Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory: By Mickey Hess, 231 pgs.

Is it possible to find a job you love and not let it take over your life? Does a person need a “career” in order to live a fulfilled life? Does work always have to define one’s identity? Mickey Hess feels these questions hammering in his head constantly. Coincidentally, so do I, as do probably a whole host of other Gen Xers. It’s almost as if we have been conditioned to distrust the paths that so many of our parents traveled. The concept of choosing a field and devoting one’s entire life to working in that field seems almost incomprehensible. And, yet, that is what Mickey Hess feels is happening to him.

Hess is a part-time college instructor. He sometimes teaches at three different universities in one day in an effort to make ends meet. In addition to juggling multiple teaching gigs, he takes odd jobs on the side, none of which he manages to keep for more than a couple of months. Hess waits tables, works at a giant indoor amusement park, drives an ice cream truck, and performs stand-up comedy. At one point, he even gets a job at a Billy Graham Crusade, where he spends most of his time handing out his own homemade fliers advertising fictitious Billy Graham corndogs.

As these jobs increase in absurdity, Hess realizes that he’s using them, in part, to distract himself from the decision he needs to make: should he commit to fulfilling his desire to be a college professor? All around him, his friends are going through the same process: struggling with how they spend their time, mired in the details of preparing for careers they’re not even sure they want. At one point, Hess confesses, “I’ve never made any strong decisions that have brought me to where I am now.” When I read that, I knew exactly what he meant.

In the wrong hands, these familiar themes that Hess grapples with might not make for such engaging reading. However, Mickey Hess is a likeable guy and he spins a colorful story. His sincerity and subtle humor preclude any chance of self-pity entering this tale. Hess easily garners the reader’s sympathy. It’s not that he is lazy or has a poor work ethic; after all, he spends hours working on his own writing. But he likes to enjoy his life, to spend time with his friends and family, and he hasn’t figured out how work fits into the equation. It’s a common problem that many of us deal with on a daily basis.

In the end, Hess makes a decision, although it doesn’t seem any stronger than any of the previous ones he’s described. His new situation leads him to pose new questions, and it’s clear that he’s probably still a long way off from getting it all figured out. But that’s okay, because these are monumental questions and he’s got his whole lifetime ahead to grapple with them. And, meanwhile, the rest of us can take comfort in knowing we’re not the only ones asking, “Where does it all end?” –Sean Stewart (Garrett County Press, www.gcpress.com)