"Clerk" is a short piece by Jonathan Lethem; I presume – I have not done the necessary research, so as not to confirm my presumptions – that this is a work of non-fiction, as Lethem had for many years been a clerk in a used-bookstore very much, I again presume, like the one he here describes. As the text itself doesn't explicitly state that this is non-fiction, I would like to presume – even to the author's distaste – that it is a work of fiction or that, at the very least, and perhaps more effectively, it could be. The work is available here, on his Art+Culture Artist Page, but I recommend reading it here on his personal website in the terrific Reading Room section, where there is the intended space between paragraphs and where one may further explore the section's other offerings. For the sake of simplicity, here, below, is the text in its entirety; it ends after the second paragraph:
I was what I would be if I wasn't a writer: a clerk in a used-bookstore. No other possibility. I worked in eight bookstores in fifteen years, five years during high school and college, then ten years straight after that. Shelving, running registers, re-alphabetizing sections, learning the arcana. I was bitter, intense, typical, believing myself superior to customers who could afford the best items I could only cherish in passing, part of a great clerkly tradition. I was certainly aware of the tradition. I still repair broken alphabetical runs and straighten piles on tables, absently, despite myself, whenever I'm in stores. It calms me during booktours. The last five years I worked at one of the best stores in the country. I was becoming an expert in the books I cared about most, modern first editions and rare paperbacks. In, say, another fifteen years of apprenticeship - a trifle in antiquariania, as with any serious guild - I might have been one of the top rare lit men in the world.
Or it might have all gone south. Some clerks never make it, end up burnt out, start stealing books, like cops gone bad. They get hooked on tea, next thing they know they end up in a card game. Then a crap game. Then they wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags them off to Philadelphia. They get a job as a "before" in a Charles Atlas ad. Then the big Mexican lady burns the house down and the next thing they know they're in Omaha. They move in with a high school teacher who does a little plumbing on the side, who's not much to look at but who's built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Then these clerks settle in, start scheming. Using the high school teacher's know-how they begin printing up samidzat Gold Medal paperback originals by fake noir authors with names like Orphus Blurt and Crash Burnstein and Walter Girlfriend. You see those books come floating across the buying counter and you just grin: you know a haywire clerk's out there, flaming like a shred of Korean barbecue. I think that's probably the kind of clerk I would've become, after a while.
Having worked in a used-bookstore and identified with much of the anxieties expressed by the narrator, I was very much pulled in by the first paragraph; but it was not until reading the second – or rather, the "might have been" at the end of the first – that I was truly ensnared by it. The first reads as a somewhat charming, somewhat grating narrative that seems intended to be met with knowing nods by those who have been similarly thrust into comparable emotional states by used-bookstore clerkdom; the second elevates it – particularly, and perhaps primarily, and maybe even only, if it were read as fiction – to something more elusive and enchanting. It throws the self-reflective calm of the first paragraph's recollection of this anxious state into more frenetic territory: everything becomes at once more particular and more ambiguous, as the tantalizing, even fearsome conditional tense – and the suggestions of what he may have become – take hold. The reader is left not with a complete, satisfying, and comfortably relatable brief essay on the frightening symbolism of perennial bookstore clerkhood – as he or she would have had the piece ended after the first paragraph – and is instead left to wonder what instead became of the narrator; he is not any of the things mentioned, it is suggested, but what, then, is he? What has he – in any sense, as Lethem's fiction leaves the door capaciously open for anything beyond the nominally "real" – become?
If it is a work of non-fiction, he became Jonathan Lethem, famous author. If it is fiction, who knows? If that is "the kind of clerk I would've become," what is the kind of person he has instead become? I love wondering, fantasizing about where this anxious clerk's life took him.