling as everyday occurrences, where life-affecting choices hinge on credible happenstance: On any given Saturday, as you head into work, you may stop for a cup of coffee at a McDonald's. And if you do, you may find yourself in the middle of a gang-initiation stickup. You may then find yourself sharing your all-too-crowded world with some unexpected, and dangerous, company.
Which is precisely what happens to Richard Cahill, Dorsey's white-bread, everyman protagonist. Before he knows it, he's getting threatening phone calls from one of the stickup men; his son is being tutored in the art of the jump shot by one of the black gang members; and Cahill himself is thinking about joining GP, the gang's leader, in a very different kind of entrepreneurial venture. The result is a combination of character and circumstance that veers dramatically between the extraordinary stress of everyday life and the welcome relief provided by extraordinary events.
That's what makes Dorsey's book compelling: he is honest, accurate, and unflinching as he cross-cuts between two colliding realities. His eye for company detail, ear for business conversation, and heart for workplace emotions make his novel that rare work of fiction: a journey through an invented place that heightens our appreciation of the real world.
A version of this article appeared in the December 1997/January 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.