Casey Gray’s ambitious debut, “Discount,” is broadly in the tradition of social novels such as Dickens’ “Hard Times” and Zola’s “Germinal,” books that examine the zeitgeist through characters working in and around a representative industry or enterprise. Gray has selected what might be our era’s signature American business, a discount store very much like Wal-Mart, this one unfussily called Superstore and situated in southern New Mexico.
This isn’t a long novel, but its cast of characters approaches Tolstoyan abundance. For much of the book, one can’t reliably distinguish leading performers from bit players who, like a great deal on bulk pickles, might never be seen again. My review copy didn’t come with the finished book’s flowchart, and let me just say that my homemade version grew smudgy from frequent consultation.
Of central importance are the Limóns, a family gang whose members’ criminality ranges from petty to nefarious. Clever 19-year-old Ernesto Limón vacillates between his job at the Superstore and his underground gig dealing drugs and smuggling guns. His cousin and co-worker Claudia is being courted by a local crime boss while she carries on a flirtation with Ron, a scheming but bumbling Superstore “Servant/Leader” who recently sent her a ludicrously indecent selfie. Dolly, a retired nurse and RV drifter, is biding time in the Superstore parking lot, where her just-deceased husband is being preserved with ice and alcohol.
And there are many others. My chart ran to 35 characters, most of whose minds we enter in brief or in depth. Contemporary realist novels are too often rule-bound, so it’s refreshing to see someone take chances with a chorus novel. One of the Limón cousins imagines a TV show in which everyone, even the extras, “gets their own spinoff.” Gray’s novel offers a similarly panoramic, multiplying vision.
But there are risks to this approach. Since we can check in with these characters only once in a while, we’re well into the book before we develop connections with them. I, for one, remained indifferent to several and often wanted them to run through their everyday thoughts and routines more succinctly. Jumping from head to head is one of the trickiest novelistic techniques, and although it’s normal for a third-person novel’s perspective to be a mix of author and character, in a few passages here the vantage is distractingly nebulous.
Although the conclusion doesn’t bring things together with stunning aplomb, the final act is the book’s most enjoyable, and there are pleasures along the way. Gray is particularly adept at dialogue; the banter is often crass and hilarious. And if there are too few chorus novels, there are just as surely too few literary novels about working-class life. The milieu in “Discount” feels deeply inhabited, born not just of Gray’s field research but of his generous sympathies.
The jargon, procedures and hierarchies reminded me of my own years in corporate retail, and Gray offers a broad-minded portrait of the Superstore, how its ethos is at once authoritarian and egalitarian, cynical and optimistic, how the people working and shopping in it are vigorously, wittily, hopefully, sometimes desperately trying, as the Wal-Mart slogan has it, to save money and live better.
Dylan Hicks is a writer, musician and author of the novel “Boarded Windows.” He lives in Minneapolis.