Would you like fries with that?

A famous writer's son gets nickel-and-dimed in the service economy

"Selling Ben Cheever" is a title taken from the time-honored premise that we are all salesmen, out there selling ourselves. What author Ben Cheever typically has sold are good satiric novels that have not enjoyed great commercial success. With this nonfiction book - an exploration of the service economy - he attempts to broaden his brand.

Cushioned by his wife's steady income (she's Janet Maslin, a critic for The New York Times), Cheever tried some "jobs he doesn't need, the kind of jobs others take out of necessity." Call it research; call it an exercise in empathy - it's an experiment that lets a wry observer loose to comment on the ways we work.

Cheever sells computers and, more profitably, impractical insurance for their repair at Comp-USA and Nobody Beats the Wiz. He builds gourmet sandwiches in a place where the 20-somethings call him Slow G, for slow grandpa. He works as a $6-an-hour spook in a Halloween Town set up outside a mall. He does a stint in telemarketing, one of the few jobs for which he isn't given a pre-employment urine test: "Nothing to steal." He sells books at a Borders store, seeking employment with that chain because he thought it would be too awkward to apply at a Barnes & Noble after he'd been a judge of its national first-novel awards.

He is not hired at a famous haberdashery, thereby proving false a tenet of his privileged upbringing: If all else fails, he can't sell suits at Brooks Brothers.

The book's tone is one of bemusement, which means it suffers in the inevitable comparisons with "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," Barbara Ehrenreich's fierce first-person investigation of working poverty. Cheever's book isn't political, although he recognizes as surely as Ehrenreich that the minimum wage is laughably inadequate.

What his book is, is personal - and not in a self-centered, all-about-Ben way. Rather, it's personal in its exploration of how work affects people: who we become, how we define ourselves, what we deem moral. Work matters, Cheever knows, even when it's not a calling, even when it's work others scorn.

A job, any job, is a form of authentication. Job training - which is ubiquitous in this book - is a welcome rite of passage. In the trainings, every company revels in its origins, its founder's struggle, and eventual triumph.

"Nobody much believes in God anymore,'' Cheever writes, "but apparently there's no employee so worthless that he won't be inspired to do a better job by being fed a creation myth." He's inspired by the myth of quality control, by the faith that a job can be well done. But assumptions about the economy - like many things - have been shaken dramatically in recent weeks. A sustained work of bemusement is not likely to find an audience in an era newly devoted to gravitas.

Carol Doup Muller is a former book review editor at the San Jose Mercury News.

SELLING BEN CHEEVER: Back to Square One in a Service Economy

By Ben Cheever Bloomsbury 283 pp., $25.95

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