At the end of "Confessions of a Tax Collector," Richard Yancey tries to put readers at ease. After recounting his adventures as a revenue officer - the person who seizes businesses and homes because of delinquent taxes - Yancey says congressional passage of the Revenue Restructuring Act in 1998 led to a "seismic shift" in the way the Internal Revenue Service conducts its affairs.
"Included in that legislation," he writes, "is a section referred to inside the Service as the 'Ten Deadly Sins,' violations of the tax code for which termination is the only remedy. One section deals with harassment and intimidation of taxpayers. It is hardly surprising, then, that seizures, liens and levies are at an all-time low."
As the April 15 US income tax deadline approaches, those words might soothe. Still, an insider's account of how IRS revenue officers deal with tardy and dishonest wage earners could seem like a scary reading choice.
Who would have imagined that a former IRS revenue officer would compose a memoir not only exposing the agency's inner workings, but also offering humor, pathos, and insights into the human condition on almost every page? "Confessions of a Tax Collector" is not just a superb memoir about working for the IRS; it's a superb memoir, period. Yes, it contains detailed explanations of internal procedures, paperwork, Congressional mandates, and judicial rulings, but with his gift for explaining every topic clearly, no matter how complex, Yancey never allows readers to become bogged down.
The author did not set out to become an IRS revenue officer. When he interviewed for the government job in 1990, at the age of 28, he felt desperate. Growing up near Tampa, Fla., Yancey came from an upper middle-class family, graduated from college with an English degree, then tried a number of careers, including playwriting, acting, managing a convenience store, and teaching school. Nothing panned out.
He was living in the home of a widow six years his elder; they called themselves an engaged couple, but marriage never seemed realistic. Yancey began thinking about finally establishing financial and emotional independence. An advertisement placed by the federal government for revenue officers listed a salary much higher than anything he had ever earned, so he applied.
The memoir opens with his job interview at the Tampa branch of the Jacksonville district of the IRS. It's obvious from the first page that Yancey is an accomplished stylist. His eye for detail, his re-creation of dialogue, his ironic tone, his self-deprecation, all serve a memoirist well.
Some of the most memorable scenes occur later in the field, as Yancey closes businesses due to delinquent taxes. Many of the business owners are uncooperative, even threatening. Revenue officers are within reason to fear physical assault. They do not carry weapons, however. So far, only one has been murdered in the line of duty.
Despite Yancey's attempts to allay fear, there are reason for readers to feel nervous about this book, and not only because it demonstrates the power of the IRS. The author doesn't identify anybody by real name. He has altered personal histories, appearances, and sometimes even the gender of the taxpayers he describes. He has disguised his co-workers, as well. He discloses that he has also altered chronology, "for clarity and to facilitate the narrative flow." He has relied on memory rather than contemporaneous notes.
Such practices can lead to exaggerations and downright inaccuracies. But there is something about Yancey's words that seem trustworthy. I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt, just as he sometimes gave delinquent taxpayers the benefit of the doubt - especially a day-care operator whose case arises throughout the book.
Not so incidentally, Yancey's memoir morphs into a love story in its final section. Late in his 12-year career at the IRS, he helps engineer the ouster of a supervisor. The replacement is Annie DeFlorio, smart, successful, and beautiful. She's a private person, but eventually her subordinates learn she's going through an ugly divorce. Yancey becomes infatuated with her, despite his knowledge that romances within the IRS are taboo. He finally works up the courage to ask her on a date to the theater. What happens after that is worth knowing, but I won't spoil the ending.
• Steve Weinberg is a freelance journalist in Columbia, Mo.