These enormously entertaining stories — variously funny, insightful, profound, surprising — deal artfully with the human condition, particularly as it relates to greed. But the businesspeople portrayed turn out to be grifters, con men, and stereotypical used-car and traveling salesmen (along with a few “old misers”). You have to be more cynical than I am to believe this cast of characters is representative of the business community.
Only the three nonfiction pieces — personal accounts by William H. Whyte, Jill Nelson, and Gwendolyn Parker of their youthful initiations into the corporate world — deal with the world that the readers of this magazine would recognize as business. It’s my guess the editors were forced to include these factual reminiscences after they discovered that great fiction about business is nonexistent. Even the excerpt included from Sinclair Lewis’s classic Babbitt — often cited as the quintessential business novel — merely serves as a reminder that babbitry is a synonym for narrow-mindedness, and that the novel’s eponymous hero could just as well have been a postal clerk as a businessman.
Although the readings in this collection didn’t provide me with the holy grail that I seek, I intend to assign the book to my MBA students because of the important ethical questions raised by the authors. For example, O’Hara’s “The Hardware Man” presents a truly challenging dilemma about the ethics of firing embezzlers. The story deals with two employees who are clearly stealing from the trusting owner of the store at which they have worked for years. When a new owner takes over, he fires the two. Of course, we conclude, they had it coming. But O’Hara then reveals a bit more information, and, suddenly, the reader’s certainty about the justice of the embezzlers’ fate is put in doubt. The author shows that sometimes it’s hard to tell who the bad guys are, and not always clear how to deal with them. I also plan to give copies of the book to friends who love fine literature. As for finding the Great American Business Novel, I shall continue my enduring quest.
James O’Toole is the Bill Daniels Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business and coauthor, with Warren Bennis and Daniel Goleman, of Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor (Jossey-Bass, 2008).