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Corpo Lifer Jailbreak : THE GRAND LIFE by Jan Novak (Poseidon Press: $16.95; 256 pp.)

November 22, 1987|Gary Dretzka | Dretzka is a journalist living in Chicago. and

George Clifton is a corporate lifer, one of millions of white-collar workers who leave their comfortable suburban homes at about the same time every weekday morning, put in their eight hours and get home at about the same time each evening. He runs a data-processing office for a large utility company based in Chicago's Loop and thinks so highly of his second-level position that he refuses to make even the tiniest of waves.

After 24 years of service to his company, he has an impressive office, a satisfactory salary and a spotless work record. He thinks he's got it made.

To his co-workers, however, he's "George S.Q., Cigar-store Indian."

Fred Foss is a successful third-level bureaucrat at the same company. He weighs 300 pounds and is a bit of a nonconformist.

"Fat Fred" gave George his nickname during a stormy meeting of fellow "corporate dynamos." Fred had asked George to share his precious computer space and, as usual, got only a wooden smile and excuses in return. The S.Q. stands for status quo , which George maintains with a religious passion.

"The Grand Life" is the hilarious story of how these two opposites attract and form an unlikely alliance.

Jan Novak, who emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1969 at the age of 16, won a Carl Sandburg Award last year for his autobiographical first novel, "The Willys Dream Kit." He also is a computer operations supervisor for a large Illinois company, similar to the one skewered in this novel.

This unusually perceptive dissection of modern corporate America is keenly observed throughout, from the unmistakable bureaucratic language of the managers to the defeatism of the office droners. That "The Grand Life" was written by a relatively recent arrival to America is remarkable, but probably not coincidental.

Novak doesn't waste much time setting up George and Fred for a fall:

"Fred Foss' life had a different scope from George Clifton's. His inner person was huge and boisterous. George's inner person was tiny and shell-shocked. The two corporate dynamos had one thing in common: their careers had plateaued on them."

One afternoon, both men decide independently to play hooky from work. George is despondent over a humiliating encounter at the office, and Fred's obesity has him feeling particularly grotesque. They bump into each other at a bus stop, quickly patch up past differences and head for a nearby gin mill, where they engage in a delightfully derisive discussion of "quality of work life" and "corporate culture," the themes of the meeting they're missing.

Their drunken session transforms George from a timid "corpo lifer" into a maverick who spends as much time as possible putting muscles on his inner person. Fred, in turn, finds someone who'll listen to his problems and help him learn to laugh at himself:

"George thought we're quite a goddamn pair. The Laurel and Hardy of the utility company. But he didn't care. He was happy to have Fat Fred for a buddy. He would have settled for a lot less brilliant a friend. Three hours earlier, this hundred and fifty pounds of memory and hundred and fifty pounds of bladder would have taxed his heart more than his morning bicycle sprints, but now here he was, the father confessor of the guy, and life was grand."

Because their mutual liberation occurs early in the novel, it's natural that their lives can't stay this grand for long.

George's re-awakening also frees his wife, Mary Ellen, who secretly yearns for breast implant surgery. Liberation from flat-chestedness would pump up her inner person and, although he can't really afford the $3,500, George happily goes along with the idea. This leads to a daring new life style for the Cliftons and some unexpected problems, including George's costly tryst with Tanya Mendez, a sexy part-time employee.

Meantime, Fred must cope with his demented young wife--who one day sells their luxury car for $37 at a nearby shopping mall--and a promotion that expands his domain but keeps him busy covering for George's excesses.

This fast-paced parable is as entertaining as it is inspirational. It's unlikely that many readers will react to "The Grand Life" by jumping on their desk and shouting, "Take this job and shove it," but few will be able to look at their boss with a straight face again, either.

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