On Eli Saslow’s “Life of a Salesman” (The Washington Post, October 2012)

by Meagan Flynn

Synopsis: As a pool salesman and a descendant of Italian immigrants, Frank Firetti embodies the pursuit of the American dream. But lately, the economy has been squashing his business, and his American dream seems a little bit further out of reach.

Not much else is as universally aesthetic as the idea of the American dream, and Eli Saslow uses this appeal to major advantage in “Life of a Salesman.” He presents to us a man who has learned the meaning of hard, honest work from the generations before him and who is driven forward by his unrelenting optimism: the backbone of the real American salesman. It’s here, within the first few grafs, that Saslow first expands Frank’s role as a pool salesman into a thread much larger, defining the optimistic salesman as “if not the architect of the American dream then at least its most time-honored promoter.” With such a universal appeal, Frank Firetti’s story is not only his own but that of thousands of American families who have fallen victim to the same hostile economy that has swallowed Frank’s pool business.

The theme that propels this story is the steady decline in business that festers Frank throughout the summer of 2012. Saslow lays the foundation for Frank’s ever-optimistic goal of selling 100 pools this summer in the last few lines of the first section: “He had also taken to repeating an aphorism, a company goal that sounded more like a prayer when he said it now, as he stepped out of his car onto the sidewalk. … ‘This will be a good business if we can sell a hundred pools this year,’ he said. … ‘A hundred pools,’ he said again. Then he walked up the driveway and knocked on the door.”

The next two sections both end on a still-optimistic Frank lowering his expectations: 75, then 50, then in the last section, not even 50. But still earnestly believing that things will get better. Intertwined in this narrative of steady decline in hard times are examinations of what success really means anymore in today’s environment—best illustrated in one of Saslow’s most telling scenes: Frank and his 19-year-old son’s talk of the future. His son explains that he wants to make “smart investments” and have “absolute stability,” to which Frank replies, “You’ll make them,” and “You’ll have them.” Typical father-son talk on the surface, but illustrative of a much larger problem—one that Frank’s fathers never had—that is the real bulk of Saslow’s message in the story:

 They stayed out on the deck until the sun disappeared behind the townhouses. Frank went to bed just before midnight and awoke at 4. He always had been a sound sleeper, but lately he had been putting himself to bed with Tylenol PM and stirring awake to questions in the middle of the night. When had stability become the goal in America? What kind of dream was that?

Also valuable in this piece is the perspective that Frank’s wife, a Philippi immigrant, can offer since her family still views America as the “Land of Money.”  Saslow’s placement of this section is effective since it’s right after Frank has lowered his expectations for sales to 50 pools in order to scrape by. His wife is visiting her family in the Philippines, and Saslow lays out their lucrative, positive idea of America while she and Frank talk briefly over Skype. Her family’s American-dream-immersed view of the “Land of Money” juxtaposed with one hardworking man’s looming failures challenges whether the American dream even applies anymore in today’s economy.

But the note that Saslow chooses to end on in the last section almost redefines the idea of the American dream within the parameters of this era’s long recession. Saslow closes with Frank’s conversation with another, more well-off salesman. And it’s here that we see that it’s not how many pools Frank sells that defines his success; it’s his firm resolve in his role as a salesman that is the constant, forward-driving tool keeping alive the American dream. His choice never to give up on that role.