Shannon Wolf on THE OTHER ONES, a novel by Dave Housley

In Dave Housley’s newest offering from Alan Squire Publishing, a multitude of characters reckon with complacency as The Other Ones: coworkers left behind after failing to play in the lottery and watching their undeserving colleagues win big. Moving from the very concrete—the doldrums of office politics—to the abstract, strange, and disturbing—the wandering spirit of a colleague whose suicide opens the novel—Housley entrenches us not in the reactions to the lottery win, but in the transformative quality the win holds for these beleaguered remaining characters. We begin the narrative on the office’s rooftop, engulfed in quiet desperation, and encounter the end of the journey on that same rooftop, basking in a found community. Somehow, this sardonic, disquieting novel is hope-provoking to its last moment—another unmissable work from Barrelhouse’s illustrious leader.

Yoder, Craver, Lawson, Gibbons, Chastain, Russell, Robertson. These are the last names of the seven “Other Ones,” the characters of this novel who have their worlds rocked by their colleagues’ unexpected triumph. Yoder and Russell are older, disillusioned, and unhappy—suicide is not a new thought to these men. Craver and Chastain (the sole female protagonist) are younger, deeply cynical, and punctuate their work shifts with drunken nights out and kissing that they both pretend has not occurred. Lawson is higher up the corporate ladder with ambitions of becoming a writer, Robertson is a quintessential “tech guy” who thrives in solitude and problem solving, and Gibbons dreams of quitting his cubicle to buy and run a campground with his wife.

All of their lives are shaken up and reimagined on the morning that they come to work to find their coworkers riotous and jubilant in the conference room, newly in possession of eight point eight million dollars each. Yoder immediately heads to the roof where he takes off his shoes and throws himself from the building—for the rest of the book Yoder wakes, a spirit or a phantom, in the kitchens of the lottery winners, alternating between making sense of their lives and attempting to haunt them by throwing bottles and smashing windows. Russell reckons with the loss of his closest friend, and with his own health and mortality. Craver and Chastain drown their sorrows together, before Craver takes off on a months-long road trip, communicating only with Chastain through sporadic, one-way text messaging, ignoring all communications from the company he has abandoned. Chastain throws herself into the rehabilitation of the destabilized office, becoming the boss’ right-hand woman, enchanted by a simple phrase tossed out at her: “Thank you for being here today.” Robertson is singled out by two consultants and pushed forward for corporate advancement somewhat against his will; Lawson finds a writing community and begins to publish his work in secret; and Gibbons becomes fixated on the minutiae of his workplace: tallying emails, fantasy football, a milk frother that appears and then vanishes in the break room.

It is the structure of this book that grips us. We are tossed back and forth between characters, the narrative speeding along at a cracking pace, even as it covers off months at a time. Each section is characterized by the figure it focuses on, a last name acting as each chapter title. This structure allows Housley a certain kind of freedom in his writing. He is able to stretch his narrative hand across America, plopping Craver in various diners and hiking spots all the way to the west of the country, while puppeteering the characters left like paper dolls in the office. In another writer’s hands, the structure might feel chaotic, but Housley’s writing always thrives in chaos, and the handling of the narrative feels deft and purposeful.

Craver, in particular, is an interesting character study, his palpable rage seeping from the pages, as the only character who regularly played the lottery and had not done so on this specific occasion. He wonders often if the winners have deceived him, and if he will return to Keystone Optimal Marketing Solutions to find he has been a millionaire all along. There is something about him that we struggle to put our finger on until the climax of the book—an incident at Yoder’s memorial gala—comes to fruition. Housley points at it every now and then as Craver considers unethical, or unhinged, actions—following a solitary woman on a hiking path, for example. Housley writes repeatedly: “Craver is doing nothing wrong. He has done nothing wrong.” This becomes Craver’s internal anthem, spurring him on to the actions that ultimately become his legacy.

All in all, Housley captures a certain authenticity in the characters’ voices; all feel genuine, and singular; Russell’s lethargic tone easily discernible from Gibbons’ obsessive, particular tenor. Fans of J. Robert Lennon will find commonality here, both Gibbons’ stale everyday life, and Yoder’s bizarre afterlife are reminiscent of Lennon’s latest novel Subdivision; methodical, jarring, uncomfortable. Yoder’s disorientation is sympathetic, his continual reach for his phone in the ghostly sphere is relatable. As in so many great contemporary works, many of these characters are complex or even difficult to like, and we can find ourselves here in a familiar reality. We too can pick out familiar names among the lottery winners themselves, Pappas, for example, points us to Cheryl Pappas, author of The Clarity of Hunger. Nods to the literary community like these mark the type of writer Housley is, to us.

This book cares about growth, and asking questions outside of the norm. Housley does not ask the age-old question, what would you do if you won the lottery? Instead he asks what would you do if you did not win the lottery, or even who would you be without that win? Without the juxtaposition of the winners, with their MAGA hats and their absentminded racism, the true main characters, Yoder and the six colleagues he left behind, could not develop, and transform. Through the book, Gibbons quotes a poem, “Yellowshirt Elegy” by Meghan Phillips: “[T]he heart / of the ship, the heart / of the ship, / You are working in / the heart / of the ship.” The office becomes not the site of Yoder’s suicide, or the birthplace of the lottery win, but the setting of a rebirth for these characters, not always overwhelmingly positive, but distinct and enrapturing. Chastain notes of herself midway through the text: “If he [Craver] came back, he wouldn’t even recognize her anymore.” These character studies are a signature of Housley’s elegant and transformative prose, and we too feel changed after devouring this book.

The Other Ones, by Dave Housley. Bethesda, Maryland: Alan Squire Publishing, January 2022. 250 pages. $19.99, paper.

Shannon Wolf is a British writer and teacher, living in Denver, Colorado. Her debut full-length poetry collection Green Card Girl is forthcoming from Fernwood Press. She received a joint MA-MFA in Poetry at McNeese State University and also has degrees from Lancaster University and the University of Chichester. She is the Co-Curator of the Poets in Pajamas Reading Series. Her poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction (which can also be found under the name Shannon Bushby) have appeared in or are forthcoming from Bending GenresThe ForgeNo Contact Mag, and HAD, among others. You can find her on social media @helloshanwolf.

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