Turning a Bad Day at the Office Into Cubicle Comedy

By Richard Roper

In addition to writing novels, I have a longtime corporate career. Recently, I flew with a colleague to Denver. When we landed, he wanted to visit a marijuana dispensary. “Google ‘legal cannabis,’” he said, pointing to my phone. “Google it yourself,” I told him. “If H.R. asks why I’m looking for weed using a company device — on company time — I’ll have to say I cancer. Who needs that headache?”

That “headache” — the consequences of telling your employer a baldfaced lie — is the primary complication in “How Not to Die Alone,” Richard Roper’s winning debut novel. A showcase for Roper’s mordant humour (it’s set in the U.K.), the book kicks off with a cold open: Andrew Smith is the sole mourner at a “pauper’s funeral” for a man who “had died on the toilet while reading a book about buzzards.” Andrew isn’t required to attend, but shows up anyway, hoping his presence will dignify the dead man’s lonely end. Roper introduces Andrew as a tenderhearted, thoughtful person. This is a smart choice, one that inspires our empathy and helps to assuage any discomfort we may feel when we discover, only a few pages later, that Andrew is also a big, fat liar.

For the past five years, Andrew, single, childless and forlorn, has convinced his co-workers that he’s happily married with two children. This untruth, a miscommunication he failed to correct, was born of wistful, wishful desire rather than malicious intent. So, when Andrew’s boss obliges each employee to host dinner at his/her home, we know exactly what’s coming.

Like many funny novels, “How Not to Die Alone” is influenced by the adage that humor equals tragedy plus time. We root for Andrew to come clean and connect, as much for his benefit as our entertainment. He will, of course — the book’s title tells us as much. But Roper aspires to more than a yuk-yuk sitcom resolution. He wants to show that Andrew can’t live authentically until he reaches back and confronts the heartbreak that derailed him in the first place. It’s a risky proposition for any novelist, particularly a rookie, but when Roper makes it work, the payoff is tremendous.

Andrew’s workplace, the Death Administration, occupies center stage. He’s required to visit the homes of people who died alone, look for next of kin and arrange their funerals. The job provides a story motherlode that Roper mines to tragicomic effect, but he’s far more interested in workers than work. He skims over questions of professional ethics and plausibility, focusing instead on Andrew’s relationship with his colleagues, his family and — most successfully — his psyche. Roper illuminates Andrew’s interior life to reveal not what an odd duck he is, but what odd ducks we all are — lonely, confused, misguided, bumbling and, as we learn in the book’s powerhouse ending, profoundly bereft.

[ Read “Take This Job and Write It,” Jennifer Schuessler’s essay on workplace novels. ]

Roper’s unbridled compassion for his characters is the book’s greatest strength. He doesn’t judge or patronize, even when they act foolishly. It’s this generosity of spirit that allowed me to forgive, if not ignore, the novel’s shortcomings. Structurally, “How Not to Die Alone” is uneven; we can see the book’s seams. We move along quickly, then get sidetracked by dense, digressive scenes. A potential romance generates no heat and clutters the narrative. People shudder too often.

And yet, I loved this novel with my whole heart. Why hire a technical guy who’s competent but flat when you can have the other guy — the one with the off-kilter insights and glorious humor, the one who makes your pulse race as you clock in each morning.

Jillian Medoff’s most recent novel, “This Could Hurt,” was published last year.

By Richard Roper
336 pp. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. $26.

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