T.M. Shine, whose writing style defines “gentle humorist,” takes aim at the Great Recession and the unemployment epidemic in his latest novel, chronicling the weird journey of a man who held the same job for nearly two decades, and was then cruelly cast aside without any other marketable skills. Shine’s tone is well-suited for the tale, and his voice repeatedly rises off the page in the dulcet tones of a humorous anecdote related on NPR.
The problem is that Nothing Happens Until It Happens To You: A Novel Without Pay, Perks, Or Privileges crams in too many ideas and anecdotes. Over the course of the novel, 30-some major and minor characters collide with main character Jeffrey Reiner, and Shine has no idea what to do with most of them by the novel’s end, when he tries to bring the majority of them together in a series of vignettes. Characters pop up for a little while, disappear for hundreds of pages (in a book just under 300 pages long), then come back, speaking in vague, motivational platitudes. The middle section of the book consists of Jeffrey frantically racing from plot strand to plot strand, to the point where Shine devotes less attention to the changing psyche of his hero than he should.
At first, Jeffrey is a trying character for a first-person narrator. His general approach to life is to mope and be skeptical of anything that might come his way. Shine tries to trace the course of how Jeffrey goes from being a guy who turns off everyone around him—including his wife and kids—to the guy in whom everybody sees something vital. Unfortunately, Jeffrey wouldn’t recognize something vital in himself if it were tap-dancing, so this results in lots of scenes where a random character struts in from some out-of-the-way location and says “You’re really getting it together, aren’t you?” Which runs counter to the way Jeffrey seems to be falling apart in his own head.
But Shine’s talent for relating humorous vignettes keeps the book from going entirely off the rails. Read less as a cohesive novel and more as a collection of little humorous pieces that just coincidentally feature the same characters, the book works much better. Jeffrey’s assorted adventures—particularly when he’s working for a shady man who runs an odd-job operation around south Florida—all have their own rises and falls, and Shine is good at sneaking sly jokes into the course of the narrative. They aren’t laugh-out-loud jokes, but nearly every page will surely provoke a smiles.
Shine also has an ace in the hole: His portrayal of how Jeffrey’s unemployment causes problems in his marriage to the lovely but slowly fraying Anna is often marvelous, and Shine doesn’t bother bringing it to an unrealistic resolution. Anna is a fantastic character, particularly because Jeffrey seems as interested in figuring out what makes her tick as Shine clearly is, and every time she’s on the page and sparring with Jeffrey, the novel comes to life. As a chronicle of American unemployment, Nothing Happens leaves much to be desired. As a tale of a marriage in distress, it offers a bevy of riches.