Reilly is logging more than 100 hours per week with his friend Evan at a Boston-based software company. Their mission is to develop an application that would make it easier for people to shop on the Web, and the project is dying a long, slow death. Reilly eats in his office. He showers in the company gym. He's in love with a woman who's such an overachiever in bed that he compares her to Linda Blair in The Exorcist. But she dumps him for a VP. His libido dies. The plug is pulled on his software.
Such is the life of Reilly, the antihero of Daniel Lyons's hilarious and refreshing debut novel, Dog Days (Simon & Schuster, 1998). It's a delightful, witty book, smart and self-assured, an irony-filled operating manual for the new world of work that uses the software industry as its source code.
As Lyons tells the story, Reilly has come to Boston from Detroit to work on a software project. One day, he goes to the dog races and sees something transcendent: a greyhound named Coco, winning her race by 13 lengths. She turns out to be just possibly the fastest dog in the world - and the thread that weaves the plot together. Coco ends up in the hands of a small-time mobster named Giaccalone, who slashes Reilly's tires after Reilly parks in Giaccalone's spot in Boston's North End. Reilly then steals the dog - and becomes a marked man. His world starts to implode, but after a climactic dog-race scam and a final motel-room confrontation, a certain kind of justice emerges for everyone involved.
In lesser hands, this Grishamesque material would spiral out of control. Yet Lyons never loses his deflating comic touch, and his bad guys never become villains. Lyons brings together two worlds to make an amusing if not-so-original point: These days, it's hard to tell the difference between big business and organized crime. Far more compelling, though, is Lyons's painfully accurate portrayal of the two faces of contemporary work life: enormous vitality, overwhelming absurdity.
Lyons shows how work today is more than a job - it's a life. Reilly and Evans work in a building where conference rooms are named after members of the Allman Brothers Band: the Duane room, the Gregg room, the Dickey room. They wear T-shirts that they've stolen at COMDEX, and they wrap themselves in Netscape beach towels. They inhabit a world where, when you fail, it's worse than death: "I'll have to move back to Michigan and get a job at Kinko's," says Reilly. The inside humor, the way people struggle to personalize their work, the paradoxical way the work can feel both all- important and unimportant: Lyons nails the new world of work in all its glory.
The picture is already overstuffed - but Lyons ultimately focuses on what's missing. When Maria, Reilly's soon-to-be girlfriend, discusses her plans to do a stint in the Peace Corps, she lays into him: "You work seven days a week, under all of this pressure, and for what? So that people can shop on the Web? Half the world is starving to death and you want to devote your life to saving people from having to get into their car and drive to the mall? That's criminal."
Reilly tends to agree. His description of cubicle life for drone-level workers is a vision of mindless labor: "They worked side by side in a vast room, the size of a football field, all of it the color of oatmeal. Our offices overlooked their cubicles. . . . All day long they sat in their little pens, writing bug patches and device drivers, and the worst thing was, they were happy. They loved their jobs. They were the biggest losers I'd ever known. . . . Evan said we should take a photograph of them and mail it to college career counseling offices with the warning, Don't let this happen to you."
It's a vision that captures the paycheck paradox: Work can be deeply absorbing, it can make you happy - and it can turn you into something less than human. Reilly knows that's what is happening to him. Writing software becomes a darkly alluring habit. "Most of the time we worked in a kind of trance," he says. "Our code was a world unto itself, a labyrinth of caves and tunnels. . . . In the morning we would go out to get coffee and bagels and the real world would seem only vaguely familiar, like a place you might have visited when you were a kid, but you weren't sure."
In the end, like Huck Finn lighting out for the territories, Reilly rejects the new world of work. But Lyons can't quite endorse that break. His recognition of the passion that drives technological creativity stands out, despite Reilly's disenchantment with office politics, moral compromise, and beehive subservience. As Lyons describes Reilly's passion for writing code, there's more than a little Zen in it: "Nothing came close to the way I felt about writing code. . . . For me it was love at first sight. . . . I would get going on a program and not be able to stop. When I did have to put work aside - for dinner, for school, for sleep - my mind would race with ideas, and I couldn't wait to get back."
"My mind would race with ideas." That's the kind of emotional attachment to work that makes your heart leap with envy. It's what everyone longs for: work so absorbing, you identify with it completely. But true to form, Lyons never lets you forget the paradox: So much delight, but all that Reilly is doing is threading together a line of ones and zeros so that the masses, hunkered down in front of the tube, will have an online alternative to the QVC channel.
David Dorsey firstname.lastname@example.org is the author of a business novel, The Cost of Living (Viking, 1997), and a frequent contributor to Fast Company.