A comedic thriller set in the industrial office complex of a contemporary IT mega-corporation; an allegorical primer on systems theory; and a brutalist critique of everything that's wrong with 21st-century America.
Ten years ago, Halleck "sold out." The fear of poverty drove him to abandon entrepreneurship, and seek shelter in the vast grey cube farms of a "big old dinosaur" technology company. Fear suppressed Halleck's ambition for a decade, and if it weren't for the mass layoff known as Chainsaw Friday, it might have remained that way for the rest of his life. At the first hint that his employer might lay him off at the end of the quarter, Hal immediately started looking for new work, eventually landing a dream job at a tech startup. All he has to do is show up on Chainsaw Friday, get his layoff papers, and chill out until New Job Monday. But against all odds, his current employer doesn't lay him off, and the non-compete agreement he signed long ago prevents him from taking the startup job. Armed with an underused degree in systems theory and his Generation-X Survival Skills, Hal has only a few hours to find and defeat the salaried supervillains who blocked his escape from Corporate Hell. But Chainsaw Friday is more than just a mass layoff at a dysfunctional megacorporation; it's Halleck's last chance to reclaim his humanity and commit to a real existence in a world dominated by fakeness and fear.
Now on sale!
The ebook edition is $4.99 (I wanted to make it an even $5, but Apple requires that all items in its Apple Books store have a price ending in ".99"), and the hardcover is $30. The audiobook edition is still in production, but will be released on Audible and other audiobook streaming services, and it will also be available as an MP3 CD. You can buy Try Catch Finally online from the usual retailers:
And you can also order it from your local bookstore. It's easiest if you provide the ISBN rather than the title: 9781734891003.
The first edition of Try Catch Finally was published in 2018, and I immediately regretted not taking more time to refine it. All I can say about the nature of this mistake is: it feels awful to have written many books, but none of them are on the market (or, with books I've ghostwritten: they aren't attributed to me). I also felt I was missing out on being "first to market" with a hot-take on modern corporate culture and mass layoffs at huge IT companies. Fortunately, very few copies of the Bullshit Edition exist today.
Rather than continue meddling with TCF, I decided to do my best to write a book that would make a lot of money. It didn't have to be artistically brilliant, it just had to make sense, be entertaining, and fit neatly into a marketable genre. I decided that a 5-book erotic romance series would be optimal in terms of effort and profit, so I swore to myself that I wouldn't get sidetracked with clever ideas or a complicated plot, and started writing the first book. About 20k words later, I realized that I was trying to force myself to write in a minimalist style -- a habit I'd developed from two decades of non-fiction work -- but my instinct was to go deeper into character study. At first I tried to "fix" it as I'd done with the first edition of Try Catch Finally -- by removing all the internal narration -- but then I asked myself why I couldn't just follow my instincts. Not only was that what I wanted to write, it was also what I wanted to read, so why would I remove it?
That is when I stopped and decided to quantify my "style." It probably seems silly to most people, but I was not able to describe exactly who I was as a writer because I'd never done any literary navel-gazing; I just did what I did. But what exactly was I doing? The result of that effort is a collection of principles, guidelines, and themes that I decided should be called Dark Impressionism. The intention was not so much to define what my style must or should be, but to describe what it already is and to analyze what I truly want to write about. It also enabled me to recognize some bad habits, inefficient patterns, and mistakes. I decided to set the romance series aside so that I could use this newly-defined framework to rewrite -- for the final time -- the novels I'd previously published, starting with Try Catch Finally. The second edition -- or what I prefer to think of as the Worse Edition -- will be released on November 20, 2022 in several formats. After seven complete revisions that encompassed a period of three years, I can confidently say that this is the first time in my career that I've felt I released a truly great book with no compromises or concessions.
