LOST SOULS OF A SALES MACHINE
By David Dorsey
Random House x 315pp x $23
One of the most famous exchanges in drama takes place at the end of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Having loitered for days, hoping the mythical Godot will arrive and relieve them of their misery, Estragon turns to Vladimir and says: "I can't go on like this." Comes the chilling reply: "That's what you think." Thus Beckett sums up the modern age: We, the tortured, alienated, and lost, await our savior, who never comes. And yet, no matter how maddening the wait gets, we wait.
The barren landscape inhabited by Beckett's Everyman isn't unknown to the players in David Dorsey's fine book The Force. The author, who spent a year trailing a Xerox Corp. Cleveland sales team--one of the company's hottest--details the lives of men and women maniacally driven to achieve their annual revenue goals. But it isn't the targets that motivate them. It's the sense that if they surpass their mark, they will somehow be transformed. Bonuses, a coveted trip to Palm Springs, cable-ready Tvs, and recognition await those who beat their quotas. Although their bodies and spirits break in the pursuit, each, especially protagonist and supersalesman Fred Thomas, believes that this year's success will yield next year's promotion--and an easier life.
But ease remains continually out of reach, leaving Fred's beleaguered wife, Kathy, to plead: "Physically, you can't take it anymore." Fred replies: "I agree," then adds a hopeless, hanging: "but--." He engages in a punishing quest for the sale that will catapult him into the President's Club, an award for those who exceed quota. To close the final deal as December wanes, he all but romances a bitter client named Nick Callahan. During a lunch at which Callahan finally agrees to buy a copier, Thomas downs five drinks and stays quiet while the malcontent spews his contempt. "You've been screwing me with a smile for 20 years," says Callahan of Xerox.
Is it worth it? Even Thomas isn't sure. "As it was, on the evenings of victories like this one, he simply wondered if this was all life amounted to, this crushing drive to get orders all year, followed by a little trip in the spring as a reward," writes Dorsey. And Thomas isn't the only team member who suffers. Nancy Woodard, assigned to the toughest accounts, is so spent by year's end that she begs to be fired. Diane Burley is too tense to keep her food down. And there's District Manager Frank Pacetta, wiry and intense, who pumps up his people with a mix of wild beer busts, hyperbolic praise, and caustic criticism. The sense that he often doesn't mean what he says only fuels his team's anxieties.
These are finely drawn portraits of suffering, craziness, and triumph. While other writers might have cursed, or worse, pitied these folks, Dorsey doesn't judge. Instead, he locates the dreams that drive the team and finds they're not ephemeral. Thomas and his cohorts live for "the force"--a feeling akin to an experience of divinity for a salesperson. In Dorsey's words: "It was less an emotion than a state of charmed confidence, when it seemed all he had to do was walk into a customer's office and the customer would roll over and say yes."
Beyond that, Thomas clearly wants to make a good life for Kathy and their children. He wants to be a loving husband--something that his job, which breeds discontent and competitiveness, makes difficult. He believes that if he works hard enough, he'll get promoted into a job that's more humane and less demanding. And for him, it happens. By the end of the book he's a national account manager, less driven by quotas and able to spend more time at home.
Underlying Dorsey's narrative is a sense that the world is out of whack. And not just at Xerox. Almost all the people in the book are so stressed out pursuing happiness they can't finish thoughts. During a fight, Thomas tells his wife: "You're mentally drained." His next words: "I don't care if I make trip"--meaning he doesn't care whether he exceeds his sales goal. The jargon of sales pollutes these people's personal relations. Complaining about Kathy's poor judgment when it comes to buying gifts, Thomas demands: "How bad do you want to raise the level of your game?"
In this book--his first--Dorsey has a daunting tendency to lapse into cliches. "She suspects there may be more to life," he says a bit too neatly of Kathy. And he declares too often that Fred is burned out. But that's a quibble. Overall, this is a generous book, laced with amusing touches. There's a funny golf outing featuring deposed Notre Dame University football coach Gerry Faust. Between Pacetta's ravings ("You're an animal, Coach," he bellows after one good shot), Faust allows he'd return if the school asked him--which is about as likely as General Motors rehiring Roger Smith. Elsewhere, Dorsey describes the bedraggled Callahan as somebody "who'd grown beyond any concern for the semiotics of appearance."
For the book's weight, Dorsey can thank Xerox and its employees. Without the intimate access that the company and people like Fred and Kathy Thomas gave him, The Force wouldn't sing. The irony is that the book could become a primer for Xerox customers, laying waste to many popular sales tactics. Here's one tip: If a Xerox salesperson ever offers you a machine with no payments for seven months, make sure you read the fine print.KEVIN KELLY