Q and A with Casey Gray, DISCOUNT
Discount, Casey Gray’s debut novel, is set in the American Southwest, forty miles north of Juárez. This ambitious, tragicomic, and ultimately redemptive novel follows a group of customers and employees through the twenty-four hour work cycle as they seek comfort and sustenance inside of the cinderblock walls of a classic American institution—The Superstore.
On the eve of the company president’s visit to the store, a manager’s drunk text to a coworker leads to a series of consequences as brutal as they are wide-ranging: Everyone around him will be affected.
With a cast of characters featuring Ernesto, a local gang member struggling to choose a job pushing carts over a desultory life as a drug dealer; Wilma, a grandmother working double shifts to support her family; and Keith, a high school student with a penchant for filmmaking, Gray offers a startlingly humane, utterly contemporary portrait of life on the suburban fringe.
A vision of an America barely getting by and assaulted by crime, corruption, and exploitation in all of its manifestations, Discount is nevertheless a triumphant and big-hearted novel that marks the arrival of a new voice we won’t soon forget.
You did a lot of hands-on research and I heard that you spent years writing DISCOUNT. Tell us a little about the experience of working in a big box store and how you used these experiences in the novel.
I was an adjunct professor for years, which is its own kind of exploitative racket. I didn’t get any classes one semester because of some FTE bullshit, so I got a job in the Wal-Mart Deli. I had already begun the novel, and I needed a job. I desperately wanted to work at a Wal-Mart, but I kept failing the personality tests they give you. A student I used to help in the writing center, a really great guy, finally got me on. He was a model employee and an incredibly hard worker that everyone (including me) respected immensely. When he vouched for me, I was in.
Working at Wal-Mart is exhausting. I was determined to do a good job. Because this guy vouched for me, because I didn’t want to approach it like an interloper, and because everything you fail to do affects someone else, someone tired, someone working a shitty job just like you are. If you leave the dishes in the sink, someone’s got to do them in the morning. If you leave the grease in the fryer, someone has to drain it. If you don’t wrap the cold salads correctly, someone has to remake them. It’s like living in a family, or, maybe more correctly, a really intense roommate situation. I never wanted to be the lazy asshole that people had to pick up after. I can honestly say that I was a hard worker and a model Wal-Mart employee during my time there.
I learned a lot about being tired, just dog tired every day. I had had shitty jobs before, and I went to school on an athletic scholarship, so I knew something about hard work. But working at Wal-Mart is different. It’s hard to explain. It’s not like working your way through college waiting tables or a summer landscaping job. It’s hard to see your way out of it. I had a terminal degree, and there were still days I thought that I would be stuck there forever. It was much more real for a lot of the people I worked with. Those feeling, I guess––I hope they bled into the novel.
What were some of the books or films or art that inspired you as you were writing DISCOUNT?
David Foster Wallace came to New Mexico State and read from The Pale King just before he died. I was impressed with the way he wrote about drudgery. Somehow he was able to make each moment, often very dull moments, consequential and real and human. He wasn’t writing about some noble soul who was too sensitive and free for the world. The novel seemed sort of contra Beat Generation and all the work that grew out of that mindset. It seemed to say that there is no us and them, no free and trapped. We’re all trying to figure out how to be humans in the world: how to create meaning, what our obligations are, what to do with the realization that we are going to die eventually. He seemed like such a nice man. He tucked his khakis into tube socks and dipped snuff. I never spoke to him. People were clambering around him, and I’m kind of shy by nature. But I always regret the fact that I never thanked him for coming. It meant a lot to us. He was a huge deal. He didn’t have to come.
A lot of the nonfiction I read was very helpful, especially To Serve God and Walmart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise, by Bethany Moreton. It was probably the smartest book I read on the culture.
This novel is what I'd call socially engaged fiction - you take on poverty, class and racial divides, drug trafficking - themes that you handle expertly. Did you begin writing DISCOUNT with them already in mind or did their importance to the story evolve as you wrote?
I wanted to write a book about Wal-Mart. I was obsessed before I understood why. Of course it’s impossible to look at Wal-Mart without being faced with some difficult truths, not just about this singular company, but about the system that created it. And I guess I wanted to confront the issues these truths present for Americans. People like to vilify Wal-Mart, but is Target really any better, is Best Buy, is Home Depot? The local grocery benefits from the same global disparities that Wal-Mart does. Consumers (myself included) benefit most of all.
I didn’t write this book to shame people who shop at Wal-Mart. Almost every poor person I know shops at Wal-Mart, my family included. If you have the money to shop at the farmer’s market, great, but that doesn't absolve you. Did you put gas in your car? Is there lithium in your phone? I guess I wanted to explore the fact that there is no way to be a consumer, especially in America, without causing pain. I’m not sure what to do about this, but I wanted to write a novel that compelled us to face it.
The narrative arc of this novel takes places over a 24-hour work cycle (although the book actually spans several days) - was this the structure you began with?
Yes. When I was a kid, the TV used to stop; it showed the flag waving and played the star spangled banner, then just fuzz. Stores used to close. All of this makes me sound so old, but I’m only thirty-seven. It seems like this shift has happened in the last fifteen to twenty years. Now nothing stops. There is always someone watching. There is always someone who wants to buy, so there is always someone there to sell. There is always a dollar to be made. I wanted to capture that ceaseless media and commerce that we live inside of now.
If you don't mind telling us, what are you working on now?
I’m working on stories. This novel took about nine years to write. It required all of my creative energy, so it’s been quite a while since I’ve worked on anything short. I’m also working on a novel about college football: head injuries, exploitation, etc. I put myself through school on a football scholarship. It’s a strange, violent world, and I think it’s worth writing about.