The idea for Try Catch Finally originated in 2015 while I was a contract worker for an IT megacorporation. My contract had been renewed a few times, everyone was pleased with my work, and the company offered to hire me as a full-time employee. They created a job req specifically for me, then posted it internally. Per company policy, any employees who were in "redeployment" (they'd been laid-off, but were given an interval of time to look for other jobs within the company before they were officially terminated) were to be given top consideration before any outside candidates. As a contractor, I was an outside candidate for my own job. An employee went into redeployment, saw the opening, and took my job. My contract was subsequently cancelled with no severance, and I was asked to never contact any of my former co-workers again. It felt like a public execution. The job-stealer was not just anyone -- it was someone I worked with often, and had gone the extra mile to help on many occasions. Through the panic and grief of losing the best job I ever had, I found humor in the form of bitter irony: getting laid-off was the best thing that could've happened to that job-stealing Asshole. I began imagining a corporate environment in which losing your job because someone else got laid-off was the least fucked-up thing that could happen.
The term "Chainsaw Friday" is based on a mass-layoff I survived in 2008; it happened on a Thursday, though, so it was actually called "Chainsaw Thursday." A co-worker said something like "a lot of good people just got axed," and I replied that an axe was impractical for a massacre of this magnitude; it had to have been a chainsaw instead. From then on the survivors referred to that layoff as "Chainsaw Thursday." I changed it to Friday in the book because, as the symbolic end to the workweek, it fits the theme better. Coincidentally, on the way home from work on Chainsaw Thursday I got into a near-fatal motorcycle accident, and on the following Saturday I ended a long-term relationship; the timing seemed eerie to me, as though all of reality had gone through a "strategic reorganization."
I spent at least a week fine-tuning the dysfunction of General Xerg's dialogue so that it would fit the grammar disparity between Mandarin and English. Other characters have similarly unique non-native English-speaking peculiarities, but I put a lot of effort into Xerg because he weaponizes his incoherence. Xerg claims to be Gaoshan, which is an ethnic minority in Taiwan. There are many distinct ethnic groups in the nations and regions that encompass modern Chinese political boundaries, but it's clear that General Xerg isn't truly sensitive to Hal's ignorance of these details -- he's just being an Asshole. Halleck counters with the observation that America also contains many distinct ethnic groups, citing Texas as an example of one of them.
Originally the book was set in the year 2015, and it was published in 2018. To publish a new edition in 2022, I had to alter some of the narrative to incorporate all the shit that's happened in the interim. In the one-month period between manuscript finalization and the publication date, The Scarecrow Troll took over Twitter and made Jack Dorsey references obsolete.
In the book, the most cruel curse Halleck can think of is: "I hope you work here for the rest of your life." I actually said this once. I was at a liquor store stocking up on the usual stuff after moving cross-country and leaving all liquids and perishables behind. I spent about 20 minutes looking for brandy, and at last discovered that it was on a shelf behind the counter. "Why is $20 brandy behind the counter, but $80 absinthe is out on a normal shelf?" I asked. The clerk replied firmly: "It's our policy." Utter bullshit, but whatever, I've got a list of mixers to collect. Finally I get to the counter and the same surly clerk asks me -- obviously over 31 but actually over 41 -- for ID. I hand him my driver's license and he scans it with some kind of "solution" that his company got talked into spending millions of dollars on. I know all about this shit because I wrote an article on it for AOL years ago; you have no idea what's being recorded from your license, or by whom, or where that information is being stored. "I didn't give you permission to scan my license," I said. "Fine!" said the Asshole. "Then get out!" I took my license, shrugged, smiled, and calmly walked toward the door. The clerk rushed around the counter and ran past me to the door, I guess so that he could pretend to open it for me by triggering the motion sensor. "And don't bother to threaten to get me fired, because--" he began, but before he could explain why he was untouchable, I interrupted: "I don't want you to get fired, I want you work here for the rest of your life. I want to know exactly where you are in the world so that I never have to experience you ever again."
All of the characters in Try Catch Finally are conglomerates -- not based on any particular person -- with one exception: Gilbert Woodard. I won't say where or when, but I really did have a manager that was that incompetent, he really did cause a talent exodus, and he really did get promoted as a result.
Ligence is a different spelling of the word ligeance, which means "fealty to sovereignty" or "the jurisdiction of a liege lord."
The Chainsaw Friday layoff procedure -- the line in front of the door with the security badge checks and the trash bin -- is almost a shot-for-shot retelling of a layoff event at a large corporation I worked for (not the above-mentioned Chainsaw Thursday -- this was different; I've been through a lot of layoffs). Despite that, a reviewer told me that the layoff scene was unrealistic, and that corporate layoffs are nothing like what I experienced. I bet that's the same guy who likes to say "You can't make this stuff up!" whenever he reads a bizarre news report. In fact, the majority of the everyday dysfunction at Ligence is directly sourced from my personal experiences working for big companies.
