Help Wanted: A Novel

Image of Help Wanted: A Novel
Release Date: 
March 5, 2024
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

Help Wanted is a novel about characters who some might call “ordinary people,” in this case the workers at a big box store very much like Walmart. It’s a surprising setting for Adelle Waldman since her last novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. was centered in the Brooklyn literary scene, about as far from the characters in this book as one can imagine.

In interviews, Waldman says she didn’t have any novelistic ideas after her first literary hit so eventually found herself working in a big box store where she came up with this idea of focusing on the humanity of the workers.

In Help Wanted, the Walmart-like store Waldman creates is called Town Center, and she focuses on a group of workers known in-house as Team Movement. It is their job to empty the trucks and get the merchandise onto the racks.

The setting is a depressed upstate New York town where a giant conglomerate (think IBM) has moved on and now all the residents are trying to make enough to pay their bills. It’s not easy at Town Center where the company does not want to pay benefits and so keeps everyone at less than 40 hours a week. And overtime, well, that’s a four-letter word.

The magic in the novel comes from the character studies of the people in Team Movement who are in the middle of a job crisis. The beloved boss Big Will is being promoted to another position in another store, which means someone will be promoted to his job. And when that person is promoted, so will someone else and then someone else in a domino effect. No one will make big money but a little more money in this type of economy can maybe provide more daycare or a slightly better car.

All the members of Team Movement are caught up in this drama whether they really care or not. The new members or those without a dog in the fight are recruited to promote a less than desirable worker named Meredith who’s next in line for the promotion. Everyone has their doubts about her ability but, if she’s promoted, it will help a likeable guy named Little Will take her job and all their lives will be better.

Self-interest abounds and reminds readers that blue-collar workers can be just as catty as their white-collar brethren. Above all else, Team Movement must make sure that Meredith is promoted over someone on another team within the store. If that happens, there will be no movement on Team Movement, something too depressing to contemplate since everyone will be frozen in place with no extra hours or money.

How much does a promotion mean to this likeable group of workers? When Nicole briefly thinks the job might be hers, she considers her future. “it would change everything,” Waldman writes. “She could get a car, get married, become fully independent, just like her mom at her age. . . . She began to feel almost dizzy with possibility.”

Hope is in the air as each member of the team considers what Meredith’s promotion will mean for them. The problem is that Big Will, once a backer of Meredith’s career, has silently changed his mind. He now feels that Meredith simply is not a people person. He feels Meredith doesn’t know how to manage the personalities on her team, and Big Will cannot stand the notion that the store he helped polish, will go to hell in a hand basket if Meredith succeeds him.

The team members have no idea, as they work hard to push Meredith toward her goal. There is scheming and alliances and the whole scenario feels like the TV show Survivor albeit without the skimpy outfits and the tropical setting.

The other difference is that this is real life, not some glamour contest and, even if there is a winner, no one is getting rich. The workers all feel like cogs in some giant capitalistic machine which of course is Waldman’s point. Waldman does a nice job of weaving the characters within what is essentially a mundane story. The stakes are high for the characters, but some readers might feel this novel might work better as a work of nonfiction, a la Studs Terkel.