First Job, A memoir of Growing Up at Work, by Rinker Buck
Random chance, riding the wave, or premeditated planning... it’s all good, according to Rinker Buck, author of “First Job, A Memoir of Growing Up at Work.” The memoir, marbled with reflections about friendship, nature, and sexual intimacy, is a young man’s romp through the early 1970s and his own early 20s.
Although the book purports to be about his first job, it’s really about his first acquaintance with life in the real world. And then there’s his name. Anyone named Rinker Buck was born to do something original, wild, or creative and he doesn't spoil his chance.
The first pages unfold in a succession of seemingly coincidental events and random decisions that will mark his life for the next two years. A magazine article pinned to the bulletin board of a back roads diner leads to a spur of the moment detour to the Berkshire Eagle offices in Pittsfield, MA where within seconds he literally bumps into the eccentric editor, has an impromptu job interview and is hired, at the bottom of the reportorial chain, to write obituaries.
From the first interview, one gets a sense of Buck’s natural curiosity, audacity, and roguish charm; he’s not above embroidering the truth even with the editor of the best small town newspaper in the country. During the next two years of picaresque adventures, this inexperienced, immature but increasingly self-aware guy develops a moral code that helps him stay inside the bounds of likability.
“Fix bayonets, charge downhill!” serves as both a specious Civil War story he gleefully invents during his job interview and his mantra to himself when he starts slipping on the gravel details of his life.
Although he would have us believe he is a slacker, he actually works hard. The beauty of the book is that he doesn't realize that work is, especially for a reporter, observing and living life, whether it’s playing pool at the local dive, chopping wood (which he fixates on either to sublimate sexual frustration or expel energy left over from sexual release) or hiking in the pristine Berkshire woods. That point is brought home to him in a touching exhange between him and an accomplished senior writer who helps Rinker learn the ropes of reporting.
The sub-textual story is Buck’s growth from a talented, somewhat obsessed, self-centered kid into a card-carrying adult. Three themes drive this unevenly entertaining book: his groping toward success as a writer, his education from women about the mysteries of the female sex, and his extraordinary relationships with three older men, each of whom enliven the Berkshire Eagle.
Buck’s a good story teller, and First Job is at its most poignant and occasionally hilarious when he’s under the wing of any of these three, most especially the esteemed Roger Linscott, a crusty but open hearted Pulitzer Prize winning writer, as eccentric as Rinker is horny. Linscott, older by a generation, given to eloquent polysyllabic repartee, a unique speaking style, and self-deprecatory wit, is a hoot.
Linscott is every bit as off-center as Buck. Their relationship is cemented not in the newsroom, but in the mountains and gorges of the Berkshire Hills, ‘the purple majesties,’ as Buck calls them. The time they carve out to indefatigably hike through the highlands of the Berkshires is infused with camaraderie, their insights inspired by the mutually appreciated grandeur of nature surrounding them.
What inadvertently prepared Buck for his life as a reporter and suitable companion to a Rushmore of a mind like Linscott’s is that Rinker grew up as a “book turd,” omnivorously devouring books about everything from geology to geophysics. What made him an outsider as a kid informs him beautifully as a reporter. The commentaries Buck tosses off about the flora, fauna, and geology of mountains and meadows of the Berkshires read like travel writer Bruce Chatwin’s when Chatwin’s in a groove about the Australian outback.
Buck is not as proficient at concluding his book as he is in telling its stories. The last abrupt pages yield to cereal box moralizing, a marked contrast in style and voice to what preceded it. When he’s busy spinning a yarn about a babe or the bonhomie between him and his eccentric mentors, though, he’s in his own element.