The concept of a company that makes money in spite of itself comes from several sources, but the biggest single influence was the Eastman Kodak Company, which several extended family members worked for until it finally imploded in the 1990s.
Despite a superfically common setting, I don't consider Office Space or Dilbert to be "influences." Try Catch Finally is about "the bullshit singularity" in which the truth is a universal inconvenience. It isn't about how much it sucks to work in a big corporation; I could just as easily have used a large university as a setting, if I'd had the same amount of experience in that environment as I did in IT companies. As for Dilbert, I haven't read it in many years, and I think that Scott Adams is a massive douchebag. However, when I was still in the IT megacorporation labor market, when I went to on-site interviews I would specifically look for Dilbert comics posted in people's cubicles; this is evidence of Ligence-like dysfunction and angst. While the strips may be funny, cutting them out of the newspaper and posting them on the wall is a passive-aggressive form of protest; it's saying "This is the same bullshit I'm dealing with at my job, and I want others to know that I feel this way."
Of all the characters in Try Catch Finally, the one most like me is Alix. I, too, was relentlessly bullied (not as much in school, but definitely in my personal and early professional life) for "being gay" when I was not in fact gay. As painful as that was, it taught me an important lesson: the ostensibe "reason" for bullying is complete bullshit, and victims should never believe or internalize it -- in fact, I believe that the real harm in bullying is not the actual abuse, but the acceptance that the abuse was caused by whatever the bully says is "wrong" with the victim. Bullying is never about whatever the bully says it is -- being gay, short, overweight, foreign-born, etc. -- it is entirely about the bully's own insecurities and sadistic urges. The "reason" is a lie. In my case the insecurity behind the bullying was twofold: some men in positions of power didn't like it when I drew female attention away from them, so they tried to sabotage all potential romantic interests by endowing me as "gay" and publicly bullying me; and other men who were closeted jumped on that bandwagon and projected their self-hatred onto me. For Alix, the insecurities of her bullies were similarly divided: boys felt intimidated because she was physically strong and an accomplished athlete, and girls resented her freedom to break the secret rules of stereotypical teenage femininity.
The IT aspects of the book are my own little inside jokes. When I was a technology journalist, I liked to write about FreeBSD and OpenBSD, and even used them as Web servers and desktop OSes in my everyday work. While the characters in the book don't like FreeBSD, I still think it's an awesome modern Unix-like OS. Red Hat Enterprise Linux, on the other hand, I can't stand. I never liked it because no matter what I tried to use it on or for, it never worked right and getting it to work right was a huge effort compared to alternative Linux distributions like OpenSUSE or Ubuntu, or (dare I say it?) non-Linux operating systems like FreeBSD. In high school I really did study Pascal, it really is an old dead language, and it really was used in the real world for real software now and then, much of which had to be rewritten when applications needed to be Web-based, Web-connected, or Web-accessible. The idea that Alix would be paid to maintain a Pascal program in 2022 is a bit silly but not totally unrealistic; it's based on the early-2000s resurgence in COBOL programmer demand.
There is absolutely no political agenda in this book; I'm neither Liberal nor Conservative, equally anti-woke and anti-MAGA. The only personal beliefs (or rather: observations) that are built into Try Catch Finally are: nothing supercedes our humanity; the more "culture" we have, the more evil we are; and social media has caused the socio-political environment of early 2020s America to become a big, loud, fake, over-optimized, hypocritical mess. The characters reflect that hypocrisy to an extreme (and therefore satirical) degree. For instance Rosen and General Xerg gratuitously use the word "retard" as a slur, which the Cultural Inquisitors have declared verboten and therefore cancel-worthy. However, no one has any objection to calling someone "stupid," or an "idiot," "moron," or "imbecile." These five words are semantically near-identical; they are all slurs that describe varying degrees of cognitive impairment. To me -- as a stroke survivor (thus far, anyway) -- it is comically hypocritical to freely use four of these slurs while white-knighting for one.
