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Downsizing Blues

THE CLIFF WALK: A Memoir of a Job Lost and a Life Found.\o7 By Don J. Snyder\f7 .\o7 Little, Brown & Co.: 272 pp., $23.95\f7

June 01, 1997|DAVID BEERS | David Beers is the author of "Blue Sky Dream: A Memoir of America's Fall From Grace" (Doubleday)

A few pages into "The Cliff Walk" we find author Don J. Snyder with a paint roller in his hand, toiling in a stranger's home, acidly musing to himself that "people like me are falling. Falling hard." His people, we are meant to understand, are white-collar people who had every reason to expect they would make a very good living--and life--using their well-trained intellects. Shaken loose in the Great Re-Engineering of the '90s, many of them are only now coming to rest in job niches--shelf stocking, data entering, house painting--they never dreamed of inhabiting.

All this falling has produced, paradoxically, a rising market for the inside story promised in Snyder's subtitle, the secret to "a job lost and a life found." The slip-sliding throngs want to hear from one of their own: How does it feel to plummet so far so fast? How do you survive impact at bottom? And, perhaps most important, what fresh perspective, moral and political, do you take away from your crash landing? Snyder's answers are maddeningly incomplete and his tale has the untrustworthy feel of a calculated sermon masquerading as unvarnished memoir.

Still, "The Cliff Walk" keeps your attention. The trick lies in Snyder's telling, and why shouldn't he be good at it? His dead-end profession, after all, was that of English professor. Fortysomething, married with three young kids, he is shooting for tenure at prestigious Colgate University in Maine when the boss hands him a pink slip. Nothing personal, we're told, just cutbacks.

The news sends Snyder swooning through various stages of grief, recounted in self-lacerating detail. First: denial, as he hides the firing from his wife, Colleen. Then, having told her, more denial as he moves his family into a big summer house and waits for an "even better" job. When dozens of rejections arrive instead, he buries them at the bottom of an old golf bag and wallows in delusions of Hollywood martyrdom, imagining himself the noble, wronged teacher played by Robin Williams in "The Dead Poets Society."

Next comes irrational compensation: Laid-off Dad keeps splurging on family gifts, which Mom quietly returns. Before long, Snyder is one of those ever-multiplying, middle-aged, hollow-eyed mall walkers. Browsing in Victoria's Secret, he fantasizes that the pretty clerk, feeling his pain, projects a sexually charged sympathy. Standing in line at McDonald's, he's a muttering crank, unsteady on his feet. Wandering into a park, he tries to catch something of his youth by shagging fly balls, but he keeps dropping them.

Down, down, down go Snyder's pride and prospects. As the rejection slips pour in--40, 50, 60--he is forced to beg a friend for a job selling textbooks, only to be told he's too old, too accomplished. When he visits a former student who was driven to a nervous breakdown by a soulless bank job, you have to wonder if this isn't a review of Snyder's own impending madness. How low can he go? Well, try this. He schemes, unbeknownst to pregnant Colleen, to sell his unborn child. "All I'm going to do is find out how much they'd pay," he rationalizes on the way to a secret appointment with potential adopters.

The tragicomic turning point finally arrives when we find Snyder crouched under golf course shrubbery with his young son Jack, the two of them whiling away the day by stealing balls from the putting green, an act of rebellion that struck me as refreshing after Snyder's long, irrational sleepwalk. "Jack and I were Indian warriors returning to claim the land that white men had taken from us," Snyder writes of their invented game. "Jack and me against the people in charge of things in this country, inheritors of power and privilege. . . . After a lifetime of trying to please these people it was pure fun to mess up their golf game."

The immediate detail of such vignettes makes "The Cliff Walk" work well as a kind of Fired Everyman's tale writ a bit large. But clearly Snyder wants to be read at a level more grandiose, one that, say, St. Augustine intended for his "Confessions." Snyder is offering his entire life, from blue-collar kid to white-collar wannabe, as a parable of moral transformation. Unfortunately, whenever he strays from the particulars and into parable, his own confessions ring, if not hollow, shallow.

Take, for example, the way Snyder quells his own golf course rebellion. In a burst of chastened altruism, he changes the game--he and Jack start helping the fat cat duffers by secretly moving their balls closer to the pin. Next thing you know, Snyder is gratefully taking a low-paying job at the course as a groundskeeper. Embodied in this little episode is an all-American conundrum unconsciously permeating the entire book: our natural envy of the rich and powerful and our Puritan-rooted guilt over feeling that envy.

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