To Squeeze a Prairie Dog by Scott Semegran
Toward the end of Scott Semegran’s humorous and highly enjoyable novel, To Squeeze a Prairie Dog, the character J.D. is walking through a cemetery reading the epitaphs on every headstone he sees. “All of these people must have lived fascinating lives,” he decides. If Semegran has one overriding talent, it’s in his ability to take the most seemingly ordinary bunch of characters and show us that their lives are, in fact, extraordinary. That the author is able to take the interplay of those lives and craft it into such an entertaining novel is a credit to his mastery as a storyteller.
Scott Semegran’s motley ensemble is made up of a small workforce at the Texas Department of Unemployment and Benefits in Austin. The office where they all work is the little world in which their dramas initially intersect. There’s J.D., the likable country boy; Brent, the boss who dreams of being a rock-n-roll star; Deborah, the haggard mother of a wayward son; Rita, the brownie-and-wisdom-distributing grandmother; and Conchino, the taciturn clerk with a passion for fast cars. There are some periphery characters as well, including a reporter whose investigative tactics get her in deep trouble with the powers that be, and a corrupt governor and his henchman whose buffoonery will be sure to make the reader laugh aloud. But the people we come to care about most are the core group working in the office. These people share the same problems we all have – paying their bills, dealing with family issues, and struggling to make their dreams come true. None of them are perfect. Brent drinks way too much beer while on the job, for example, and Conchino is in trouble with the law for street racing. But once the reader gets to know them, their seemingly ordinary lives become quietly mythic. For all of their foibles and follies, they are, above all, endearing.
Day in, day out, these people go to their jobs, and day after day they talk about what they might do if they were ever to score big in life. They have a pact – if they are ever lucky enough to, say, win the lottery, they’ll share the prize. But when that unlikely pipe dream fails to come true, another seemingly fortunate turn of events occurs, lending them all a bit of temporary happiness and hope. By accident, Brent makes a discovery that nets their office some notoriety and a prize. But since they are only minor cogs in the big machinery of their Department, the overruling forces of politics and greed soon turn their good fortune into a disappointing fiasco. Semegran uses a sure hand in his writing. By the time this disaster begins to unfold, we are so fully invested in the characters, so wholly involved in their personal adventures, that their angst and disappointment become our own.
It’s in how the group deals with their ensuing troubles that clenches their likeability and sets up what appears to be the author’s overall theme which, if one were to venture, might be that we are all in this together. Our own life is subtly linked to those of the people with whom we daily interact. It’s as if a big, wonderful magic is working beneath the seeming banality of everyday existence. Semegran artfully suggests that if we respect and care for one another, good fortune will surely, ultimately, arrive.
Scott Semegran is the author of a number of acclaimed books, but To Squeeze a Prairie Dog is a great place to start reading his work. In this novel, he pulls off the big challenge of creating a story that is both poignant and funny. It’s a novel of a few tears and a lot of laughter, peopled with a mishmash cast of characters you’ll find truly fascinating.