"Systems Analyst" was the default title for all non-managers in the department I worked in at an IT mega-corporation. The skillset and technical competency of the people who shared this title were so varied that I mused that it was a synonym for "thing-doer." My job actually did require systems thinking, though, and I found it to be a fascinating field of study. Whatever you do for a living, you will benefit from learning as much as you can about systems theory. In the book, Halleck slowly reawakens his dormant systems thinking skills as Chainsaw Friday progresses.
The cover art uses a Courier font, which is the traditional default font in code editors. The grey text is actual Pascal code with some parts of it collapsed so that the title can be appropriately spaced. The code comments run off the page intentionally, but here's what they say in full: "lol, ok", "insert spaghetti here", "hamma time", "this is the biggest, ugliest hack in the history of Pascal", "just make it LOOK like it works, don't make it ACTUALLY work", "no one ever reads code comments anyway", "got laidoff 5 years ago, so we use his name for all our commits".
Amazon blocked the Bad Edition from Kindle ads because one of the light-grey code comments on the cover was "ah screw it, just make it look like it works." The artless shitbags who work in the censorship department at Amazon Marketing Services felt that this sentence was immoral, which is a perfect example of a company that makes money in spite of itself -- not to mention the fake review problem, the turd-party seller problem, the Kindle spam problem, and the counterfeit book problem. One of my goals as an author is to make enough money through non-Amazon channels that I can pull my books from Kindle and Audible and tell the smiley-a to fuck off.
Every character is a product of the media they consume. All of Halleck's cultural criticisms are rooted in actual events that he read about on Google News, but his opinions and beliefs are shaped more by books and movies.
At the end of Halleck's rant about modern movies in the "Grand Moff David" chapter, he says: "Jon Fucking Favreau's whole fucking career now is just superhero Star Wars crap." This is inaccurate; anti-cinema terrorists kidnapped Jon Favreau's family in 2019 and forced him to remake The Lion King with creepy faketastic CGI (this may not be true, but I honestly cannot think of another reason why this film would even be pitched, let alone made), and his 2014 movie Chef is excellent, as is the 2019 Netflix show based on it (The Chef Show).
The concept of a support ticket being assigned back to the person who reports it is not made-up; I actually worked for a company that did that. After a while, we got the hint: don't file a goddamn bug report, because you'll have to fix it yourself. The trollish nature of on-call support that Grand Moff David prescribes is also from real-life experience with offshore support at an IT megacorporation. They give you the runaround until you give up, or they ask you to do something that will take time, then hope you let it go. All tickets were closed after 24 hours of waiting for response, and the offshore support agency was graded solely on the number of cases it closed. So, again, we got the hint: don't bother calling the technical assistance center unless you like swimming in bullshit.
Halleck's employee profile bug is a direct consequence of Ray's layoff.
There is a lot of detail in the Mola Ram chapter that isn't fully explained. In earlier drafts, Halleck discovers the secret switchboard that the Indians are using to route "support calls" to family members in India; and the reason why there are three people in every cubicle, but four names on the paper tacked to the wall, is that three contractors are working under one fictitious name so that they can be replaced anonymously. Mola Ram's given name is Anand Anandan; because that's a difficult name for non-Indians to understand when properly pronounced, his boss assumed it was a typo, and this enabled him to escape layoffs earlier in his career. It's also what inspired the "three workers as one name" paradigm. I decided this was a little too convoluted, so I removed most of it, but left the cubicles as-is because I'd seen something similar before: I worked at a company that was violating the fire safety code by having too many people packed into one workspace, and nearly all of them were Indian contractors on work visas. They had no power to complain because their contracts could be instantly cancelled with no severance.
General Xerg is using his army of unpaid interns to create and sell cheat software for video games, to "boost" player accounts so that they have an artificially high competitive rank, and to mine Bitcoin with company resources. While the name "Xerg" does not make sense in Mandarin, my assumption is that this is his "American name." Many Chinese people have names that are not easily pronounced by English-speakers, so when they are in the Western world, they often take on an "American name" that is similar in meaning or phonetics to their given name. In this case, "Xerg" is is similar to Zerg, which is the alien faction in the Starcraft video games; the typical Zerg strategy is to swarm your opponents with cheaply-produced offensive units, and the counter-strategy is to divide the swarm and destroy buildings that produce new units.