In ‘One Foot In the Grave’ Working-Class Heroes Fight Zika

Issue 249

Nicholas Powers Aug 16, 2019

A working-class hero is something to be,” sang John Lennon, author and activist, Timothy Sheard proves him right in One Foot in the Grave, his 18th in the Lenny Moss mystery series. The novel delves into the struggle between labor and management over work safety as a new Zika virus threatens lives. Sheards channels real working-class sensibility and the plot moves like a jet.

Toiling away at James Madison Hospital as a custodian, Moss holds down two jobs and is the union steward. A new Zika strain appears and scares the staff into starting a union to force better safety rules. A race starts between the pressure to treat Zika in a hospital with no real equipment and the anger and frustration of nurses who risk infection.

The pleasure of One Foot in the Grave is Sheard’s invocation of workers in struggle with their own fears and management. They are terrified of Zika but loyal to their patients. They shoulder the blatant disrespect of those higher in rank. They plan a union knowing they’ll be betrayed. Sheard details their interactions with the casual intimacy of a man who knows this world inside and out.

Illustration by Tyrone Wallace.

The characters feel like old friends. It’s hard to read their squabbles and anxieties and not feel like you’ve met them before, whether it’s the nurse Mimi or the Dr. Austin or Moss. The saving grace of this novel is less the plot than the care given to portraying working-class life.

Yet Sheard, a communist, makes a solid political point without using any jargon. The nurses are required to wear GPS tracking devices. “I hate the GPS units we have to wear,” said nurse Kim, and the others chimed in. It cuts into their physical freedom and autonomy. Sheard smartly makes it a major conflict that drives the novel because it taps into the ever-present desire to control labor.

One Foot in the Grave is fun, provocative and well told. In its pages, you’ll get a reflection of working-class life, missing from so much of American writing. You’ll see people you know and relationships you’ve lived. You’ll see yourself.

One Foot in the Grave: A Lenny Moss Mystery
By Timothy Sheard
Hard Ball Press, 2019

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