Wallace Stevens wasn't just one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, he was also an insurance executive. When he died, Stevens was vice president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co. So where, one might reasonably ask, are his odes to the expense account? His sonnets on the ecstasies of business-class travel? The sad fact is, the inner life of the great American middle manager is woefully underchronicled.
Here to remedy that is Stanley Bing, whose roundly entertaining and surprisingly touching novel, You Look Nice Today (Bloomsbury; 291 pages), is set almost entirely in the carpeted corridors of a large, faceless multinational conglomerate. Bing (the name is a pseudonym) writes a column for FORTUNE magazine (published by Time Inc., as is TIME), but he also has a day job as an executive at a major corporation. Thus he knows whereof he writes.
The hero of You Look Nice Today is Robert Harbert, "Harb" to his pals. Harb is executive vice president of corporate process and procedure at the Global Fiduciary Trust Co., and he's a relatively generic specimen of the common suit: 44, nice guy, weak chin, happily married. Harb's troubles begin when he hires an attractive assistant named CaroleAnne. Over the next few years, it emerges that CaroleAnne, while quite good at her job, is in fact a nutcase. Even though Harb heaps raises and promotions on her, she becomes increasingly paranoid and hostile, and finally she quits and sues Global for $150 million, claiming that she has been sexually harassed. The suit sends Harb's career at Global straight downward.
There you have the plot of You Look Nice Today, and it's the least interesting thing about it. Bing could have gone for a balanced, ambiguous, what-is-justice-really kind of tale, but he didn't. He made Harb a good guy and CaroleAnne an unsympathetic harpy--and anyway, sexual harassment doesn't have the crackle that it had back in the days of, say, Michael Crichton's Disclosure. The pleasure of Bing's novel lies in his masterful, merciless evocation of the executive milieu--the lunches, the banter, the petty slights, the Scotch-soaked male bonding. "Keep in mind, please, that large emotions and reactions are alien to a true corporate workplace environment," Bing urges us. "A great business milieu is like creme brulee, with the tasty custard down below and a fine glazed topping up above, sweet and hard, that obscures what is beneath."
Bing is adept at sketching that surface, but he's not afraid to plunge his spoon into those creamy depths. What happens when a company man like Harb is yanked out of his cozy corporate cubby and thrown back on resources of introspection he hasn't used for decades? "He had been a man with a job, a huge title and many, many things to do," Bing writes. "Now it was full daylight on a weekday, and he had no tie on." You Look Nice Today is a comic novel with a tragic heart, and for a portrait of corporate life, you'd have to go back to Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit to find its equal. Rather than another searing indictment, Bing gives us a cockeyed love letter to the executive suite, and he reminds us that while we may hate that gray flannel suit, we can get very cold at night without it. --By Lev Grossman