It’s a Tough Economy!

In the best of times, in the best of personal circumstances, looking for work is a pain in the ass. But in a sagging economy, and especially for job hunters who are running on financial and spiritual fumes, this task can bring on an existential crisis.

Jarrod Shanahan’s darkly hilarious illustrated novella, It’s a Tough Economy!, portrays just such a crisis. Consider how, early in the story, the protagonist (also named Jarrod) describes his job hunt:

After day after unemployed day of hour after uninspired hour of applying for job after unattainable job and hearing absolutely and remarkably consistently nothing back, I have begun to lose hope in the whole endeavor entirely. How is it, I can’t help but wonder, that I am less employable than I was when I was eighteen years old? Why is it that nowadays, nobody even wants to string me along with a prospective position in order to scam me? Why does nobody want me to wire them $500 in advance of an interview to be paid back with interest upon my arrival? … I’ve flooded every corner of this immense city with cheerful, professional, visually-striking resumes on par with every tutorial I’ve suffered through and every template I’ve scoured for clues. And as I’ve continuously received nothing in return save an endless gaping silence as large and looming and ominously hollow as life’s greatest mysteries—less like the calm preceding a rainstorm than that of a lifeless body tumbling anonymously through empty space at the most remote and starless corner of the unknown universe—it has become impossible to even imagine anyone on the other end of my job applications. The specter of undeniable and utterly crippling futility, always nipping at my heels at even the best of times, has almost overcome me.

In his desperation to find employment, Jarrod agrees to be interviewed—and then tested in bizarre and exhausting ways—for a job that is never defined, at a company whose purpose is never made clear to him. And if the company can be said to have headquarters, they are in a decrepit structure by Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, said to be one of the most polluted bodies of water in the nation. (“After a while you don’t even notice the smell!,” says Greg, one of Jarrod’s interviewers.)

Complicating Jarrod’s efforts to secure this job are his encounters with a mysterious band of thugs who suspect him of conspiring with Greg and other interviewers in a plot against persons unknown. Here, one of the thugs questions Jarrod:

“You were getting cozy with Greg tonight and you know what happened. To Vinny, to Nick, to Liam…”

“I don’t know who …”

“Bullshit!” she shouts and I cower. I am utterly defenseless. There’s no point pretending otherwise.

One of the strengths of It’s a Tough Economy!, aside from its dark humor, is how relatable the book is. Yes, Jarrod finds himself in bizarre and unexpected situations. Yes, these situations may be, at least in part, fever-induced hallucinations rather than reflections of reality. But through Jarrod’s trials (real or imagined), the author gets at some very real absurdities and frustrations of job hunting. If you have experienced any of these yourself, you may be gratified and relieved to read Shanahan’s descriptions of them.

  Take the protagonist’s response to this old favorite of an interview question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”:

I struggle with this question as I not only did not anticipate it, but I have not had the luxury of thinking that far ahead in quite some time. I’ve been concerned with the coming weeks, the coming days, sometimes the coming hours, and that has been enough to terrify me sufficiently without daring to conjure up what tragicomic horrors lay beyond. … I can only picture myself endlessly adrift on a perennial job hunt, following dead leads to their absurd conclusions out of sheer desperation, cursing in vain absent addressees in eloquent admonitions to which I receive no reply, finding respite only in nonsensical dreams, and waking time and again to the scorching light of a merciless reality in daily reenactments of the trauma of birth which lead ceaselessly and with increasing brutality toward my day of death, and eternal rest at long last.

Another strength of It’s a Tough Economy! are the illustrations by Pittsburgh-based comic artist Nate McDonough. They help bring Jarrod’s experiences and the characters he encounters to life. And in McDonough’s depictions of rundown, nighttime Brooklyn, you can almost smell the Gowanus Canal.

It’s a Tough Economy! is one of those rare books that made me stop and read passages aloud to whatever friend or loved one happened to be in closest proximity (usually, my husband). There was plenty to make me laugh and make me think.

Would My Pick be Your Pick?

If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
• A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
• Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
• Any of Samuel Beckett’s works, but especially Waiting for Godot
• Graphic novels